My relentless positivity is waning. The dark thoughts are setting in, and becoming far harder to shake off than the last few eyelashes which have long been sobbed into a snotty tissue. I have two children who miss their father, but I miss him too, and if it weren’t for them, perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered to fight this at all. In fact, I think I resent the fact that I can’t just say fuck it and join him, wherever he is. Because I do have his beloved children, though, and no family nearby to bring them up, I don’t have a choice. But, Christ, it’s hard – especially when the two children you’re doing it for are not helping you to row upstream, but are standing on the riverbank, chucking rocks at you as you try to do it alone.
They’re eleven. Nearly twelve. And they’re about as much fun as you’d imagine a pair of bereaved pre-teen boys dealing with yet more cancer to be. We’ve been talking about their forthcoming birthday celebrations. Supermum here has always made sure they had a party – and a bloody good one. Well, they’re twins, so I massively overcompensated for the fact that they never got to have a party of their own (the obscene quantities of pirate bunting in our loft are testament to that.) But, yet again, this year, the thought of a whole load of boys in the house (all, inevitably, being dickheads – none more so than our elder twin) fills me with fear. And I’m trying to plan the date around my chemotherapy, and find a weekend when I’m most likely to be well enough to cope.
So why not postpone their birthday? Well, because this is the fourth birthday of shit, and they barely remember what life was like before cancer. The boys were eight when our world was turned upside down. On their ninth birthday, I handled things, because their dad was on chemo. He was involved in the party, but not feeling too well. They understood that it needed to be low-key, and that their next birthday would be better. On their tenth birthday, I handled things, because their dad’s first round of palliative chemo had just begun. They had a sleepover, but it was low-key, and they were really good about it, because they knew it might be the last one with their dad. On their eleventh birthday, their dad had just died. They had a sleepover and a trampoline party, but it had to be low-key, and we were all feeling pretty flat but didn’t want to not celebrate, because that’s not what Dad would have wanted. Just widowed, I didn’t have the energy to field a whole houseful of Year 6 boys, but I’d promised them, now that the whole cancer thing was over, their twelfth would be one to celebrate. And now, yet again, one of us is bald, sick, and having to crawl through yet another birthday on our knees.
None of this is fair – not on me, but not on them either. Recently, I’ve begun to identify the problems, and there are so many, I don’t even know where to begin. My husband and I had all the answers, you see. We were the greatest team in the world, and our children were brilliant. Not perfect – still little shits at times – but loved, secure, interesting, engaging, and funny. Happy. Really happy. We were so fucking smug about how happy they were, because we were getting the whole parenthood thing pretty much right. We decided, when they were tiny, that the greatest gift we could give to them was The World, and went on wonderful adventures to faraway lands with two little smiling blond boys, all skater shorts and smiles, who could have stepped straight out of a Boden catalogue. People would stop us in the street and talk to us, wherever we went. Our openness and sense of fun must have shone out of us. I didn’t realise at the time how precious this was, or how far down the spiral of shit we’d all fallen, until I walked into the house the other day to find one twin in his new natural habitat, fingers glued to the X Box controller and half an eye on a YouTube video about Fifa or wanking or whatever, and the other screaming into a kebab because the idiot in the shop had put salad on it. The stupid fucking twat.
They’re awful, gobby and angry, and I’m beginning to understand why. Because, three years ago, I was the same. I hated their dad being ill. I sympathised with him, because I’m an adult and (three weeks out of four, anyway) more rational than a little boy, so we talked about it at night and hugged each other better. We were both fucking furious with the disease, but while he just laid there being ill, I had to run around and pick up the pieces of the life we had before, and it made me bloody angry, but he understood, and he kissed me better. Our entire life as we knew it had been ruined, but I thought if he could just get off the sofa and pretend to be well, or turn up to football matches, or attend parents’ evenings, everything would be OK again. All those feelings of rage within me have now been turned on to me, by our children, who see me being defeated by the same damn disease which claimed their dad. They are afraid – quite legitimately – of becoming orphans. At their age, I’m fairly sure that my greatest concern was which member of New Kids on the Block I’d marry first. (Not Donny.)
Well-meaning people constantly tell our boys to look after me, but it’s the worst thing they could possibly say. It implies that we could all have done more as a family to save their dad, if only we’d looked after him better. It isn’t true, and it hurts so bloody much. We could not have saved him, and the boys can’t save me. We just have to hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to be on the right side of the survival statistics, and I believe I will be. Either way, there’s not much I can do about it, but by the time they really start to believe I’m fine, when this is all a dim and distant memory, their childhoods will be over for good.
In only a few weeks, we’ll be back to normal. It won’t kill the boys to have a bit more screen time until then. It won’t hurt to just eat freezer food with oven chips. It’s fine if they go to bed a bit late, or haven’t brushed their teeth for precisely two minutes. Or at all. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t work all that hard at school today. Only a little while to go, and we can pick up again where we left off. Never mind that they don’t want to do drama at the moment, or cricket, or roller skating, or football. It’s fine. We’ll go back to it in a few weeks. It won’t permanently damage them if they don’t eat their vegetables for a while. Just let’s get through this bit of chemo and then we’ll slide back into normality again.
We’ve been saying all that for their last four birthdays. This brief hump of chemo, to overcome in whichever way we can – and another, and another – has become a lifestyle. An entire childhood. Because I don’t have the energy to pick many battles, I’m letting a lot of things slide. In fact, half the time, I’m lying down and crying while the pre-teen cavalry ride roughshod over me with their Xbox controllers and tracksuits, grunting into their phones, and dropping bits of unwanted kebab salad in my ear.
We’d always been honest with our children about cancer, from day one. They knew their Dad’s would be a tough one to fight, respected our honesty, and believed us. We shared our triumphs and our darkest moments, and realised that no amount of stretching the truth would stretch out his life, so saving their feelings with white lies was pointless. As the oncologist said, if a miracle happened, the boys weren’t going to come back and punch him in the face for making their Daddy better. However, the doctors made a mistake. They thought he was getting better, and we told the boys we’d still be a family for a year or more. We hugged each other with delight, and booked another holiday. Six weeks later, he sat on our sofa late on a Friday night, having been brought home in an ambulance, hooked up to an oxygen tank and permanently discharged from hospital. We hugged and cried with our beloved boys again, as he told them they’d missed the biggest tumour of them all. It wasn’t fluid on his lung. He had been brought home to die. And guess what? Our boys now don’t believe anything that the cancer doctors say. So, why would they believe that I’ll be alive for their thirteenth birthday, even though the doctors are sure that I will be? Why would they trust that we’ll ever go on a Christmas adventure holiday again, when the last three have been cancelled?
And nobody really, truly understands. Even I don’t understand. That’s why, maybe, despite my kids being the most difficult, angry, stubborn, malnourished, over-screentimed, worst people in the world at the moment, I still feel the need to fight their corner. I observe the boys and their friends a lot, and canvass opinion with other parents, and the general consensus is that they’re no worse than anyone else’s children at this stage in their lives. In fact, considering what they’ve been through, they’re doing bloody well. They’re working hard(ish) at school, seem popular with teachers (mainly,) are maintaining and developing friendships, and are also going through all the usual shit of being picked on or dropped by others. But that’s what kids do, and – for the most part – I let them get on with it, because two oversensitive kids who are already struggling with friendships probably don’t want some bald-headed titless wonder wading in and cramping their style. Apparently, some of their friends are bored with hearing about cancer now. Well, so the fuck are we.
In a few weeks, when the chemotherapy and radiotherapy are over with, I like to think we will – somehow – find this elusive New Normal. The one we’ve been trying to find for so long. The one with discipline and energy and fun and good manners. And possibly even one or two vegetables. (Sadly, I think I’ve probably lost the Battle of Boden, and the tracksuits are here to stay for the foreseeable future.) Until then, I know I have to just keep a lid on it and understand things from our children’s point of view, when I’ve stopped screaming at them. Our children, who still play football on a team run by dads, who desperately miss their own dad being on the sidelines, cheering them on. Our children, whose mum had no sooner taken the role of Dad, than she’d begun to disappear from the football sidelines as well. They don’t believe it’s temporary. They don’t believe I’ll be back, willing them to victory next season, along with their friends. I intend to prove them wrong.
Until then, I’m going to give them the one thing that their friends have had every year, even though our boys probably don’t deserve it – a birthday party, with cake and candles, friends and fun. And, next year, there will be no cloud of doubt to choke them when the candles are blown out.
Love Fanny x