Metaphorical Warts.

As I sit at the pool bar, I silently judge the figures of the women who walk past, and assume that the perfectly-formed ones must be as boring as fuck. I shuffle my cellulite between my tailbone and the barstool, and congratulate myself for being fascinating (despite being slightly generously-proportioned in the arse department) with another handful of nuts from the bar, washed down with a swig of the local brew. I wonder if I’ll ever enjoy exercise as much as I enjoy cake and wine.

The boys and I are on our first holiday without my husband. I was wary of taking them to a new place on my own, but in fact, all those trips we took as a family have paid off. They know how airports and hotels work, and (on the whole) how to behave in a foreign country. Apart from my son’s not-so-hilarious prank of changing his iPad home screen to a picture of Osama Bin Laden as we rushed through Frankfurt Airport Security on a quick connection, things have gone reassuringly smoothly so far. We’ve spent a few days by the pool, managed to hire a boat without a man in the family to take control of the entire transaction, and even indulged in a bit of culture (although too much culture usually ends up with a child suffering from some sort of life-threatening illness for which ice cream is the only known cure.) The younger twin tells his new friends that his dad is away on a business trip, which hurts, because it means he’s not yet able to accept the truth. On the other hand, I want people to know that I’m happily married more than I want them to know that I’m widowed. I’m certainly not on the market. I am happily married – it’s just that my husband is dead, which is why he’s not here. Even though he would have been, in a heartbeat. If he still had one.

The body and soul that we fall in love with and marry is not usually identical to the one that we die holding hands with. That’s part of the fun. We all evolve as characters, become more like each other, and kind of chill out a bit once we’ve had a slice of that great libido-killer, wedding cake. My husband and I had pretty much tried to stay the same size over the years, without doing any real exercise, and without quitting the wine, or the chocolate, or anything really. We did have a gym membership, and imagined the weight might melt off in the sauna or jacuzzi, simply because we’d made the effort to turn up. Our quitting smoking coincided with my pregnancy, and although my body changed while I ate for three, my husband raided the fridge every time he craved nicotine. By the time I was ready to give birth, either one of us could have passed for the one carrying twins. He didn’t have the luxury of breastfeeding two babies to ping him back into shape, and although I quickly slipped back into a size ten, he took eight years to really try to lose the weight, because, to be honest, he didn’t really try at all. With 25 years between us, I did recognise that it was easier for me than for him, but his lack of commitment to getting back into shape drove me around the bend. I asked if he wanted to look after his body enough to see his kids grow up. I was only being dramatic – I didn’t actually think he wouldn’t be around to see them grow up – I just wanted him to be a bit slimmer. To prove that he wanted me to find him attractive. To show that it mattered.

About four months before he was diagnosed with cancer, we went through a fairly difficult period. To get back on track, we traded searching for bachelor flats on Rightmove for a Slimming World subscription and a daily sexathon. That was an idea I found here, during a browse of an old Saturday Guardian, and it’s a technique I can highly recommend. I don’t mean flicking through the Guardian will save your marriage. I mean flicking… oh, never mind. Anyway, he lost weight, and so did I. We got on well, we laughed a lot, and we were happy. Not because we both suddenly had fabulous bodies, but because we loved one another enough to at least try to be attractive to each other again, and as extra little kindnesses automatically slipped back into the relationship, the pounds fell away from us both.

I don’t think his losing two stone was the be-all-and-end-all, but at the time, it mattered. I’m embarrassed to admit that now, because just over two years later, all that was left of the slightly unkempt and chunky fellow of before was a bald skeleton with spirit and skin, in his trademark brightly-coloured t-shirt, whose jolliness covered the physical and mental pain behind it.

The body is simply a vehicle for the soul. I didn’t marry my husband’s body. The body I married was a bonus fourteen years ago, but I actually married the laughter. The fascinating ideas. The pisstaking. The generosity. The intellect. The adventures. I also married the morning breath, the stubbornness, and the refusal to ever eat fruit. But they were all part of the package, and the package came within that body, which contained that wonderful, frustrating, hilarious soul. And he married me. Not for my lovely breasts (and they are bloody lovely,) or the bottom I’d never liked, or my dodgy complexion. The whole me.

And that’s why, without him, I’m petrified of having a part of me sliced off – a part he loved.  After his operation, he was embarrassed about his scars, but the boys and I had seen him through the surgery, seen how the scars had saved his life, and were grateful for what they represented. The scars had helped his wonderful soul to keep on going for a year longer than it should have.

My soul will not disappear just yet, as long as a well-qualified person in a white mask with a big fuck-off scalpel cuts off my left breast sometime soon (preferably while I’m asleep.) But, there’s a hole inside my soul – bigger than my C-cups, and even bigger than my husband when he was at his biggest, heaviest and cuddliest. It’s why I’m baffled that I still judge and compare and hate my body, because the heart that beats inside it is as whole and as full and as generous as anyone else’s, and I wish that my husband’s body – in any shape or size – was with us now. I wish that he was here to love my body, as the husbands of those ladies-of-all-shapes-and-sizes around the pool love them; metaphorical warts and all. All I have now is a box of ashes which I can’t bear to let go of and bury in the churchyard. But it doesn’t make me laugh or tell me I’m beautiful, or reassure me that it’ll all be OK, lovely boobs (or lack of) notwithstanding.  On the contrary, it tells me that I’m completely on my own.

If my husband had survived, we’d have laughed about this. We’d have called ourselves the Frankenstein’s Monsters and thrown some sort of Hallowe’en-themed party with extra added gore jokes to celebrate the ridiculousness of it all. But I don’t have my Partner in Pisstaking, and there’s nobody left to reassure me that I’m just fine being me, and to love me because of my flaws (and my soon-to-be bionic breast) not in spite of them. Not for the first time, I’m completely fucking petrified, and I miss him. Every wobbly, opinionated, unshaven, and infuriating last bit of him.

Love Fanny x

fanny-cremated

 

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Remaining Buoyant.

I walked into the funny little side room where they’d ushered my friend and me, with the inevitable flowery wallpaper border in an awkward shade of peach, and the strategically placed box of tissues. Different hospital, but the same sort of set-up as it had been last year when they told my husband he was dying. They’re all as cheerless as each other, these rooms. The fact that someone’s tried to jolly them up with imitation flowers makes them all the more depressing, but that’s not the fault of the two ladies who were sitting there in their lanyards, smiling weakly – they’re healthcare professionals, not interior designers, for fuck’s sake. I wondered why there really needed to be two of them for something so routine.

I didn’t know if I should start the conversation with a general grumble about what a waste of NHS resources it is to bring in every bloody patient to discuss their results when a quick chat on the phone should have been enough to say that everything’s fine, but I thought I’d leave that bit for afterwards. I shook my head and apologised for wasting their time, but admitted to being just a little bit paranoid because my husband had died four months ago from cancer. I haven’t actually really accepted that he even had cancer, let alone died from it, I said. Silly, really, but it’s always best to get stuff checked out, I suppose. The pressure’s on to survive, because without me, our kids don’t have anyone left.

Sit down, they said.

So, to backtrack, my husband is dead, our kids are soon starting high school, I’m trying to single-handedly build an empire with the remaining crumbs of our once-thriving business, cook meals, walk the sodding dog, drive the kids to footy, drama and youth club, and we’re about to go on a summer holiday where we finally – for once – forget about cancer (but never Dad,) and start building a new life again, just the three of us.

I’m so excited about this holiday that yesterday I even splashed out on four new bikinis. Unheard of. I’ve had the same three bikinis for the last ten years.

Nobody in my family has ever had cancer, I told the boys the other day when the subject came up again. They’ve been worried for a while that they’ll somehow lose me, too. I don’t speed – ever, I told them. I don’t take unnecessary risks any more. I don’t walk down dark alleyways at night. I drink more wine than I probably ought to, but that’s about it. Who doesn’t? But I’m not going to die, lads. Don’t worry. I’m in rude bloody health, me.

It was the school holidays and I had nobody to watch the boys, so I dragged them along to my appointment and lied and told them I had to go in for a routine test that all ladies over 35 have to have, just to keep our boobies safe, and grinned and smiled and laughed through gritted teeth behind the curtain as they played on their iPads and I had six chunks of my left tit smeared into a Petri dish. Dad’s family is riddled with cancer, I said, but my side – no way. I didn’t want to worry them, or myself. I just knew I had to put my mind at rest and hear that these silly little lumps were as insignificant as I’d imagined.

But they’re not. My friend held my hand as my world fell apart again, and the nice ladies in lanyards told me that I have two tumours in my left breast, which is pretty bloody high achieving of me, actually. They’re still fairly small, and it seems that I did the right thing to alert my GP friend who turned up for a bottle of wine and a grope of my tits just weeks after my husband’s funeral. She wasn’t too concerned, but as a matter of course said she’d send me down to the Breast Unit. I didn’t even know there was such a place. My hubby would have liked to have had the opportunity to accompany me there, I thought.

I shook my head when the nurse asked if I qualified for free prescriptions, and she smiled and said “you do now,” while thrusting a form into my hand with the box I am a cancer patient already ticked.

I have leaflets, and scan appointments, and two booklets with cartoon superheroes fighting bad cartoon cancer cells to give to the boys (one each, so they don’t need to squabble over them.) I don’t yet completely know what the treatment will be. But I do know that I’ll need a mastectomy, and with that it’s curable. I think the timing is shit and my heart is ripped to shreds for our growing boys who have known nothing but a parent with cancer since they were 8 years old and need a fucking break. But, I also know that my husband was given a 16% chance of surviving beyond two years. Conversely, I’ve got about a 16% chance of dying, as long as we act fairly quickly. He fought for two years and several rounds of chemo to stave the fucker off. I know, therefore, that I am lucky, that this is but a brief blip, and that I owe it to him to take those odds, to use them to my advantage, and to not complain. Not too much, anyway. Two years ago, we would have given anything at all for the odds that I find myself blessed with, and it could be so much worse for me right now. Still, so much of me wishes that my husband could be here to hold my hand through this, as I held his, and another part of me is glad that he doesn’t have to, because the news would have crucified him anyway, not least because he’d always admired what he described as my cracking set of baps. It’s always harder for the carer, he said. Well, that’s OK, because mine’s already dead.

This coming holiday, I’m going to wear the fuck out of those four bikinis.  Soon, I’ll have half the number of buoyancy aids that I had before, but I’m damn well going to keep afloat. I’m all that our boys have left to cling on to.

Love Fanny x

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Small, but perfectly formed. And rising back to the surface… eventually.

I wrote this blog on 12th August 2016, the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and almost four months after my husband had died from oesophageal cancer. Now that we’re back from our holiday and I’ve told the boys, I can publish this, as they now know the full situation. They are, of course, upset, but understand that it’s completely curable, that my treatment will be nowhere near as gruelling or as long as my husband’s, and that I still plan to keep working, just as he did. With the help of some truly wonderful friends and family who will drag us over these next few hurdles, we remain very lucky indeed.

Life Ensurance.

A few years ago, I read on Facebook that a woman named Desreen – a beautiful woman, though that’s probably irrelevant – had been knocked over and killed after leaving my auntie’s brother’s house. Her two-year-old son was with her, along with her husband. It’s a loose connection, but because I know and love someone who’d met her personally, I’ve read her husband’s Life As A Widower blog with interest and sympathy, never imagining that one day I’d be widowed too. Although my husband died in much less tragic circumstances, the end result is the same. A dead spouse. A new widow. A child or two to bring up alone, alongside the grief. A whole load of shit to shovel through the tears. I could say the same things to Ben Brooks-Dutton as people say to me. You’re brave. You’re amazing. I don’t know how you do it. And all the while, no doubt, like me, he’ll be grateful for the support, glad that he can release some of the pressure in his head by pouring words onto a page, and he’ll think, but I don’t really have any other choice.

One of Mr Brooks-Dutton’s articles resonated me with me recently, but probably not for the reasons he’d intended it to. It wasn’t long after my husband had died, and I saw that one of his blogs had been shared by WAY – a charity I’d joined fairly early on, for moral support. I was drowning under a pile of probate, trying to work out what the fuck I needed to do with the mortgage and the business, making spreadsheets of what I had to earn in order to survive, and sorting out which car I could afford to keep and which I’d have to sell. My husband had made it all pretty easy – he didn’t really have any savings (apart from the ISA we’d half-heartedly been stashing bits of cash into, in a vague attempt to reduce the mortgage capital when the time came) but he’d written a will and a letter of wishes, and things were as straightforward as they could have been. Nonetheless, it was still a nightmare for a grieving simpleton like me, who’s never really been all that interested in money or investments. We once thought we’d be clever, and invested my husband’s rather pitiful pension with a stockbroker. It was 2008. I probably don’t need to tell you the rest. In my life, I’ve gone from ordinary, to homeless, to comparatively rich, but the amount of cash in my pocket has never really determined how I feel about being me. I’d be lying if I said that losing the house doesn’t concern me, though, especially when we’ve already lost the one thing that money can’t buy. But it’s not everything, because we’ve already lost the one thing that money can’t buy.

Ben Brooks-Dutton had written about the concept of Love Insurance – and why, if you love your family, it’s important to take out an insurance policy to look after them in death as well as in life, as we don’t ever know what’s around the corner. (Actually, even when we’ve known what’s around the corner for two years, we don’t really know at all. We simply turn around and walk in the other direction, until we hit the final wall and it tears us to pieces anyway.)

I totally understand his point. When I was 26 and had just given birth to twins, we took out a policy which would see the mortgage paid off and my husband and boys looked after, should anything happen to me. My husband was older than me, you see. 25 years older (but not in his head.) Taking out insurance in your twenties is cheap, affordable, and something I’d encourage everyone to do as a matter of course. It’s just one of those essential life expenses, even if you don’t yet have a family.

We investigated a joint policy, and baulked (or laughed – I can’t quite remember) when they told us it would cost around £500 per month for a 52-year-old ex-smoker with cancer running through the heart of his family. He did have a few policies anyway, bought to pay off old mortgages from years ago, but they had been due to run out before too long, and having already had two divorces under his belt, his finances had never been quite straight. My husband had been a practically professional smoker for about 30 years. A joint cigarette break on the fire escape at work had brought us together in the first place, so we owed our entire relationship to Marlboro Lights, even though we’d both quit when the boys were on their way.

That £500 per month didn’t seem affordable at the time, and probably wasn’t. We shopped around, couldn’t find it cheaper, and decided not to bother.

My husband was the greatest Fuck-It Merchant on the planet. He wasn’t completely reckless or a total spendthrift (hello, we had an ISA!) but money burned a hole in his pocket. He enjoyed what he had, and loved to share it about. His inherent generosity towards the people he loved was one of the many things I found attractive about him. He never planned to retire, and if he had, at 25 years his junior I’d have been his pension anyway. We’d already decided that we didn’t like the local private school anywhere near as much as we liked the local state school (frankly, we were both a bit too left-wing to seriously consider it,) and justified every holiday with the fact that we would all learn more from seeing the world at first hand than our little boys would, stuck inside an expensive classroom.

That £500 per month (added to the theoretical thousands we were saving on school fees) paid for us to take our little boys all over the world – to the Pyramids of Giza, to tree houses in the national parks of South Africa, via Glastonbury Festival, the Acropolis of Athens, and sleeper trains through Thailand (that one almost ended in divorce.) Our kids have bartered for fake footy kits in Turkey, kayaked along the shores of Lake Garda, swum with turtles in Barbados, and picked out street jewellery in Tunisia. We’ve also done Disneyland at Christmas – I mean, come on. It can’t all be as wholesome as fuck. Our boys have no problem navigating an airport, but show them a bus and they probably won’t even know which side of the road to stand on to catch the bloody thing, but everything in time.

I’m glad that, when he died, I had hundreds of photographs of my husband in places all over the world, standing with his boys. They are smiling, and cuddling, and full of life. Even when he was dying. Especially when he was dying. The pride and love and happiness in that man’s face shines through, as it does in his children’s. I’m glad that we couldn’t choose which single memory summed him up the best, and in the end went for a montage of photographs to use in the order of service at his funeral.

Now that I’m the sole breadwinner, I won’t be stupid with money. I was always the more sensible one, anyway. Without a cushion, it’ll be a bumpy ride, but if those boys aren’t incentive enough to keep our business running now that it’s spluttering along at half the power, I don’t know what is. What would I do if we’d taken out that life insurance and now I didn’t have to work? Sit in our paid-for house and remember all those amazing times when we’d stayed at home, working? Meet friends for coffee? My friends all work full-time anyway. I need a push, and I’ve bloody well got it. I won’t fail. I can’t afford to.

Our age gap is unusual, and every family must do what they need to. I recognise that the sudden death of a young woman like Desreen is completely different from the expected death of a near-retired man, except perhaps inside the heads of the young kids they leave behind. Many young widowed parents and their children can only live as full a life as possible, because they’d taken out cover, and I’m glad Desreen was able to give her family that unwanted but nonetheless useful gift.

We chose life ensurance over life insurance. My husband hasn’t left us destitute – he’s left us with skills, with options, and with few regrets – except for the things we never got around to doing. He hasn’t left our kids with piles of money. He’s left them with the world on a plate, and with enough deposits in their memory banks to make them millionaires.

Love Fanny x

 

Dean Friedman, Domino’s, and Death.

People say “I just CAN’T imagine.” A lot. They say it a lot. I think I’m quite good at hiding what I’m thinking (which is WELL FUCKING TRY) with a shrug and a smile, and a “that’s OK. I hope you never have to,” because I really do. When they inevitably stroke my left arm in solidarity (it’s always the left one,) I let them, even though I don’t really know if I’m supposed to stroke theirs back, because I’m awkward and British, and I’m not entirely sure what stroking my arm will do to aid my husband’s return to life anyway. But it probably makes them feel better, and I’m OK with that. I’m sure I’d do the same if the tables were turned. What in the name of fuck DO you say?

People are really nice. I know they can’t imagine, because I can’t either, and none of this is quite how I thought it would be. It still isn’t.

Following any shitty medical diagnosis, people often describe a “new normal.” It’s not the life we’d planned, but eventually you get to grips with the chemo regimes or hospital appointments or where the best coffee is within a stone’s throw of the treatment centre (don’t go to the canteen – it’s shit,) and you build a new routine around it, or in our case, our entire working week. I remember, when my husband was first diagnosed (when it was curable – OH no it wasn’t!) imagining him about to spend months on end as an in-patient, shrivelled up and bald, when in reality – for the first three cycles at least – life was relatively normal except for the odd bit of retching into a bowl and a Number One on top. We went places, did stuff, and lived our lives. And he carried on working. Self-employed and uninsured, you see.

The difficulty ramped up, slowly but steadily. After the oesophagogastrectomy (or, “the op,” which is less of a mouthful,) he needed more careful handling, but life carried on and the boys got used to seeing him replace his jejunostomy feed at breakfast while they filled their cereal bowls. The feeding tube came out. He went back on chemo. The retching became worse, and he went bald again. He didn’t sleep at night and nor did I, but we carried on. Things got shittier, but we kept going. We kept working. We kept bringing up our kids, and loving each other, and pissing each other off. We kept going for two years, until he stopped.

When my husband was given two weeks to live, he was relieved. He’d thought he had hours. I’d been called in to the hospital urgently, late on a Friday afternoon to “discuss his scan,” and was told that the doctor would stay behind to see me. I asked if I should bring the children, and they said not yet. That was a fairly hefty clue that something was amiss, although it was April Fools’ Day, so there was a glimmer of hope. My husband held my hand. He wiped my tears, and asked me to promise just two things. He wanted to die at home, and he asked me not to let him die alone. I gave him my word.

He then went on to say that a Bag for Life would probably be an unwise investment at that point.

The few days after he came home from hospital, and before he’d lost his mind, we quickly shut down our business. He wouldn’t rest until I’d contacted all our clients with his “permanent non-availability”, as he called it, and sent the invoices out. The fucking invoices. Who gave a shit? He did. He needed to know we could afford to take some time off, so he could relax. And die. It felt as if we were about to go on holiday. In fact, by then, we were on holiday. We were at home, but not working. We ignored the phone. It was, somehow, lovely. We chatted. We held hands. Friends and relatives came over, but knew not to stay too long. He asked for a sign on the front door asking for visitors by appointment only, because the constant ringing of the doorbell was driving him mad, although some people ignored it anyway. I kept that fucker up for weeks after he’d passed. Some people still ignored it.

The day he died, I don’t think I knew he was going to. I don’t honestly think I ever thought he would. A friend had stayed in the spare room so I wouldn’t be alone and frightened on my makeshift bed beside my husband if he started to die in the night. He said good morning to her and asked after her husband, his friend. I don’t know what he said after that, but it was idle, mixed-up chitchat. There were no meaningful last words. He probably vaguely asked for a cuppa. He slept. The hospice came (for the first time, after a fortnight of chasing) to give him some nursing care, and a wash and a fresh t-shirt. They looked after him; he was clean and moisturised, and his teeth were brushed. I suppose, in hindsight, he was ready. I texted the vicar to say that I was worried he had barely moved and didn’t seem well, but didn’t hear back and thought nothing of it. I was too busy sitting by his side and listening to his iPod on shuffle (or “Dad FM” as he preferred to call it) and skipping past any songs he wasn’t keen on. No point in wasting whatever time he had left being forced to listen to shit music.

The boys came home from school; they popped in to say hello, saw Dad was asleep, and wandered back over the road to play with their friend. My husband’s best mate, our GP, called in after surgery to see how things were, as he always did, and said gently that he thought today may be my husband’s last. I put the kettle on and chose not to believe him. He offered to stay the night, but Marie Curie were supposed to be coming to night-sit for the first time, and I thought they could damn well do their bit at last. We returned to the sitting room where my husband was sleeping. His head had fallen to one side and his skin was grey. I thought he’d died, and was devastated that I’d broken the one last promise I’d been determined to keep – that he wouldn’t die alone.

Then, he breathed. I looked up to see our friend in tears, my husband still alive, and our boys out of the house. I didn’t know how long we could expect the breathing to keep going, but I managed to ring the boys and summon them back quickly. None of us really knew what to do, so it was a blessing to have our friend there (who had seen hundreds of deaths but never his best friend’s) as we all made our promises to my hubby and told him how loved he was. One of the boys became agitated about the music still playing on the iPod, and said it was disrespectful. I told him that Daddy loved music and would probably be enjoying listening to it. In fact, it was Dean Friedman’s Lucky Stars. I made a mental note to remember. I wondered if that was an appropriate song for his life to fade out on, but he did like Dean Friedman. He’d seen him play at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago, and the audience had all sung the girl’s part. I remember him telling me. He’d had a great time. Yes. OK, Lucky Stars was a good song, and I supposed the title was apt. Despite everything, he had been very lucky in many ways, I thought, but then an internal monologue of panic began:

It isn’t really about being lucky at all, though, is it? Isn’t it about a breakup? Not sure. It’s a bit inappropriate if it is. Oh, bollocks. Perhaps I should listen more carefully to the words, just in case. Shame it’s not Ariel. He loves Ariel. Maybe I should see if I can quickly find it. Shit, it’s still on shuffle. 8,493 songs, and I haven’t a clue how to use Search on this bastard thing. Does this one end or fade? Thank fuck – yes, it ends. Don’t want to play “fade out roulette” at this fairly critical point in all our lives.

It ended. I quickly pressed Stop, in case Agadoo came on, or the theme tune from Blockbusters. My hands were shaking. Then, we sort of waited. For a very long time – half an hour or more. We weren’t counting. He kept breathing. We kept talking, and promising, and wishing. The breaths came far less frequently. Then, he stopped.

Our boys were brilliant. They kissed their Daddy, and stroked his face, even after he’d died. One went to our home office and came back with my husband’s business card which he placed in his grey, waxy hand. I don’t really know why. He just did what he had to do. My husband was useless at giving out business cards – perhaps that’s why there were so many left. His best friend organised the practical things such as telephoning the undertaker, and letting Marie Curie know not to bother coming after all. He asked a colleague to come and certify the death – something he’d done a hundred times before for other people, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so for his best friend of over 30 years. I don’t know what certifying a death involves, but I’m guessing lifting eyelids and some such, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do that either. My husband had the most beautiful piercing blue eyes that winked and danced, and we loved them, but they would be glassy and empty by now, and we all knew it.

As had been planned the day before, some dear friends came round to take the boys to drama at 6pm, and we realised that time had stood still. The boys were holding their Daddy’s hand at the time we should have been putting the dinner in the oven. Our littlest twin asked if they could have the night off drama and order a Domino’s, and it didn’t seem a lot to ask for a ten year old kid who’d just come back from school to see his beloved father pass away. There were pizza menus and doctors and telephone numbers for undertakers being banded about, and then the vicar turned up full of apologies but he’d been in Wigan all day and only just seen my text message. He was so sorry. He and my husband were friends. He blessed his body and we said a prayer together, even though by then I knew that my husband had long since left the room, and so did he.

The undertakers came, and quietly began to do what they needed to do. I left the room, and started to make phone calls to relatives. There was a list of people in a vague order of importance, and two hungry children, and I needed to keep the conversations short as there were another twenty people yet to ring, but everyone needed a good cry and I didn’t have the heart to rush them. Even after several calls, I’d failed to master the technique. Words like “peaceful” and “blessing” were used as the doorbell kept ringing and the hallway turned into Piccadilly Circus with doctors and undertakers and small boys and friends. I laid the kitchen table. Someone poured me a glass of wine, I think. As my husband was being loaded into the back of the private ambulance, the Domino’s guy crossed paths with him on the driveway. We’d swapped the love of our lives for a large Margarita and a Veggie Volcano.

As the jalapeños burned my cardboard tongue, I walked into the sitting room and stripped my husband’s empty bed. I found his discarded business card on the carpet. I thought, don’t you know who he is?  I loaded the washing machine, just as I always did, several times a day. Life carried on for the rest of us, as it always does, but in a completely new direction. Even now, we’re still picking our way through whatever our new “new normal” is. The only thing that isn’t “normal” is no longer having him here by our side.

Love Fanny x

 

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Ariel, which I found in his record collection, along with Lydia. But not Lucky Stars.

My Son, The Asshole.

My son, who I love beyond all measure, is being a bit of an asshole. He’s so much like I was as a child – a loud, articulate, attention-seeker extraordinaire, unable to quite know when to stop. Unlike me as a child, he has the added bonus feature of having spent the last two years watching his Daddy die, slowly, right in front of his eyes.

Until D-Day, the dickhead qualities were always visible, but in a fairly endearing way. People would be bowled over by his confidence around adults, and his engaging personality. What he lacked in his twin brother’s fierce academic prowess, he made up for in articulate expression, and we’d always had him marked out as a leader in whichever field he chose to pursue. He was also, most importantly, fairly kind (except to his brother, obviously.) Over the last couple of years, we’d noticed the signs of anger bubbling up inside him, and had had the occasional call from other parents whose child had been on the receiving end of some outburst or other, but it was never that big a deal. People knew me well enough to tell me straight, and never expected anything other than my full attention and an apology, if necessary, from my son. They also knew that the poor kid had a lot to deal with right now, and that all this was a bit out of character. I do not breed Perfect Peters. We deliberately raised our kids to have spirit, to ask questions, and to stand up for themselves (verbally, not violently,) and on the whole I think we had been doing a fairly good job in the face of some monumental challenges, not to mention running a business and working around several 40-mile round trips to the cancer hospital every sodding week.

I’ve always believed that the one favour you can do for your children, and for their peer group, is to be realistic about them. Don’t expect behaviour miracles to come overnight, but also let’s quickly lose the rose-tinted view of how perfect they are, no matter how much effort it took to propel them from your vagina, because I haven’t met a single child in the boys’ class who doesn’t have a strong propensity to be a little shitbag from time to time. Most parent freely admit this with a cynical eye-roll, and usually we laugh and pour each other another gin. A sense of perspective with children is vitally important, and the violent, sanctimonious, immature little fuckers are still learning. They all make mistakes. So do I.

And I feel lost. Completely out of my depth. My wonderful, funny, lively, intelligent son, who is moving up to a lovely CofE high school in September but who still goes to sleep with his thumby in, and who loves nothing more than a cuddle and to rub the tips of his fingers along my fingernails for comfort, tried to throw himself out of his bedroom window yesterday. After he’d trashed the garden. And after he’d raced towards me with a metal spike. And called his brother a twat. (I obviously show huge signs of disapproval at the swearing part, as well as everything else, because parenting is 99% hypocrisy, and anyway, the boys don’t know I write this shit down.) He then made a dramatic exit out of the front door, and I found him 20 minutes later, cowering in a bus stop, sobbing. The amateur psychologist in me – no, wait, let’s not big up my part – the former childhood attention-seeker in me, recognises that none of these things were done seriously, and were all a bit half-hearted. I am pretty confident he was not about to board the next bus into the big city, nor was his bottom ever going to leave that window ledge. But it’s still awful to watch, and worse when you feel powerless to help and are the only adult in authority. But I don’t feel like I am an adult, or in any kind of authority.

Hubby and I were the ultimate team. We never quite intended for it to happen this way after we got married, but before we knew it we were living and working together, and bringing up our two sons completely in tandem. It was so easy to share the load. If he was working, I’d cook, or vice versa. If they were being little bastards, he’d give them a verbal bollocking. We’d both be there at school drop-off, pickup, bathtime, story time, bed time, and he and I just loved parenting them. They were his joy, but like me, he was fully aware of their faults, and would hold up a mirror to them whenever it was necessary.

The bollockings. I never really did them. I wasn’t all that good at discipline, and it didn’t matter because my hubby was there to jump in, snap his fingers, and get things done. I was too soft, and I know I was, but it feels as if now, I’m paying the price.

I went into school. I begged for help. I guess it wasn’t particularly convenient that my husband died a couple of weeks before SATs and now all the teacher wants to do is freewheel to the end of term. But, to give her credit, she’s sent through a referral to Behaviour Support (although she did manage to fill in the form with enough spelling mistakes to make this Grammar Nazi wince, and quietly wonder what the fuck she’s been teaching them all year.)

It’s not her job to be a grief counsellor as well as a teacher. I know that. I’m also told that their behaviour at school is completely normal for their age group and for the time of year. “End of Year Six-itis” was her diagnosis. She said they were all being cocky and difficult little fuckers, or something along those lines. But one child in particular is desperately sad, angry, and so consumed by grief that he’s taking it all out on the people closest to him, and his twin brother is trying so hard to forget his grief that he won’t discuss it at all. I don’t know which is worse – loud-mouthed drama queen, or insular nerd. They’re both as heartbreaking as each other, but the noisy one has my full attention just for now. I don’t know how to throw him a lifebelt when I can’t see one anywhere, but I know I need to get hold of one quickly before he grabs our hands and pulls us all down to the depths with him.

Love Fanny x



My son’s Fathers’ Day card. His twin brother has made one too, but he wants to hide it in his memory box so I haven’t seen it. Neither of them are assholes – just very, very mixed up little boys who want their Daddy back. And so do I. 

The Hierarchy of Hell.

I think we’re all still reeling from the horrific murder of Jo Cox. I know I haven’t stopped thinking about her and her family all week. Regardless of the political or mental health reason, or both, that led to her death, that woman went to work the other day and didn’t come home. Her life was snatched from her in the most brutal of ways, leaving her young family broken.

When I’ve heard of other people who’ve recently died, I’ve tried to assess it in my own mind. I’ll weigh it up and wonder if their family will be grieving more than we are, and even silently ask myself if they have the right to. There’s a part of me that gets a bit pissed off with people banging on about their father-in-law who was a bit of a miserable old bastard anyway, and who sadly passed “unexpectedly.” Unexfuckingspectedly? Oh, do me a favour. He was 87 and smoked and drank all his life, I chunner to myself. Get a grip. My kids’ daddy is dead, I think. They’re ten, you’re 56. Get over it, I think.

But, I know these are the irrational thoughts of a grieving woman who’s trying to make sense of her newfound place in the world, even though she doesn’t yet know where that place is. Of course people are entitled to their grief, but actually, yes – there is a hierarchy. There has to be. Sometimes it can be quantified.

When my husband died, we knew it was coming. It was bloody awful, but he did at least know that he could choose where he died, and who he spent his last days with. He saw the people he wanted to see, and wrote some loving letters to the people he didn’t have the strength to face in person. He said what he needed to say, and heard what he needed to hear. Nothing was left unfinished, and we all knew how much we loved each other. He was grateful to have had a comfortable but too-short existence, and appreciated that his end would come in a warm bed, and not on a battlefield or in a refugee camp. He got seriously pissed off with the rolling news coverage when David Bowie died because – although he’d been a lifelong fan – he didn’t see the death of a sixty-something successful bloke as a “tragedy,” any more than he saw his own demise as one. There was far worse shit going on around the world, he said. It’s bad, we don’t want this to be happening, but it could always be worse.

So, when Jo Cox was gunned down and stabbed the other day, for reasons we don’t yet quite know, of course it was a tragedy. Here was a mother – a mother (and we always consoled ourselves with the idea that a child losing a mother is the ultimate tragedy, after a parent losing a child,) whose children would grow up without her. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Tragically.

When I was 18, one of my best friends was stabbed to death by another friend – his brother-in-law. It happened after a night out, shortly after they’d dropped me home in a taxi and gone back to theirs. The shock of finding out it had happened, and then seeing my darling friend lying lifeless in intensive care – his nose the only identifiable part of his body beneath the tubes – has never left me. I remember screaming. Screaming all the time, for weeks. I would have given anything to have brought him back, to comfort his family, to make everything OK again. It was horrific. I didn’t sleep for months, and I doubt his family did either. I remember those long, desperate nights, unable to breathe because of the sheer shock, and how every year the anniversary of his death threw me into a deep emotional black hole which would take days to climb out of. I ran away to the sun, I came back home, I clung on desperately to an unhappy and controlling relationship, and life was grim for a very long time. Although I have since sought help (with some serious support over the years from my husband,) am generally contented, and now use his anniversary as a day to do something positive – a day I now almost look forward to – not a day goes by when I don’t think about my friend, and remember him. And wish.

Multiply ad infinitum those feelings of shock and desperation, and that’s maybe where Jo Cox’s family are, and the families of anyone whose life is snatched away from them because of someone else’s sheer evil, madness or recklessness. I simply can’t imagine how much more grief it’s possible to bear than that which I endured as a teenager, but my God, it must be so much more painful for them. I only had a friend. Jo Cox’s husband had a wife. Their children had a mother. How much worse can it be than that?

To feel desperately sad that my husband died from cancer is quite understandable. The grief is ever-present, but it’s nothing that can be compared in any way to the shock which follows a murder. Our boys are struggling emotionally, but they had two years to get used to the fact that their daddy might leave them, and to somehow prepare themselves, not that you ever really can. They held his hand as he left us, and promised him they’d be good boys. Jo’s sons probably went to school on Thursday, and before the bell had even sounded for morning break, their mother would have already given them her very last kiss, cuddle and ruffle of the hair.

Is there a hierarchy of hell? Yes. And the Cox family is pretty damned close to the bottom right now, in a place where nobody ever deserves to be. Whatever path our little family’s journey of grief takes us on, Jo Cox’s murder reminds me that we must always be grateful for the chance to have said goodbye, and that one of us simply slipped away quietly, surrounded by love, and at peace.

Love Fanny x

Letter

Part of my husband’s final letter to me – which he wrote about a week before he died. His mind was starting to tire, and he wasn’t sure what to say. I told him he didn’t need to write at all, because he’d said everything already. But, he’d already written to his children, and was determined to do the same for me. I’m so glad he did. Not everyone has this luxury.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

 

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We went to a party on Saturday night. It’s not the first time we’ve been out, the boys and I (or indeed I on my own,) since D-Day, and although I mainly want to stay at home curled up in a ball, I know it’s A Good Thing to go out and I need to make the effort. We need to socialise, and I’m determined that my hubby doesn’t just slip into obscurity, and become some legendary bloke who we all vaguely remember. No. He has a name, and we use it often. Still, I’m pretty selective about who I feel up to partying with, as the fixed social smile often gets wiped away by tears. For the most part, the small talk I used to be so good at makes me feel a bit nauseous, and I don’t want people to ask how I am because they won’t like the answer. For now, I’ve pushed away from the rest of the world and only brought my closest allies along with me for the ride. No. His closest allies. His dearest friends. They’re all I want.

Over a glass of wine and a few nibbles (we always wondered why crisps tipped into a bowl suddenly become nibbles, just because they’re in a fucking bowl,) somebody remarked to me that at least my hubby wasn’t in pain any more. What a cliché. I get it. I’ve known for the last eight weeks that clichés exist for good reason, because they’re often painfully true, but really? That comment tipped me right over the edge. Let me tell you something about my husband.

He was brilliant. For the last five months of his life, he was in constant pain. Truly awful. His liver tumours were growing and he struggled for breath as his lungs kept on filling with fluid. But, his attitude (and a hefty supply of morphine and dexamethasone) meant that that didn’t stop him. He carried on working until he could barely work any more, was riding rollercoasters with me, our boys, and a bunch of chums at Blackpool Pleasure Beach one month and a day before he died, and even squeezed in a week’s holiday in the sunshine. We returned home three weeks before he passed away. But dying was never on the agenda.

He didn’t want to die. He had no intention of leaving us. He fought tooth and nail to stay. Was he in pain? Yes. Did he mind? Yes. Could he have gone on for longer? You bet. He had not given up. Pain was just an inconvenience that he had to put up with in order to stay with his adored boys, but giving up or dying were not on the list.

I sat with him for almost every moment in those last days. Those long, surreal, dark days. He needed me to administer his meds and help him to the loo. We talked about inconsequential things, and important things, and his mind began to shut down. In the early hours of the morning, he wanted to know where Prestons of Potto were based, and then proceeded to piss on the hall floor. He then shuffled back to bed with his oxygen tube in one hand and my hand in the other, but decided to adopt a Scottish accent for the journey back. He began not to remember that he was dying. It was probably a blessing, because he had been too stubborn to let go, and would not have ever given up of his own accord. Ever.

That hand-holding, though. Those beautiful hands that had been so animated; they were the first thing I fell in love with nearly fifteen years ago. Those hands that became, like him, emaciated and uncomfortable to hold on to, and not the fleshy, slightly wrinkled (but his) hands I’d always held. But they were there, and there was a pulse. He was still inside those hands, somewhere. He could squeeze mine, or I could kiss his. Or kiss his face, or his stubbly chemo-ravaged head. When there was still a pulse, he wasn’t there – he was gone in all but heartbeat and breath – but I could hold his hand. He was still him, and he was ours to love.

When he was gone completely, a waxwork took his place. One moment, we could hold his hand and love him – HIM, the man, the person, the daddy – and the next, we were touching something with as much life and texture as a piece of plasticine, or a doll. But at the same time, that doll was so familiar, wearing my husband’s favourite t-shirt, wedding ring in place, and his wristwatch still ticking, even though everything in our collective world had stopped.

Those hands, like the rest of him, are dust. His wedding ring lives on my finger now, but there is no longer a hand to hold. Would he have carried on, despite the pain, until now? Of course, and beyond. And if he could have done, we’d still have that hand to hold, and to hold us in return.

Is it a comfort to me that he’s not in pain any more? No, because the pain, for him, and for the rest of us, was better than his not being here at all.

Love Fanny xHold Your Hand