Warts and All.

I haven’t buried my husband’s ashes yet. I still can’t bring myself to do it, although there have been some conversations with the vicar, so we’re moving forward, slowly. The other day, our son – who had hitherto been quite reluctant to part with them – asked when his Dad would be buried. I said I wasn’t sure.

“Oh,” he said, with obvious disappointment. “I wanted to go and lay some flowers on his grave for Fathers’ Day.”

Those boys are hurting, badly. And it’s only now that I realise just how much, and how much twelve-year-old boys without a father, or even a father figure, struggle – because I can try to be Mum and Dad, but it’s always going to be a compromise. I’m stretched so thinly that I can’t give them everything they need, and I’m taking a lot of my own stress and anger out on them.

Our boys were lucky. For ten years, they had the very best dad in the world, and I don’t use that term lightly. They really did. Nobody adored their children the way he did. He wasn’t always soft with them, but they were exceptionally close and the boys knew just how much they were loved. I was looking through some family photos last night, and what struck me the most was that the same little boy who asked to lay some flowers on his Daddy’s grave was always – always – pictured nuzzling into his father. Not just standing there. Nuzzling him. They adored each other. Even as his mother, I can’t begin to comprehend that child’s loss.

One thing I’m beginning to notice, now I’m a double – not single – parent, is how jealous and angry the boys are with other children whose father is still alive. They are furious. It isn’t fair. These dads – great as they are – are not my children’s dads. They’re pretty good prototype dads, but our boys’ dad was the real deal. The best in the world. They don’t want their friends’ dads. They want their own. When kids complain about their dads being grumpy old arseholes, my boys are cross about it. But at least you’ve got one, they think. You don’t know how lucky you are, they think. They’ve chosen to forget what a grumpy old arsehole their own dad could be.

It’s easy to look back with rose tinted spectacles, and my two do. Of course they do. They are children, and they think like children, but it surprises me that many adults think that way, too. On the online forums, widows and widowers write with great bitterness about friends who turn to them to complain about their (still very much alive) spouse, expecting their widowed friend to listen with sympathy. They don’t. They listen with rage and regret, because they’d give anything to have their own spouse back. They are angry. Angry with anyone who still has their family.

I don’t feel quite like that. Much as I wish my own family was still complete, I actually love to hear my friends complain about their partners. It’s what we do, we women, and being confided in makes me feel as if I’m still valid as a wife, mother and confidante. That I’m still normal. One of the gang. Men are terminally idiotic, and rolling our eyes at how stupid they are is every woman’s favourite pastime. My husband was no exception. He was grumpy, untidy, and out of shape. He never got around to finishing odd jobs, or picking up his wet towels. Don’t get me started on how keen he was to share his opinions, or what a terrible back seat driver he was. I’ve stopped and thrown the car keys at him in the middle of a busy road and told him to drive the fucking car instead then on more than one occasion. He could be a complete twat at times. But, as a husband, and a father, he was the whole package – from wanker to wonderful – and the only person we wanted to fill those very special roles. He was OUR massive fucking annoying twatbastard, and we wouldn’t have changed him. Well, not completely.

As a grieving widow, I’m so desperate to have him back – warts and all – that it’s actually important to remember that there were warts. Plenty of them. My husband’s greatest fear, before he died, was that he’d be canonised in our minds and remembered as some remarkable and faultless being. I assured him that this would never happen. While I can accept that he had faults, and love him because of them – not in spite of them – our children don’t yet have the emotional intelligence or maturity to take anything other than offence at other children’s comments – both positive and negative – about their own fathers. They miss their own too much.

Since he died – actually, no. Since before he died, when we knew he’d never get better, the boys have begged me to provide them with a new stepdad. This seemed odd to me at first, and actually a little offensive, because I couldn’t understand why they would suddenly want someone to take their beloved father’s place. But, they tell me that they just want to be a foursome again. They hate having to divide me in two, and think that if someone made me happy then I would stop crying all the time. (I also think there’s another rather significant element, in that they could really do with someone else around to offer lifts.) In their imagination, their stepdad is a man just like their Daddy. In reality, if they ever do have a stepdad, he’ll have baggage – probably a few kids that they may or may not get along with – different opinions, and a whole new selection of funny little ways. He won’t love them the way their Daddy loved them, because – by definition – he will not be their Daddy. He will be, just like my husband, unique. Irreplaceable. Different. I’m not sure I’m ready for different. I’m not even ready to accept that there’s a vacancy.

When other women whinge to me about their stupid fucking husbands, it doesn’t bother me at all, partly because I like to remember how often I felt like punching my own, and partly because it reminds me that I really am in no hurry to meet another man. I pity my friends, because they never had the privilege of being married to my husband. (Well, a couple of people did, but we’re not really in touch with them any more.) And I pity anyone who one day thinks they could fill my husband’s shoes. The only thing that hurts me deeply is seeing other couples loved up, and their children behaving, as ours used to do. A few weeks ago, I stood with extended family on a beach – the rest of them cuddling their spouses and adoring their wonderful children – as I screamed at my two to stop twatting each other and drawing massive cocks in the sand. My little family was unravelling in front of my eyes and I’d never felt so alone or missed my husband more.

I don’t want a new one, though. Maybe because I’m approaching the end of my treatment, and beginning to see a new start in life ahead of me which I know my husband would want me to grab with both hands, I do occasionally wonder if it’s time to start thinking about dating – not because I need male attention, or rampant sex, but because I’m beyond knackered and could really do with someone to let the dog out early in the morning every now and again.

I can only imagine the internet profile: Bald, one-titted widow. Mediocre cook. Needs a bit of a hand with the kids. Struggling to put up some shelves.

No thank you. Yes, I’m exhausted. Yes, I’m beginning to realise just how desperately my children need a father figure. Yes, I’m finding being Mum and Dad very, very tough. But I’ve just spent Fathers’ Day with our boys, ignoring the significance of the day, mending some garden equipment and building a new drum kit. I even changed a lightbulb. There was no trip to a grave, because there still isn’t one, but I know that their real dad will have been with me all the way, watching me use the wrong bloody spanner, and desperate to jump in and criticise. But he can’t. And what I wouldn’t give to roll my eyes, throw the spanner at him, and tell him to fucking well get on with it himself then, one more time.

We miss you, Superdad. Warts and all.

Love Fanny x

 

 

Bastard Funeral

Not my husband’s funeral flowers. He’d have approved, though. Image from Pinterest.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Happy Birthday, Dear Chemo.

My relentless positivity is waning. The dark thoughts are setting in, and becoming far harder to shake off than the last few eyelashes which have long been sobbed into a snotty tissue. I have two children who miss their father, but I miss him too, and if it weren’t for them, perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered to fight this at all. In fact, I think I resent the fact that I can’t just say fuck it and join him, wherever he is. Because I do have his beloved children, though, and no family nearby to bring them up, I don’t have a choice. But, Christ, it’s hard – especially when the two children you’re doing it for are not helping you to row upstream, but are standing on the riverbank, chucking rocks at you as you try to do it alone.

They’re eleven. Nearly twelve. And they’re about as much fun as you’d imagine a pair of bereaved pre-teen boys dealing with yet more cancer to be. We’ve been talking about their forthcoming birthday celebrations. Supermum here has always made sure they had a party – and a bloody good one. Well, they’re twins, so I massively overcompensated for the fact that they never got to have a party of their own (the obscene quantities of pirate bunting in our loft are testament to that.) But, yet again, this year, the thought of a whole load of boys in the house (all, inevitably, being dickheads – none more so than our elder twin) fills me with fear. And I’m trying to plan the date around my chemotherapy, and find a weekend when I’m most likely to be well enough to cope.
So why not postpone their birthday? Well, because this is the fourth birthday of shit, and they barely remember what life was like before cancer. The boys were eight when our world was turned upside down. On their ninth birthday, I handled things, because their dad was on chemo. He was involved in the party, but not feeling too well. They understood that it needed to be low-key, and that their next birthday would be better. On their tenth birthday, I handled things, because their dad’s first round of palliative chemo had just begun. They had a sleepover, but it was low-key, and they were really good about it, because they knew it might be the last one with their dad. On their eleventh birthday, their dad had just died. They had a sleepover and a trampoline party, but it had to be low-key, and we were all feeling pretty flat but didn’t want to not celebrate, because that’s not what Dad would have wanted. Just widowed, I didn’t have the energy to field a whole houseful of Year 6 boys, but I’d promised them, now that the whole cancer thing was over, their twelfth would be one to celebrate. And now, yet again, one of us is bald, sick, and having to crawl through yet another birthday on our knees.

None of this is fair – not on me, but not on them either. Recently, I’ve begun to identify the problems, and there are so many, I don’t even know where to begin. My husband and I had all the answers, you see. We were the greatest team in the world, and our children were brilliant. Not perfect – still little shits at times – but loved, secure, interesting, engaging, and funny. Happy. Really happy. We were so fucking smug about how happy they were, because we were getting the whole parenthood thing pretty much right. We decided, when they were tiny, that the greatest gift we could give to them was The World, and went on wonderful adventures to faraway lands with two little smiling blond boys, all skater shorts and smiles, who could have stepped straight out of a Boden catalogue. People would stop us in the street and talk to us, wherever we went. Our openness and sense of fun must have shone out of us. I didn’t realise at the time how precious this was, or how far down the spiral of shit we’d all fallen, until I walked into the house the other day to find one twin in his new natural habitat, fingers glued to the X Box controller and half an eye on a YouTube video about Fifa or wanking or whatever, and the other screaming into a kebab because the idiot in the shop had put salad on it. The stupid fucking twat.

They’re awful, gobby and angry, and I’m beginning to understand why. Because, three years ago, I was the same. I hated their dad being ill. I sympathised with him, because I’m an adult and (three weeks out of four, anyway) more rational than a little boy, so we talked about it at night and hugged each other better. We were both fucking furious with the disease, but while he just laid there being ill, I had to run around and pick up the pieces of the life we had before, and it made me bloody angry, but he understood, and he kissed me better. Our entire life as we knew it had been ruined, but I thought if he could just get off the sofa and pretend to be well, or turn up to football matches, or attend parents’ evenings, everything would be OK again. All those feelings of rage within me have now been turned on to me, by our children, who see me being defeated by the same damn disease which claimed their dad. They are afraid – quite legitimately – of becoming orphans. At their age, I’m fairly sure that my greatest concern was which member of New Kids on the Block I’d marry first. (Not Donny.)

Well-meaning people constantly tell our boys to look after me, but it’s the worst thing they could possibly say. It implies that we could all have done more as a family to save their dad, if only we’d looked after him better. It isn’t true, and it hurts so bloody much. We could not have saved him, and the boys can’t save me. We just have to hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to be on the right side of the survival statistics, and I believe I will be. Either way, there’s not much I can do about it, but by the time they really start to believe I’m fine, when this is all a dim and distant memory, their childhoods will be over for good.

In only a few weeks, we’ll be back to normal. It won’t kill the boys to have a bit more screen time until then. It won’t hurt to just eat freezer food with oven chips. It’s fine if they go to bed a bit late, or haven’t brushed their teeth for precisely two minutes. Or at all. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t work all that hard at school today. Only a little while to go, and we can pick up again where we left off. Never mind that they don’t want to do drama at the moment, or cricket, or roller skating, or football. It’s fine. We’ll go back to it in a few weeks. It won’t permanently damage them if they don’t eat their vegetables for a while. Just let’s get through this bit of chemo and then we’ll slide back into normality again.

We’ve been saying all that for their last four birthdays. This brief hump of chemo, to overcome in whichever way we can – and another, and another – has become a lifestyle. An entire childhood. Because I don’t have the energy to pick many battles, I’m letting a lot of things slide. In fact, half the time, I’m lying down and crying while the pre-teen cavalry ride roughshod over me with their Xbox controllers and tracksuits, grunting into their phones, and dropping bits of unwanted kebab salad in my ear.

We’d always been honest with our children about cancer, from day one. They knew their Dad’s would be a tough one to fight, respected our honesty, and believed us. We shared our triumphs and our darkest moments, and realised that no amount of stretching the truth would stretch out his life, so saving their feelings with white lies was pointless. As the oncologist said, if a miracle happened, the boys weren’t going to come back and punch him in the face for making their Daddy better. However, the doctors made a mistake. They thought he was getting better, and we told the boys we’d still be a family for a year or more. We hugged each other with delight, and booked another holiday. Six weeks later, he sat on our sofa late on a Friday night, having been brought home in an ambulance, hooked up to an oxygen tank and permanently discharged from hospital. We hugged and cried with our beloved boys again, as he told them they’d missed the biggest tumour of them all. It wasn’t fluid on his lung. He had been brought home to die. And guess what? Our boys now don’t believe anything that the cancer doctors say. So, why would they believe that I’ll be alive for their thirteenth birthday, even though the doctors are sure that I will be? Why would they trust that we’ll ever go on a Christmas adventure holiday again, when the last three have been cancelled?

And nobody really, truly understands. Even I don’t understand. That’s why, maybe, despite my kids being the most difficult, angry, stubborn, malnourished, over-screentimed, worst people in the world at the moment, I still feel the need to fight their corner. I observe the boys and their friends a lot, and canvass opinion with other parents, and the general consensus is that they’re no worse than anyone else’s children at this stage in their lives. In fact, considering what they’ve been through, they’re doing bloody well. They’re working hard(ish) at school, seem popular with teachers (mainly,) are maintaining and developing friendships, and are also going through all the usual shit of being picked on or dropped by others. But that’s what kids do, and – for the most part – I let them get on with it, because two oversensitive kids who are already struggling with friendships probably don’t want some bald-headed titless wonder wading in and cramping their style. Apparently, some of their friends are bored with hearing about cancer now. Well, so the fuck are we.

In a few weeks, when the chemotherapy and radiotherapy are over with, I like to think we will – somehow – find this elusive New Normal. The one we’ve been trying to find for so long. The one with discipline and energy and fun and good manners. And possibly even one or two vegetables. (Sadly, I think I’ve probably lost the Battle of Boden, and the tracksuits are here to stay for the foreseeable future.) Until then, I know I have to just keep a lid on it and understand things from our children’s point of view, when I’ve stopped screaming at them. Our children, who still play football on a team run by dads, who desperately miss their own dad being on the sidelines, cheering them on. Our children, whose mum had no sooner taken the role of Dad, than she’d begun to disappear from the football sidelines as well. They don’t believe it’s temporary. They don’t believe I’ll be back, willing them to victory next season, along with their friends. I intend to prove them wrong.

Until then, I’m going to give them the one thing that their friends have had every year, even though our boys probably don’t deserve it – a birthday party, with cake and candles, friends and fun. And, next year, there will be no cloud of doubt to choke them when the candles are blown out.

I promise.

Love Fanny x

The shittiest birthday cake of them all. (Source: Google Images.)

Blue Lights and Red Lipstick.

I don’t like to do things by halves. If you’re going to have cancer, you may as well do it properly, so I’ve been in hospital these last few days with neutropenic sepsis. Much to the disappointment of our children, who were out playing a football match, they missed a very dramatic ride in an ambulance as I was rushed off to A&E (but not before I’d left a present and card on the kitchen table for one of them to take to a birthday party that afternoon, because, you know, motherhood.) Like most women, I’ve always been fearful of having my jeans whipped off by a handsome paramedic on a hairy-leg day, but the chemo has sorted out that problem for me. My blood count had dropped so low that the common cold I caught last week could very well have killed me, but hey – at least my legs are smooth and shiny. As is my head.

Infection is a well-known complication of chemo, and easily fixed with antibiotics and blood-boosting injections, and because our children have already lost a parent, I didn’t mess about or wait a few hours when my temperature went up. By the time you read this, I’ll be home. They can save lives at our local hospital, but they can’t provide wifi. That’s a trade-off I’m happy to take, although our adolescent twins would probably think twice.
A few days before my admission, I’d been feeling really fed up. This latest recipe of chemo has floored me with flu-like symptoms, and a general feeling of exhaustion. I’d been fantasising of a nice lie down in a hotel room, with the boys and dog taken care of. Just me, on my own, relaxing with a book or two. I’ve decided not to make any more wishes as they obviously get lost in translation.

To keep life normal for the boys as I go through chemo, I’ve still been playing Mum’s Taxi, I’ve still worked full time from home, still attended school events, still watched them play football and cricket, still walked four miles a day with the dog, still played badminton with them in the garden, and I’ve even driven the three of us on a fourteen hour round trip, and spent two nights in a hotel, to attend a family gathering on the south coast – because if I carry on as normal, paint on some eyebrows, pop on a hat, and don’t behave like I’m ill, then I’m not ill. Right?

Wrong. The last few days have been an eye-opener, and a lesson in self-care, to say the least. Much as I remain impressed with our amazing NHS, I don’t want to come back into hospital again. I was placed in Protective Isolation in the world’s most uncomfortable hospital bed, and until the IV antibiotics started to work, and until my temperature came down after 36 hours or so, I didn’t even have the energy to read or write. Fortunately, Twin 1 very kindly loaded up his iPad with films for me to watch. His choice, not mine – a handpicked selection of movies about aeroplanes, terrorism, and a documentary on brothels.

I wasn’t allowed to drink tap water (and sterile water is, well, fucking disgusting) but they did let me wander up and down the corridors to keep myself moving during the long and miserable nights – partly to ease the lower back pain of lying down for too long, and partly so I could perfect my Lady with the Lamp impression, but with a drip, and a less attractive silhouette featuring one boob and a bald head. Oh, and there was always a people-watching opportunity outside Maternity, as the expectant mothers squeezed in one last cigarette just before the baby’s head started to crown.

Family and friends have been wonderful, as ever, and rallied around to help us, but my Mum and Dad live two and four hours’ drive away, respectively, and it can take some time to mobilise family troops. The reality of the situation here remains the same. No amount of eyebrow pencil, no supply of sparkly headgear, no carrying on regardless, can change things on a day-to-day basis. It’s getting tougher. When my husband was ill, he had me to keep everything going, and I remember so vividly that he said it was harder to be the carer. I think he’s right, but I’m now the patient as well. Having an ambulance sent for you because you’re alone; having to miss your kids’ football match (and then having to start making panicky calls from the back of said ambulance, under the blare of the sirens, to try to get them brought home and looked after,) and leaving some cash for them to go to the chippy for lunch because you’ve been too tired and weak to go to the supermarket (my Parent of the Year award is in the post) is properly, properly shit. The boys have eaten nothing but crap, and barely a vegetable or a vitamin has passed their lips, for weeks and weeks. I’m hoping that’s one of the fonder memories they’ll have of Mum’s Chemo Days.

On admission to hospital, I was asked about my marital status, and my next of kin. I should be used to the questions by now, but I still hesitated. I didn’t really want to say the answer out loud. All I know is that the tears came yet again as I let them tick the boxes about alcohol intake and stool consistency, and told them why I was there alone; that my real next of kin was dead. That the last time we raced to A&E, he was here, in the cubicle opposite the one I was now in. Just like him, I came in with a high temperature, collapsed veins, and a bald head, but this time, without a spouse to hold my hand, or to go in search of magazines and coffee machines. To carry the load of responsibilities still waiting at home.

I’m home now, where life is our own brand of normal. Where I can keep busy with work, and start every day in heels and war paint, once I’ve walked the dog. Where I pretend to the boys that I’m OK, because none of us can bear the alternative. Where I came out of hospital to a huge pile of work, but three hours after discharge returned to A&E with further complications. Everything was sorted without another admission, and I returned home in the early hours to find the boys sleeping side by side in mine and their Dad’s bed, for comfort. I slept in Twin 2’s bed instead – which definitely wouldn’t pass any Infection Control inspection.

My parents have done a brilliant job of keeping things going, even though the boys associate Grandparental Visits with Dying Parents, and respond accordingly, like proper little shitbags. Because they’re frightened. Because when their Daddy started to get taken away in ambulances, and grandparents arrived to help, he died soon after. They’re taking their anger out on everyone, especially me – as I did with my husband and children, when I thought life couldn’t get any worse. I was angry with the cancer, not with them; but I couldn’t always differentiate, and nor can they. How I wish we could go back to those days when being a family of four with terminal cancer was so much better than this.
When my husband and I could still be parents together.

Six weeks more of chemotherapy. Six weeks more of pretending I’m fine for the sake of the boys, but being a little more careful with myself to make sure I really am – because they will suffer the most in the long run if I’m not. I’m almost at the end of the road, and the end of this road will be the start of a new beginning, but perhaps I need to trade the heels for slippers, wear pyjamas more, bare the reality of my pasty and puffy chemo face, and admit that I’m not finding it all so easy.

My husband called me Wonder Woman. (He also called me TwatFace.) He knew I’d be OK, that it was safe to leave us, and that the boys would be alright in the end; that I would throw my heart and soul into the vacant position of Dad. He didn’t realise I’d go so far as to chop off my boob and shave my head to get into character, but – as I said – I don’t do things by halves. In a few weeks, Wonder Woman will be reborn – with a new razor for her legs, some hairspray, a sparkly scarf, and a brand new shade of lipstick.

Love Fanny x

Dedicated to Karen, who loved my husband, loved me, and encouraged us to love each other, despite the challenges which lay ahead. Who went to hospital last week, and wasn’t lucky enough to return home to her beloved family. A true Wonder Woman, and champion of the world. Rest in peace, my friend. X

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

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…

Brian May’s Merkin

This has just happened. 

After only a few days on chemo, I’m taking control of the hair loss situation with a pre-emptive strike, and I’m jumping before I’ve been pushed. Now I’ve done it, I’m not sure which would have been worse – waking up among ever thicker clumps of curls on my pillow, day after day, or the resultant ‘do which has seen me go from Tim to Edwina Currie in half an hour flat. I’m not quite rocking the Matt Lucas just yet, but give it a week or so.

We’ve been here before, with my husband, and we could always tell when the hair loss was a few days away when the pubes started to appear around the loo seat with alarming regularity. They were always the first to go. My somewhat unruly Widows’ Bush still passes the tug test for now, so I reckon it’ll be a few more days before anything happens on my head. Not that I’ve really spent an awful lot of time tugging.

I honestly thought that losing my hair would be the easy part. The mastectomy had been the frightening bit, because – before it happened – I thought it meant losing everything that made me a woman. The hair wasn’t a problem. I was up for it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I was almost looking forward to choosing a cute little Audrey Hepburn pixie crop ahead of The Big Shave, and not having to dry the ridiculously thick, unruly mane I’ve learned to cope with over the years. After spending a large fraction of my waking life with my head upside down over a diffuser, a quick polish and go was beginning to sound appealing.

But that isn’t how it is. On a daily basis, since my op, I look in the mirror at the scar where my left breast used to be, and I feel OK. Early on, I realised that the boob had never, actually, made me who I am. And anyway, it’ll be back, nipple and all. In the meantime, I pop in a Knitted Knocker and off I go. I’m more bothered by the half a fucking stone that I’ve put on in the last few weeks. Seriously – losing the weight of my (admittedly fairly small) left boob seems to have made absolutely no difference at all, which is one of the greatest disappointments of my treatment so far, but that can be dealt with later.

Our boys have seen what’s left of me. I was determined, from the start of all this, to carry on as normal. We’ve always been an open family, and as they were growing up (OK, partly because my husband and I were far too tight to pay for interconnecting hotel rooms on holiday,) they’ve seen us in all naked shapes and sizes. They’ve seen us both at our chunkiest, at our fittest, and even felt the severe muscle wastage towards the end of my husband’s life, as we all smothered sun block onto ourselves in Lanzarote three weeks before he died. Fucking Lanzarote. It wasn’t just the sun we were blocking out. When we got home, they knew deep down, because they had seen it for themselves, that their Daddy had to die. I think we probably all did. They had to learn, at too young an age, that a fabulous body was nowhere near as important as a phenomenal mind, heart and soul, and their Daddy had those three things in abundance. To be fair, a great bod had never been quite his forte.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve made sure that the boys have seen my mastectomy scar as part of me. I feel fortunate that they’re still pre-pubescent, because I don’t suppose that their seeing me in various degrees of undress is something any of us would want in a few months’ time. At first, I suppose I eased them in gently, and it was just something they might have spotted if they were hanging around upstairs as I got dressed. No big deal. But yes – there were comments, as only 11 year old boys can provide. Now, they see it all the time, and nobody notices it any more, as I casually hop into the shower, or as I run down the landing half naked to bellow at them to get their fucking shoes on. I didn’t want one missing tit to be a big deal for them. I wanted them to see me, to know me, and to love me, just as I am now. I wanted them to realise that – heaven forbid – if one day they were to support their wife or girlfriend (or boyfriend – I’m very modern) through something similar, that loving their partner anyway, no matter how many missing body parts they had, would be the most natural thing on earth.

Still, when I returned from my oncology appointment the other week, and told the boys that yes, chemo would be of “indisputable benefit,” one vomited and went to bed for 24 hours. The other got into a fight with a friend. They were angry, worried, and upset – not about the pending sickness and tiredness, but about the fact that I was going to let the doctors do something to me which would make my hair fall out. I promised them that it would grow back, that I’d wear a hat in the meantime, and that they could even see the wig I’d chosen. They didn’t want to know, and I didn’t understand why the hair loss – of all things – bothered them so much, when the thought of it hadn’t been bothering me much at all. But, for the boys, cancer means chemo. Chemo means bald. Bald means dying.

Now, as the remains of Brian May’s merkin lie on the floor, and I look in the mirror, I can see it. I understand. I know what panics my children, and the fact is that no wig, no hat, and no prosthetic boob will hide it. Their mum has cancer. Their dad died, a few months ago, looking much like I will in the next few days. They’re not old enough, or strong enough, or confident enough, yet, to allow themselves to believe there will be a different outcome for me. They don’t care if I have a left breast or not, but until my hair grows back, they will know I have cancer. It’ll be written all over my face. They will remember, and that will hurt us all for far longer than it will take for my body to be slowly pieced back together.

Love Fanny x