Scrolling Back.

Death in a digital age is a funny old business. On Facebook Memories, a photograph has just flashed up to tell me that three years ago today, we were on a family day out to Liverpool, which we all enjoyed, save for the gnawing feeling in my stomach that my husband’s difficulty swallowing was not good news. Two years ago this week, or so it tells me, our little family was on a wonderful holiday, which we’d booked to celebrate our wild assumption that the whole shitty cancer thing was behind us. One year ago this week, my husband was lying in a hospice bed in our sitting room, dying.

Messages, wall posts and photographs have popped back up on my phone from this day last year. We’d told our wider circle of friends, through Facebook, a few days after my husband had been given a couple of weeks left to live, that his time was limited. As the days went on, his needs became greater and nobody expected us to reply to every message, but it was simply lovely to sit quietly together and read them. Of course, the outpouring of love and good memories was wonderful and heartwarming, which made my husband – who wasn’t up to seeing anyone in person – feel loved and treasured. He was a great communicator, and social media had become his platform, throughout his illness, to be himself – a place where nobody knew he was ill; where he could still be a man and not a cancer victim; where nobody stopped him to cock their head to one side, stroke his left arm, furrow their brow, and ask him how he was doing.

Once he’d been sent home from hospital, my husband and I rolled up our sleeves and started the Death Admin process. Writing letters to loved ones, seeing the few people he chose to see, winding down the business, realising it was just after the 1st April so he’d timed his retirement pretty well, but was going to take his Goddamned dividend because he may as well have it as not. It would pay for his funeral. Deciding not to reply to the text message from the stupid bastard cancer hospital who’d kicked him out late on Friday night, with his last breaths of life lingering inside a bottle of oxygen, asking him to rate their service. Cunts. Realising, once all the letters had been written, the passwords to everything noted, and the last calls made, that there was nothing left to say to each other at all. Not because we’d finally run out of words, but because everything that needed to be said, had been said before.

I sat and wondered if there was anything I needed to ask him, but couldn’t think of anything, and there was no nagging feeling of doubt. I also decided that the lumpiness I’d noticed within my left breast was a secret he didn’t need to share. His mind needed to be free and at peace. When he needed something, he asked for it. I tried to keep his bed tidy and comfortable. The boys lent him their favourite bedding, covered in London Underground maps. He was a pain in the arse with his medication. He kept taking off his oxygen tube. He needed a bloody good shave. He started to drink from a sippy cup. But, he always had his trademark jolly t-shirt to wear, and his watch, and his wedding ring. And a very thin friend lent him some pyjama bottoms which didn’t slide off what was left of his arse.

We took a few photos of him with the boys, which weren’t shared on Facebook because they were too private. I didn’t want people to remember him like that, and in some ways I wish we weren’t able to, either. Once our friends on social media became aware of his impending death, photos and memories were shared all over our walls, which brought him to life again, and captured his spirit, even as the body holding that spirit ebbed away.

When my husband had died, I became incredibly protective of his body. I insisted he went to be cared for by an undertaker who had been his friend. I took the best, most outrageously jolly shirt I could find to dress him in, along with his best trousers, socks and underpants. His friend rang to tell me that he was ready. Ready for what, I wondered. I went to see him, to sit with him, but asked his friend not to remove his coffin lid. Over the day or two since he’d died, I’d seen so many wonderful, lively, remarkable photographs and recordings of my husband in his heyday – healthy, happy, and full of life – that I couldn’t bear to go back to the memory of the thin, bald, weak shadow of a man inside that coffin. I knew they’d drained him of fluid and filled him back up again – it’s why they’d asked for a photograph to make sure they could push his beautiful pouting lips and high cheekbones back into place – and I couldn’t handle the thought of them doing it wrong, and never being able to unsee his cold, dead, fucked-about-with face. So, I sat with his coffin, with his name on the lid, in a tiny little room named after some ghastly racecourse or other, decorated with an awful floral border, a dense carpet, and artificial flowers. And I wept. Then, I wondered if the dense carpet was there to break the fall in case the coffin fell off its perch. I looked at the shape of the coffin and hoped to God his broad shoulders weren’t too tightly packed in there and that he had room for manoeuvre. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being dead.

I wonder if I’ll ever forgive myself for not wanting to see him after he’d died. Those wonderful pictures of him, healthy and well – and, actually, far too bloody fat at times – took me back so suddenly and so instantly to a happier time, that it seemed pointless remembering the person he’d become – the person he hated to look at in the mirror. Cancer was in that coffin, but the memories, the soul, the beauty of the man – well, they were all over social media. They were in the little device in my pocket that I could pick up any time and look at. But, as the months have marched on since, the further back I have to scroll to find him. And, once I’ve found him, I still have to scroll past the skinniness, the oxygen mask, the shit final holiday, the four months of wearing the hideous grey hoodie which was the only thing he could find to keep himself warm enough. (He was right. It’s bloody lovely. I wear it so he can hug my bald head and body as the chemo knocks the heat out of me, too.)

Almost 365 days on, I have to scroll a long way back to find him now. I scroll through his Facebook wall to find his own postings. I scroll through my phone to find pictures of him from happier times. I have to scroll past our days out, our stupid dog, my bald head and wig selection process, snaps of my left tit in various states of disrepair, our boys in their new school uniforms, our first summer holiday as a threesome, our boys on their last day of primary school, more stupid bloody dog, visits to Great Granny, a charity run for sodding cancer, family weddings, fucking Fathers’ Day, meals out, the boys’ 11th birthday, trips to the football, his funeral flowers reworked by the local hospice to give their patients a boost, his coffin, flowers and more flowers adorning our home, and him, with his treasured boys, cuddled up in bed. And back, and back, until we find some happiness again.

This time last year, my husband was dying, but he was still my husband. His hands held ours, and we were a family. Late tomorrow, this time last year, my husband will have died, which takes him another step further away from us. But, as I scroll back, I realise we have made some memories since he left us. Some new ones. There are some happy times in there, but all tinged with an aching loss that one person is missing from the picture, and we can’t simply photoshop him back in again. He isn’t even here to take photographs of me in chemo chairs balancing sick bowls on my head, even though it’s tradition. But maybe it’s time for a new tradition. Maybe I have to accept that, one day, we will have taken more photographs without him, than with him.

It’s almost 365 days, and 768 photographs, since I held his beautiful hands. But I can still scroll back with my fingers, for as long as it takes, just to touch his hand once more.

Love Fanny x

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A Handful of Gravely Important Decisions.

On Wednesday, I chose a new boob. On Sunday, I chose a place to bury my husband.

To be honest, selecting a spot for my husband to lie for eternity was slightly easier than choosing a piece of silicone to fit in my bra for a year. There are only about eight spaces left in the graveyard of our church, but a whole cupboard full of squishy possibilities. If the tit doesn’t fit, I can try a new one. My husband’s grave, on the other hand, will be a much more permanent fixture, so it’s important to get it right first time, but the options are limited.

At the hospital, yet another sympathetically nice lady in a lanyard ushered me into yet another side room (I’ve seen a few over the last few months – nice ladies AND side rooms – all of them decked out in inoffensive pastel colours,) and asked me to remove my bra. I dangled it on the side of a chair and wondered where to put the bit of temporary foam I’d been given until the swelling in my mastectomy site had gone down sufficiently for me to advance to the silicone level. She looked me up and down, decided my remaining boob was a little on the small side, and presented me with the first falsie she thought might match. Size 3, out of a possible 93. Or so. But it was WAY too big.

Like actual ones, false breasts come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of firmness. It’s a bit like a pillow menu, but with tits. (And I don’t have anyone to bury their head in them and offer an expert opinion.) My job was to don my free bra, which is about as sexy and industrial-strength as you’d imagine an NHS-issue bra to be, insert a selection of false tits, squeeze my breasts with both hands, and – remembering my husband’s reassurance that “any more than a handful is a waste” – choose the one which felt the most similar to my existing one. Eventually, I settled for a size 2, and the softest variety I could find. Breastfeeding twins and a lifetime of yoyo dieting had clearly taken their toll on my right hand side, and – despite still believing I had remained small and perfectly formed – I left the room feeling I’d probably need to order some scaffolding for the original side. But, it’s better, comfier, and easier to wash than the boob-shaped piece of foam I’d had before, and I’ll no longer have to wait in a lopsided fashion for the spin cycle to end, and hope to fuck that nobody comes to the door before my tit dries out.

Choosing a spot for my husband was easier than the breast selection process – but emotionally far more difficult, because in a year from now they’re not going to be reinstalling him, like they will with my left boob. The weight of responsibility in choosing the right place is huge. He had asked for his ashes to be buried at our church, and I don’t want to let him down, but he probably didn’t realise how few spaces were left. Every time one of the old dears from the congregation has had a bit of a fall over the last year, I’ve panicked, and thought I’d better get him into the graveyard before someone else grabs the last spot. I want him to have his wish, but I also want to keep him at home with us for longer. Almost a year on, I feel pressured to let him go; simply to guarantee him the permanent memorial he deserves. But what if we move? I only live in this town because he was here first, and had roots. And now he isn’t here at all. Will his lying in a grave, rather than a box in our office, mean I’ll never be able to move away because I want to keep him looking tidy? Or will moving him out of our home and into a grave make it easier for me to move forward and accept that he is gone for good?

I remember, a few days before he died, my husband sat and talked to the boys about his forthcoming death, and what would happen. He explained about funerals and cremation, and how he would be interred in the churchyard. They asked why he had to be in turd. We all giggled. How funny it was, this forthcoming death, which none of us believed would really happen.

In a way, cremation adds a whole new pressure on the next of kin. With a burial, it’s done on the same day. Here we all are, gathered together, in mourning. In they go. Job done. A place to visit, to tend, and to reflect. No going back. With ashes, there’s a range of possibilities – possibilities you don’t even necessarily want to consider. Do we bury them? Scatter them? Do we get some jewellery made from a small piece of them? And if we do, what if we lose it? (Before my diagnosis, I did consider getting a pendant made from a tiny piece of him so that he could sit in his favourite place – my cleavage – for ever more.) A paperweight? Who the fuck actually uses paperweights any more? What about some other keepsake? There’s a company called “And Vinyly” which makes records out of ashes, and since my husband loved music – and a bloody good pun – that’s also something I’d like to explore. So, I’ll probably hold a little bit of him back, and let most of him go… under the little tree, by the vestry door, where he’ll be every day as the boys walk to and from school, so they can pop in and sit with him as often as they like. Or they can just look over from the pavement, if they want to. We’d all still have a little privacy to sit beside him, but he’ll be close enough to the road for us to feel safe enough to visit him even as the nights draw in, without going into the depths of the graveyard. And we can even wave at him from the bar of the pub over the road. It’s perfect. But it’s not where we want him to be. We want him here, with us, at home. Alive.

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be choosing tits and graves in the space of a week, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I think I know what’s going to be joining my husband in the churchyard when it’s finished resting on my heart, as he still does. Small enough to fit into a memorial vase with a few carnations poking out of the top. Soft, squishy, and no more than a handful. Size 2.

Love Fanny x

I don’t know who this guy is, but he had a lot in common with my husband.

New Seasons and Sick Bowls.

I fucking hate spring. I used to love it. The joy of a new season. The green shoots. The blossom. Daffodils. New life. 

The last few springs have brought new life for our family, but not the one we wanted. In spring, they told my husband that he had a very difficult cancer to cure, but they were going to try. The following spring, they told us he was terminal. The spring after that, he died. Every spring, we’ve walked out of hospital grounds, as daffodils poked through the earth, feeling as though our own earth had been shattered. Spring hasn’t shown us its beauty for years.

This spring, the same pattern begins for me, but most probably with a more positive outcome. I’ll see next spring, and several after that. This spring marks almost a whole year without my husband, and I’m trying to make sense of this first, but surrounded by the same ingredients which took him away from us forever. Ingredients I never thought I’d associate with myself, or with any kind of future, come to that. But in an unusual twist of fate; without them, I may not have one at all.

Sickbowls. Hair clippers. Ondansetron. Epirubicin. Daffodils. Cyclophosphamide. Aprepitant. Palmar Plantar. Metoclopramide. Cannula. Mouth like the bottom of a bastard birdcage. Docetaxel. Constifuckingpation. Flowers. So many beautiful fucking flowers.

Side effects I’d forgotten my husband had had, are now mine. Side effects I’d wanted to forget – because, you know, it was too much to watch from the sidelines – are back in our home in full force. In fact, I think it’s easier for me now than it was then, because I understand it all so much better, and at least I don’t need anyone to hold my hair back when I’m throwing up in the night. I haven’t got any. (Although I still seem to need to shave my bloody legs. Where’s the actual justice?)

Yes, spring is a new beginning, alright. Every year, the start of a new life. A different life. I’ve always been one to embrace change with open arms, but – for fuck’s sake.

My husband and I had a fairly significant age gap, which was rarely a problem because we fell in love with each other’s minds, and the occasional discrepancy in physical stamina was our only real issue. But it did mean that, from an early stage in our relationship, we’d accepted the fact that – should life run its natural course for both of us – I would be left on my own for quite some time. There was never any question, at all, that my husband wanted me to move on, should he die first, and I felt the same about him, should I die early. You know, from cancer or something. We loved each other too much to wish lonely widowhood on the other, although we did often recognise the disappointment that neither of us had had the foresight to marry an octogenarian multimillionaire with a heart condition, instead of the skint and scruffy person we’d actually fallen in love with, 25 years out of sync. (But that was the point. We were in it for love. Nothing more.)

Telling the person you love that you want them to move on, should you die, is easy. It’s actually quite heartwarming, when you’re sitting in the garden, or on a hotel balcony, chatting over a glass of wine, and talking of an imaginary scenario years into the future. You know, when you’re not actually dying. When you’re completely full of life.

When that prospect becomes reality, it is heartbreaking. My husband held my hand, in his final days, in the makeshift hospice of our sitting room, and asked me to see his death as a new beginning. His beautiful blue eyes looked into mine, and he told me he loved me; that he always had, and that he’d be up there, sitting on his cloud, strumming his harp, watching us move forward, with love. He didn’t want to be missing from our future family portraits any more than we wanted him to be, but grudgingly accepted his time to go. All he asked was that, whoever it was, any future husband would be kind to his darling boys. That was a given, though I couldn’t picture a future husband at all.

I can’t imagine being with anyone else. Perhaps, under normal, non-cancerous circumstances, I might have been thinking about a different future by now, as the seeds of new life grow outside our window, because the lack of adult companionship, day in, day out, can be lonely and isolating. Especially now. But in my heart, I’m still married to my husband, and still faithful. Our bedroom hasn’t changed at all – except for the thermometer which has moved from his side of the bed to mine, with the Chemotherapy Hotline number still inscribed upon it in my husband’s hand. He and I are inextricably bound to each other by our children, who fear for a future without their last surviving parent. We’re still bound by those memories of a cycle of treatment which goes on and on. And on. And on. In some ways, these memories help my husband to hold my hand through it all, in the only way he can; from his celestial cloud (with the other hand strumming his harp.) Nobody else could take his place, because this is his place. He holds me through the treatment in my veins. The pills I take every day. The hair falling onto the sheets. The blossom falling from the tree.

He is still with us. Our hopes and our new beginnings are not what we ever imagined them to be, but he is still a part of them. Every spring, and always.

Love Fanny x

With every new spring, new sickbowls appear…

The Only One-Titted Widow in the Village.

Today is World Cancer Day, apparently. A day to raise awareness, though some of us are painfully aware already, thank you very much. I agree with it, in principle. Read their literature and educate yourself. Know the signs. Early detection is key, so don’t be afraid to visit the doctor. As a friend or relative, understand how you can help people who are going through treatment, or are recently bereaved. Avoiding the issue won’t make it go away, and not every cancer is treated with chemotherapy – many cancers are easy to get rid of, and the earlier they’re found, the better. 

My recently bereaved eleven-year-old son has been using cancer to his advantage (and not just by wandering over to the pastoral centre at school every time he wants to get out of a lesson he’s not particularly keen on.) Having realised that my NHS-issue prosthetic boob, even with the stuffing removed, was too big for my bra, he’s been profiting from this problem, and was spotted wielding it at school and charging 5p for a feel. His daddy would be proud of his entrepreneurial spirit in the face of adversity, but would undoubtedly have charged a hell of a lot more. It used to take at least two bottles of wine and a night out to get me to whip my tits out, when they both existed, so 5p seems like a bargain. At the blood donation centre, my husband and I used to snigger every time they asked if either of us had ever paid for sex. We wondered if the Audi or the new coat from Karen Millen counted.

I doubt that anyone will be paying anything to see what’s left of mine now, which is fortunate, because the man who loved them the most is dead, and today – as every day – I fall between two very shitty stools, as a widow with cancer.

On the internet forums, the cancer widows seem pretty quiet about World Cancer Day, and I can’t blame them. They probably feel like I did, when my husband died. Why raise awareness about it now? Why fundraise for research or support? It’s a bit fucking late for us. Cancer Research funded the unit where my husband and I went, week after week, dangled on a string of hope, when there wasn’t any hope at all, and they knew it. I know this now too, because he’s dead. So, instead, we fundraised in his memory for people who would have given anything to trade places with us – to die in a warm bed, safe and surrounded by loved ones, rather than spend their lives shivering in the cold on the streets of Manchester, or fleeing bombs and persecution in war-torn Syria. My husband knew which side his bread was buttered on. He had been lucky. Having said that, I don’t want to die of cancer, any more than he did. Cancer is a horrid and lingering way to go. It’s why, every day, I tell my kids how much I love them; it’s why I’ve written a will, and why I’ve given my important passwords to someone I trust. I’m hoping that an aneurysm will get me instead, many years from now, quite suddenly, but not so suddenly that I haven’t yet got around to throwing away the sex toys that are gathering dust in the back of the wardrobe before the children come across them when they’re sorting out our stuff.

Yet now, as a cancer patient myself, things have changed. Suddenly, I’m grateful for the research into cancer treatment because I know that it will give my children the best hope of keeping one parent alive, even if it didn’t work for the other. I’m not suffering in the way I saw my husband suffer. The pain of the bereavement is worse than the pain in the wound where my left boob and lymph nodes used to be (which is still fucking painful, by the way,) but it isn’t so all-consuming that death would come as a relief. Of course, there are no guarantees that I’ll survive, but there are no guarantees that I’ll make it alive to Sainsbury’s tomorrow either, given the way that some people drive. My surgery results are in, though, my margins are clear, and the chemo I’m about to have is – like most post-op chemos – precautionary. My husband’s wasn’t. His margins weren’t clear, and he endured several rounds of palliative chemo. I probably won’t die, as long as we mop up all those stray cells before they’ve the chance to settle anywhere and grow again, and having hope (I mean, real hope) is something I’m incredibly grateful for. Those impending few months of baldness and nausea are a means to an end, and I’m damn well taking them if that’s all I need to do. I can do six months on chemo. My husband did four times that, on and off, and still worked full time until two weeks before he died.

I don’t feel much of an affinity with the internet widows any more, because I can’t remember how it felt when bereavement was the only worry I had. But, the breast cancer forums are far worse. Oh, fuck me. The Breastapo. They’re all warriors, that lot. By definition, these groups are mainly populated by “survivors” and don’t we know it. The Goddamn memes they post about how they’ve managed to get through something they thought would kill them, and how fucking clever they are. Well done. They – like me – turned up to some appointments and let highly qualified people do what they needed to do to cure their (in many cases eminently curable) cancer. It doesn’t make them brave. It makes them normal. Don’t get me wrong, they did the right thing to go to the doctor, and having cancer is as scary as shit, and I am thrilled that they’re OK – not only for them and their families, but because it gives hope to me and my children that I will be, too. But just as much respect for the people of all shapes and sizes who’ve dressed in pink and limped, waddled or run like gazelles around their local park to raise millions to make sure the research has been done to find a cure. So many of the posts I read are Titty Top Trumps. So how big was your tumour? Just four centimetres? Only three lymph nodes? Amateur. The pats on the back for their survival and bravery are, to a cancer widow with stage three breast cancer, pretty hard to read. And today I realised why. For many of these women, breast cancer is the very worst thing that’s ever happened to them. But it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. One thing I will say for the widows, nobody tries to make out that their husband or wife is deader than anyone else’s.

It is great that so many people survive. It really is. But less than a year ago, I watched my husband die, and he didn’t bloody well want to. The research isn’t as far on for oesophageal and gastric cancers just yet, and he missed the boat. Yes, it’s reassuring to feel solidarity from people who’ve trodden the path before you. But, going through treatment isn’t actually brave, so for fuck’s sake quit with the high fives and the smug memes. Going through treatment is necessary. Accepting that you need to give up treatment when there’s no more hope at all is what’s actually brave. Choosing a suitable spot to place the bed you’re going to die in is brave. Writing letters to your beloved children, when you’ve only got a few days left, and you’re going to miss most of their entire fucking childhood, is brave. Collecting your husband’s end-of life drugs from the chemist is brave. Agreeing to a DNR is brave. Letting the nurses insert a syringe driver is brave because you know it’ll only be taken out once the vein it’s pumping into has stopped working. Kissing your daddy’s dead bald head is brave, and watching his body being carried out of his beloved home under a fucking blanket when you’re only ten years old is really damn brave. Having to choose what coffin and flowers and funeral songs your husband should have is brave. Signing the form to say they could shove a pipe up his arse and embalm him is brave, as is providing the photograph and the clothes which will help the undertakers to rebuild him into some semblance of normality before they take his body to be burned and ground to ash.

Do you know what’s not brave? Turning up at a hospital as a grown adult with responsibilities, and accepting the drugs which will almost certainly make you better, because – you know – responsibilities.

A friend, and my husband, died from cancer in the last few months. My friend was dismissed over and over when she turned up at her GP with symptoms, and she died. My husband’s GP was his best friend, and gave him the best attention and care that he could, but he still died. Neither could be saved. Those two wonderful people, who were physically strong; who adored and protected their kids, and who were fiercely loving of life and their families, both died – with levels of medical care at both ends of the spectrum. Did they not fight hard enough? Yes, they absolutely did, but sadly their cancers weren’t as treatable as mine.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to post one of these stupid memes on the internet about how strong you are, well done, but don’t forget the ones who can’t post anything, on account of their being too dead. I hope, one day, I’ll be lucky enough to be able to post one, too. But I won’t be posting anything, except gratitude for those who did whatever they could to fund or do the research which made my survival possible, whether they’re strangers running across parks in pink tutus, or friends turning up with sets of hair clippers and comedy wigs to keep the tumour humour alive. But I also hope I’ll never let this year of treatment define me as some sort of warrior. Once the hair grows back and the left tit is stuck back on, I want to move on, buy a new bikini, and barely mention it again. I’ll always advocate early detection, and support friends going through cancer in the future, but I’m so over it.

Some battles can be fought, but this one is indiscriminate. Without any weapons in our arsenal, we’re never going to win, no matter how “bravely” we face the oncoming hordes of bad cells. For now, I remain out of place as the only one-titted young widow in the village, with my husband’s ashes in one hand, and my kids holding tightly to the other. Thanks to all who’ve done their bit to make breast cancer a more survivable illness, I don’t have to free my hands to grab onto a white flag instead. I hope I’ll never have to.

Happy World Cancer Day, to those who are no longer here. We miss you like hell.

Love Fanny x

Just a little amendment to a smug fucking meme. You’re welcome.

The Sphincter of Destiny.

I think we can all agree that 2016 has been the most monumental wank sock of years in recent memory. As the final piece of festive loo roll is wiped across the sphincter of destiny, my heart is ready to break. Unlike the rest of the world, and despite everything that’s happened, I don’t want this year to end. I’m not ready to leave my husband behind. 

This year, I had him – at least, for one third of it. I tell people that he died in April. Soon, he’ll have died last year. Last April. A couple of years ago. A few years ago. With every day, month, or year that passes, he’s slipping further and further away from everybody else. He is, and always will be, a part of 2016. But that’s where his story ends. With every celebrity death this year, we move on to mourn the next, and with alarming frequency. I console myself with the rising death toll, and decide that my husband is in the most wonderful company. I imagine him – having died a few days before Victoria Wood – standing at the Pearly Gates with a wicked grin, a wink, and a rolled-up copy of Woman’s Weekly.

For the boys and me, he hasn’t left us yet. We can’t really accept that he’s gone. Christmas Day with friends was perfect, but for the hours we spent at home it was was fucking awful. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but as the day came around, none of us wanted to celebrate. I’d planned to go to the midnight service at church, but since I always struggle to go up for communion and pass the spot where my husband’s coffin had lain, I figured that doing it on Christmas Eve would be way too much for me to take. I assumed that God would understand, and hoped He’d forgive me for putting on my pyjamas and hitting the Baileys instead. After our younger twin had emptied his stocking and told me that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was his dad (although nonetheless still managing to accept the ruinously expensive guilt-laden presents I’d bought him,) I went into our office, sat on the floor with my husband’s ashes, and sobbed. I wished a merry Christmas to a brown box with his hated Sunday name on it, in a dark green gift bag. When I picked up his remains (a word I hate) back in April, I did wonder why the undertaker had put him in a gift bag, but at least on Christmas Day he looked quite, well, Christmassy. He’d certainly made more of an effort than the rest of us.

The feeling of loss and pain lingered all day, but I’m glad we hadn’t cancelled it. That would have been an admission of defeat, and would have pointlessly intensified our misery. My husband never gave up, and nor will we. We’ve done it now, and next year will be easier, if only because we’ll be able to celebrate my survival, even though celebrating that will always feel wrong. This year, for sure, we can’t yet celebrate anything much at all.

Despite the fact that I don’t want to move forward without him, I am optimistic for the future. I have to be. This time next year, I’ll still be alive, and that wasn’t something my husband could say with any certainty. Instead of tearing my hair out and thinking how the fuck I’m going to manage when I’m ill, I remember my husband’s words to me a few days before he died. He told me to see his death – though neither of us wanted it to happen – as an opportunity. A new beginning, rather than an end. He didn’t want to leave me, or picture me with anyone else, but made it clear that he loved me too much to want me to be on my own forever (but I’m not ready for that, and can’t yet imagine a time when I ever will be.) Those words only confirm to me how remarkable and brave he was, and give me hope that, through losing him, a new door may one day open in the most unexpected of circumstances. But not yet. Knowing that we should begin afresh, and wanting to do so, are two entirely different things. He’s still very much here. His coat still hangs in the hall. His shoes are in the basket by the front door. Our bedroom is still ours, not mine. I realise, too, that those joint parenting decisions now have to be mine alone, and the more time that goes by – the more the boys change and develop – the less I feel I know what he might have said or done. The more I feel that I need to handle them my way, even though I don’t want to have to. In fact, I’m not sure I know how to.

By definition, he has never known his beloved sons while they’ve been truly grieving. He’s never dealt with their anger and tears as I have, these last eight months, and he’s never known me with breast cancer. He wasn’t there to see them finish primary school, or to discover a new country on holiday, or to rant about the world post-Brexit and Trump. He didn’t see the boys begin high school, or watch them score goals on the football pitch this season, nor did he see them perform in the latest show with their drama group. He hasn’t met our new widow or school friends, and those new friends don’t know him. I wonder if these people will ever understand how great the boys’ dad was; how much it matters to us to remember him. I can’t help feeling that these new friends have missed out enormously by not being able to get to know my husband, because he was brilliant, and I hope the boys aren’t difficult to make friends with now, because they’re so mixed up and worried inside, through no fault of their own. Now is the time we all need friends the most, but I don’t want people to know just me on my own. I want them to remember us. To know us. I wonder if, as the years pass, we will change and develop into people that he wouldn’t recognise, or worse – that he wouldn’t love. All we can do is try to keep going; to remember him, to honour him, and to do our best to be as brilliant as him, but without him. And to hope that he approves.

Time telescopes when you’re dying. A day becomes a year, and an hour becomes a lifetime. The only things you really want to say can actually be said in seconds. At some point, though, you have to accept that time cannot stop, and unhook your fingers from the person you love as you let them go. I cannot stop 2017 from coming around. If I could, I’d still be holding my husband’s hand.

Much like the year before it, I can’t help but feel as if 2017 can fuck right off, before it’s even begun. As the rest of the world believes that things can only get better next year, I’m not so sure. We have a whole new mountain to climb, and although my husband’s memory has given me all the tools I need to weather any storm life throws at me, I desperately don’t want to leave him lingering behind me in the foothills as I fight my way to the top. I’ve let him go once before, and I’m not ready to do it again.

Love Fanny x

The final piece of festive loo roll, ready to begin its journey down the toilet of 2016.

Full of Christmas Fear.

Christmas can fuck off this year. Yes, I know what the true meaning is, and it’s not really about fairy lights and presents, but our God hasn’t exactly been my best friend for the last few years. Still, I’m massively overcompensating for the children’s sake by putting fairy lights EVERYWHERE. None of us is really feeling it at all, though, and just want this difficult time of year to be over.  

We often used to go abroad at Christmas. We were self-employed business owners, and those two weeks from Christmas into January (when bugger all business happens) were a sort of enforced holiday with little – if any – money to be made. Neither my husband nor I really liked the over-commercialisation of Christmas, and preferred to use the time to be together as a family, rather than blow hundreds of pounds on gifts. Since my parents are divorced and my husband’s two adult children refuse to speak to each other, it suddenly made perfect sense for us to take ourselves out of the equation, and spend our present budget on heading off to sunnier climes instead. For the last three Christmases, though, this one included, we’ve had to cancel our planned trips abroad, and are staying put at the Costa del Cancer.

Last year, my husband was waiting for news of a clinical trial which could have prolonged his life by several months. This year, I’m waiting for a mastectomy and further treatment, and probably won’t have a reconstructed boob until this time next year, if not later. Christmas has been shit for quite some time now, but I have to remember that it’s not Christmas’s fault. Still, when your husband needs to have scans done and get himself signed up for clinical trials, it’s pretty frustrating to have his life hanging in the balance when the world shuts down. When you know, with all certainty, that the new year you’re meant to be celebrating is the one which will be written on his headstone.

Last year, my husband was told that he’d know by New Year’s Eve which trial drug he’d be getting – the brilliant new one, or the crappy old one – and then at noon on New Year’s Eve the fucking randomisation machine broke down so we had to wait four more days, only to be told he’d got the shit one anyway. The year before that, he’d spent New Year in hospital, with an infection that his chemo-ridden body couldn’t fight off. Christmas Day last year was hard work, too. My husband knew it would be his last, and – with his inimitable good humour – made it clear that presents would be fairly pointless, but seemed to take genuine pleasure in the fact that so many people would have benefited from money donated to various charities on his behalf instead. He cuddled and comforted us on the sofa in the kitchen as the boys and I cried, when it should probably have been the other way round.

And now, to this year. I’m lucky. Firstly, because I found out a couple of weeks ago that my cancer is still contained. It hasn’t spread, and I’m not terminal. So that’s a good, but strange feeling. I’m not celebrating this news, because my husband never could, but I’m pleased to be able to bring up our boys when he didn’t get the chance to finish the parenting job that he loved. I’m lucky because the boys, my Mum, Stepdad, and I have been invited to spend Christmas with dear friends who live up the road – one of whom helped to carry my husband’s coffin into church only eight months ago – and who didn’t want us to be sitting around the same old dining table, but with an empty chair, on Christmas Day. I’m also lucky because people have continued to send us Christmas cards. This may not seem like a big deal, but judging by the posts on the widows’ forums that I read (and yes, there are such things,) bereaved people seem to be forgotten at Christmas. People don’t know what to say, so to avoid the issue, they say nothing.

THIS IS THE WORST FUCKING THING YOU CAN DO.

Did you know, you can actually get bereavement-specific Christmas cards? Nor did I. Well, you can, and we have several. We’ve also had lots of little messages inside ordinary Christmas cards, from people who want to say that it must be hard; that they’re thinking of us. Not all of them know about my diagnosis – they just know that it’s the first Christmas without my husband, and wanted to tell us that he – and we – are in their thoughts. It may have taken them five seconds to write; it may have taken them several attempts to find the right words. I’ll never know. The point is, though, that they took the time to say something. It matters.

We can all feel lonely at Christmas when it seems as if the rest of the world is being swept along by the excitement, the hysteria, and the figgy fucking pudding. It’s probably mainly bollocks anyway, and in the same way that people only put the edited highlights of their shitty mundane lives on Facebook, these “magical Christmases” are usually the same old crap with people they can barely tolerate, filled with gifts they’ll quietly put on eBay next week, but with an extra portion of pigs in blankets. Knowing they’ve still got their awful bloody families, though, when yours has been ripped apart, is still really hard. In my case, I’m petrified of leaving my husband in 2016. While we still live in the same year, I feel he’s still here. When we move forward, I’ll be condemning him to history, and that’s the last thing I want to do.

If you know someone who has been bereaved, either recently or a long time ago, Christmas and New Year will be a bit tough for them. It just will. If you haven’t sent a card, or a Facebook message, or a text, to say that you’re thinking of them – please, just do it. It will mean the world to them. There’s only one thing worse than saying the wrong thing to someone who’s grieving their way through the tinsel and the sparkly wrapping and the fairy lights. And that’s being too afraid to say anything at all.

Love Fanny x

A card from one of our favourite neighbours. A lovely idea to show bereaved families that they’re being remembered at a difficult time of year.

In Praise of My Tits.

I’m quietly proud of this photograph. It was taken on holiday when our boys were about four months old, and I’d asked my husband to get a picture for posterity. It’s never been in the family album, but not because I care if people are offended by a photo of my tits doing the job they were designed for (hell, I’d tandem feed anywhere – once, I even propped up the children against my nipples on the window ledge of an overhead walkway at a service station on the M6, having fed them earlier that day during church communion.) I didn’t give a shit as long as the boys were nourished, but I simply couldn’t bear for anyone to look at the photo and think I’d chosen the hideous fabric on that sofa.

I’ve blurred out my face – not because I’m embarrassed, but because the two little generic-looking blond chaps sucking merrily away on my nipples might be, now that they’re in high school. 

Those boys are growing up to be fine, strapping, strong pains in the backside, and I’m proud of the role my breasts played in getting them there. I can take or leave my face and my arse, but I’ve always liked my boobs. Small, pert, and perfectly formed. My husband was pretty keen on them too, although (following our return from the IVF clinic, full of hope, progesterone and embryos) when my breasts almost immediately ballooned in size, he didn’t complain. In fact, he thought all his Christmases had come at once. Shame for him that I was also spotty, hormonal, sick and sensitive, and for nine months I pushed him away in case he got too close and knocked the babies out of place with his overenthusiastic penis. 

We’ve had some adventures, my tits and I. They’ve been on the front page of our local newspaper, having been signed by an entire cricket team on a drunken night out (and thereafter followed a somewhat embarrassing appeal to find their owner.) They’ve been on full display at a Middle Eastern water park; as the rest of the clientele donned burkinis, my skimpy top flew off half way down a Death Slide, and only a miracle and some makeshift communication in Tourist Semaphore saved me from being arrested. They’ve been bared in clubs when I was too high to care, and later they fed and nurtured our children. I like them. But, one of them has to go. 

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks. The day before I went in for my cancer-removal surgery (in which we were attempting to save my breast,) a friend for a decade – and who I’d used as a fine example to our boys of how breast cancer is NO BIG DEAL ANY MORE – died. Just like that. She’d beaten her cancer 18 months ago – a 9cm tumour, to be exact, so hugely bigger than mine – and had been complaining of stomach cramps for months, yet her GP seemingly hadn’t sent her for any scans or tests. By the time anyone really heard any alarm bells, it was too late. She had three beautiful children. SHE was beautiful, inside and out. Now, at 41, she is dead. None of us can quite take it in. I was choosing mastectomy bras in John Lewis (“would you like the fucking disgusting frilly white one with front fastening popper, Madam, or the ghastly peach one?”) when the call came in from a friend to warn me that she probably wouldn’t last the night. I couldn’t any longer concentrate on the wares within Foul Bra section. I decided to buy the first one I saw and sobbed all the way home.

Her little boy, who had been all the way through nursery and primary school with my two (who, seven months ago had followed their father’s coffin into church and read beautifully at his funeral) helped to carry his mother’s coffin down the aisle of the church, as he said a final farewell. I couldn’t decide if it was wonderful that he was tall enough to do so, or an absolute tragedy. I was glad, but sad for her, that I had “Cancer Lite.” No chemo, just a bit of surgery, and maybe a little radiotherapy. Mine was really no big deal. It was never going to kill me. I felt a bit guilty to even be put in her awful, elite club. Until yesterday.

Yesterday, my little world fell apart, yet again, before I’d even finished rebuilding it. It was 11.50am. The last appointment of the morning. In the absence of a living husband, Team Tits ‘n’ Fanny came to hold my hand. 

I don’t know why I even thought it might be OK. In the past, whenever we’d been into the cancer hospital with my husband, it was always bad news. Good news happens to other people. Not to us. The words would swirl around our heads: The scan wasn’t quite what we thought it might be. The operation results weren’t as positive as we’d said they were. When we said the tumour was all gone, we meant the visible tumour. Sorry, yes, there’s some cancer left in the margin. That means your survival prospects are low, but not outside the realms of possibility. Sorry, yes, it’s in your lungs now. Ah. Sorry. You might have a year. Or so. He actually had ten months, in the end. 

And thus, it came to pass, that it was exactly the fucking same for me. I had my operation. It was a great success. They drew all over my tit in marker pen (disappointingly, it didn’t make the paper this time and nobody bought me a drink,) and, as the tears rolled down my face, they stuck wires into my tumours during a mammogram so the surgeon could find them. They filled my veins full of radioactive fluid, sliced me open, and I woke up with a boob swollen to twice its normal size (and still no husband to enjoy it.) Much to the amusement of Team Tits ‘n’ Fanny, I had a faint blue tinge to my skin and was pissing blue fluid. They called me The Smurf. 

But, ten days on, WHOOPS. We thought it was three little tumours – nice and small, nothing to worry about, yes of course you can go to Center Parcs with the Merry Widows, just have it done when you get back – in fact, it was an eight centimetre tumour, with lymph nodes involved. I keep looking from my tiny tits to the tape measure and wondering where on earth it could have been hiding. Either way, I now definitely need a mastectomy. But first, a bone scan. And a CT scan. Then we’ll know the plan. But there’ll be six months of chemo. Then radiotherapy. They want to know if I’m in pain anywhere else, or if my joints are aching. I said I’m struggling to swallow, but I’ve assured them that it’s probably stress which just so happens to mimic my husband’s oesophageal nightmare. Who knows, though? Nobody is saying that it’s curable any more. Everyone is hedging their bets. I have to wait a week for the scan and another week for the results, and all of a sudden the grim memory has resurfaced of my husband skipping out of the hospital when they’d told him he was terminal, because at least we finally knew what we were dealing with. And I’m glad that I never got around to burying my husband’s ashes, because now I can picture us being shaken up together and placed in the ground with his hilarious idea of a headstone bearing the date of death and the words “Best Before” written above.

I remember what it was like, all of a sudden, for him. And for me. That desperation. Being just that little bit over the edge from “curable” with still a chance to step back to safety, even though falling off would be far easier. That fighting spirit. The Tumour Humour. When we looked around the house at all the changes we’d wanted to make, or had already made, and realised that the shitty bathroom tiles just didn’t fucking matter in the great scheme of things. I remember how I’ve cried buckets this week simply because it had made sense to finally switch off my husband’s computer. How a friend had to remind me that his computer wasn’t actually him (although, it kind of was, he tapped away at the bloody thing so often.) I can’t remember how it felt when grief was the only thing that was bothering me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mortal being. All of a sudden, it doesn’t matter how great my tits are, or what they mean to me, or meant to my husband. I want the left one off. NOW. Let’s not wait. It isn’t an adventure. I’ve cremated my husband and a friend has just died. We are all susceptible to death, and my kids are running out of people to bring them up. I want a hug, and to be told it’ll be OK… but the person to do that has already left before me. I desperately want to see him, to hold him, but not to do so yet, because that would mean leaving our beloved boys. I miss him so much that it aches. My son, meanwhile, sleeps wearing his Daddy’s dressing gown, with an urn full of ashes beside him on the pillow.  

I wonder if it will only be fair when the other twin has my dressing gown and ashes to comfort him, too. I dismiss that thought and vow to give it everything I’ve got. For now, and for many years to come, you can have all the bras you want, but that dressing gown is mine. 

Love Fanny x

The very last photograph of my left boob. Marked up, and ready to go.