Fruits of the Vine.

I meant to publish this just after Christmas, which passed without incident. I’d forgotten how to enjoy festive family time, because for the last four years its presence only enhanced the pain we were in as a family. Whether we were waiting for test results, or scans, or news of a trial which might just give my husband a bit more time, or for a mastectomy which would only afterwards determine whether my life could be saved or simply prolonged a bit, every Christmas week (when the rest of the country ground to a halt and celebrated) left us dangling in painful suspended animation. Every year, we wondered if it would be the last we’d see with our children.

But this year, it was wonderful. Quiet, calm, content… and rather than being angry for the loss of my husband (though of course the grief hit us all at times) I chose to feel grateful for the three extra stockings around the fireplace brought by the lovely New Chap and his welcome little brood. Yes, I was still waiting to be given a reconstruction date by the hospital (henceforth known as the Build-a-Boob Workshop), but even that had stopped bothering me too much. I was happy to just be alive and well.

I didn’t expect this Christmas to be so good. We did nothing. Saw very few people. We simply snuggled up for a few days, and enjoyed being together as a mixed up family with multiple teens and toddlers. I loved having New Chap and his children in the house which for so long had been the place of pain and misery, because it was brought to life again – just as a family home should be. It’s just that my definition of family has evolved since the day my husband and I bought it with our one-year-old twins in tow, full of optimism for the future (and a strong desire to get rid of the hideous dark wood and ghastly peach bathroom tiles).

Timehop kept showing me pictures from Christmases gone by. Of small boys unwrapping gifts by the fireside, with their contented Daddy still half asleep in his dressing gown, and a probably much more frazzled Mummy behind the camera; of exciting trips to Florida, South Africa and Thailand with slightly bigger boys, because the rest of the family couldn’t agree on who we should spend Christmas with, so we just took ourselves out of the equation for a few years (a tactic I can highly recommend); of more cuddles by the fireside with eight, nine, ten year old boys, desperately trying to smile. Not knowing what gift to buy for a man who was dying. A man who was wearing his dressing gown because he was too weak to get dressed.

Photos of chemo, feeding tubes and scan appointments kept cropping up. These weren’t pictures we’d ever put on social media, but photos we’d taken for fun because there are so many different ways you can model a cardboard sick bowl, and my husband was determined to try them all. There were even photos of the remains of my left boob, from a couple of years ago. I was determined to remember that, too, so I took a sneaky selfie before surgery (you’ll be pleased to hear that that didn’t go on Facebook either). As I idly scrolled through the pictures, with the New Chap reading on the sofa beside me, I realised that I remembered it all as if it was yesterday. I remembered my husband’s stoicism. His bravery. His resolve. His tumour humour. When times are tough, especially with the boys, I often refer back to him in my mind, and imagine what he’d do or say in a situation. The memory of him never fades.

I remember him vividly. I hope I always will. But I don’t remember me.

In our marriage, as with all good relationships, my husband and I grew and developed together like intertwining vines. I like to think we were both on a continuous programme of improvement, actually. I still am. The 23 year old woman who stood in church and placed a ring on her fiancé’s finger was a completely different woman from the wife who received that ring back in an envelope with his name on it (after the wholly unnecessary words “The Late”, I thought), at the age of 37. Because we’d grown together, though, I was always the right woman for him. I was always the best wife I could be. The best mum. The best friend. Not always perfect – and in fact, frequently apologised for and learned from mistakes I’d made. But the eighteen months between losing my husband and meeting someone else were shaken by the chaos of yet more cancer, and the one-titted widow with the terrible post-chemo crop, who reluctantly signed up to eHarmony to shut up her kids (who thought having a fella might stop her from crying all the time), was not the woman my husband fell in love with. I don’t remember that woman at all.

Interestingly, if online dating had been as much of a thing seventeen years ago, when my husband and I got together, we’d never have been considered compatible.

There were 25 years between us. I was a university student, and he was self-employed. He’d been successful in the past, but had hit a tough period during single parenthood, with no steady income, and had run up thousands of pounds’ worth of debt. He had grown up children, a grandchild, and two ex-wives. I was young and had always wanted children, but he’d had an irreversible vasectomy. He had left school without A Levels, and never quite finished the degree he began in his forties, but was undoubtedly the most intelligent man I’d ever met.

We’d met on a fire escape on a smoking break when we were both doing a little bit of freelancing for a local company. Friendship turned to admiration, which turned to attraction, which turned to love. It didn’t happen overnight, and no website in the world would have matched us up.

It was a rollercoaster. It took work, effort, and compromise on both sides. It wasn’t always easy, but we made it happen. We made it our marriage. We stayed married, and faithful, and loving, until the day he died. Shortly before he passed, he told me that being married to me had been the greatest privilege of his life (and that was quite a compliment from a man who’d been married so many times before). I felt the same.

For eighteen months afterwards, I felt that bond of marriage holding us together as strongly as ever. I still wear my wedding and engagement rings (but on the opposite hand now). And I wear his, too. I still do everything I can to keep his name in the conversation. I still do everything I can to bring up his beloved boys surrounded by love, good humour, and compassion, just as he would have done if he was still here.

Conversely, my relationship with the New Chap (with whom I matched 100% in every area on the tedious online quiz they make you take before you can start perving over potential partners) has been effortless from the start… but I don’t think that’s because we’re necessarily a better match (or because we’re both left-leaning atheists who don’t want any more kids). We don’t live together yet, for a start. I know enough about him – and he about me – to know that we probably wouldn’t have hit it off ten years ago, when he was last on the market (only one divorce down) and I was knee-deep in toddlers. I think we’re better people for the experiences we’ve had, and are determined to make our relationship last, because our last ones didn’t. His biggest fear is that I’ll leave him, whereas my biggest fear is that he’ll die. And we’re both committed to making sure that neither of those things happen… although, of course, married or not, I will love him in sickness and in health, until death us do part (but it had better bloody not do just yet).

When my husband used to snore in the night, I had every normal wife’s natural reaction. I wanted to pummel him in the back of the head with the bedside lamp. But, having spent eighteen months in an empty bed, pining for my husband to come back to me and snore – or fart – just once… I love to hear the sound of my new fella snoring because it means he’s alive. If he farts and rolls over, it means he’s well fed. He’s beside me. He loves me. He’s there. I wasn’t a bad wife, but losing my husband has made me a far better partner than I’ve ever been before. Having him beside me – alive and well – makes me so grateful, because the loss I’ve experienced before is so great. I know how much worse it can be.

Meanwhile, New Chap had only previously been attracted to women with blonde hair and big tits. He’s moved on from that one quite admirably. (He’s had to, really.)

I choose now to live in the moment. To enjoy the life I have, and the people in it, although a lot of the people who used to be in it have quietly disappeared. I look back at photos of my husband with love, fondness, and unwavering respect. But within those pictures of the last few Christmases I also feel so much pain that the only way for me to look now is forward. I look forward to a new year, to “our” new boobs (which will be reinstated next week, all being well. On Tuesday. Obviously, this is now being referred to as Boobie Tuesday), and a life of growing together, with new shoots appearing from our vine all the time, and hopefully at least one melon. (We won’t be having a baby, though. I no longer have the necessary equipment to feed one properly, for a start.)

We will grow together, and love each other, being anchored by the roots of past mistakes and the branches of experience. They helped us to grow to where we are now.

Love Fanny x

The Vietnamese Fruit Loofah. I’m hoping that at least one of my melons will be slightly perkier.

Mission Accomplished.

Ten months later. Unencumbered by a full set of tits (and saving 50% on nipple-chafing plasters), today I ran a marathon, and raised almost £6000 in memory of my husband, who wasn’t so lucky.

Cancer doesn’t always mark the end of your life. In my case, it marked a new beginning. My new fella helped me to train, and my husband inspired me to keep going.

Thank you all so much for your support over the last few years. My husband will never be forgotten, and is always missed, but would never have run a marathon in a million years. Even so, this one’s for him. xxx

Marathon

A Future for Fanny.

Following a few nail-biting weeks, I’ve just heard the two wonderful words which my husband never got to hear.

All clear.

Thank you to everyone who helped to drag me along the darkest path I’ve ever had to walk alone – in particular to The Fanny Pack, and to so many others, whose kindnesses will never be forgotten.

Thank you to friends, and strangers, who have joined me here on the blog, and supported the boys and me practically, at home or in hospital.

There is a new life at the end of the tunnel, and my wonderful, brave, much-missed husband is holding the light which guides us there. He always will.

Life, Part Three, starts here. (Well, when I’ve handed back my radiotherapy gown and finished setting fire to my wig.)

Love Fanny x

Chemo accoutrements, no longer required.

One Fried Tit and a Healing Scab.

For two years, my husband and I went back and forth to the cancer hospital, through roadworks, down motorways, along side roads, and always into the same bloody car park. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then we waited. And waited. Their admin was dire. Their queuing system was dire. Their coffee was dire. But, the staff were lovely, and the relationship we had with my husband’s oncologist was great. Well, we knew each other very well in the end.

When we reached the end of the line – when it became clear that no more treatment could be found to save my husband – his oncologist told him that he needed to be admitted for a day or two; have a scan, and maybe a lung drain, and that we’d reconvene in a couple of days. Although the doctor’s message was clear to me, my abiding memory is of my husband being wheeled down the corridor to the ward, after the seventh failed attempt at cannulation. He turned around to grab my hand and said, “let’s not give up hope yet.” He couldn’t be dying. We’d just come home from holiday. A week before that we’d been riding rollercoasters in Blackpool. He wasn’t ready to die, and I wasn’t ready to let him.

But, there was no hope. I knew it. The oncologist knew it. All the nurses knew it. Over the course of the preceding weeks – when my husband was on a clinical trial which we thought might be the answer to our prayers – the oncologist hadn’t always been very direct, and we still clung on to the hope that a miracle was around the corner. 
A couple of days later, when we left the building for the very last time, we’d both commented that, at the very least, it was a relief that we’d never have to go back to that fucking place ever again.

How wrong we were. I now have daily visits to that same hospital, but without my husband to hold my hand. Parking in the same car park. Passing the café where we used to sit and drink awful coffee and wait for blood results. Walking past the same ward where I took one of the last photos of my husband, working on his laptop, tying up some loose ends. (We pissed ourselves at that, and he posed for the photo gladly. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he said.) I pass the BEREAVEMENT SUITE. It’s a hospital – of course there’s a bereavement suite – but just in case you’ve forgotten that this is a cancer hospital, it’s written there, just by the entrance, in massive jolly writing, so you never quite forget that there’s a chance of BEREAVEMENT the moment you step through the fucking door. (We never actually went into the BEREAVEMENT SUITE because my husband died at home. Our sitting room is our BEREAVEMENT SUITE instead. I never go in there now, either.)

I’d managed to avoid the cancer hospital up until now, apart from a brief visit to check that my heart was in good enough shape to start chemotherapy. How ironic, I thought, that they needed to check the condition of my heart in the very place where they broke it. I’d been fortunate, in a way, that my surgery was done in our local hospital where they also have an excellent chemo unit, and they moved heaven and earth to make sure I didn’t have to go back to the place so full of difficult memories. Until radiotherapy.

I was expecting to be able to have that treatment at one of the local satellite centres too, but my oncologist wasn’t happy. She said my tumour had been too large, in too awkward a place, and she wanted to fry not only my left tit, but also my neck and my chest wall, to give me the greatest chance of survival. She wanted me to be in the best place for the treatment I needed. The best place? That best place also happened to be the place where they couldn’t cure my husband.

So, there I go. Every day for three weeks. I walk down the corridors, in a building which was so very much ours. It’s not somewhere I ever wanted to be ours, but bringing a friend with me now would make me miss my husband even more, so I go alone.

On the first day, I walked through the same door, into the same waiting room, with the same writing on the board, stating that my husband’s oncologist’s clinic was running 60 minutes late.

I froze.

There’s a fucking surprise, I thought. There are probably people in here who were behind my husband in the queue 15 months ago and are only just being seen. Three out of four of them will be dead by this time next year, I realised. I looked around and wondered which ones.

The same staff, the same waiting time, the same room, the same chairs, but no husband. No husband at all, because they couldn’t save him, here in the best place.

My husband’s oncologist never actually came to say goodbye. He never shook him by the hand, or said that it had been a pleasure to treat him. One of his colleagues discharged him in the end, because it was late on a Friday night and everyone else had gone home. We never saw the oncologist again, until the other day when I bumped into him as I was walking into Radiotherapy, and he was wandering over to speak to a patient.

He was thrilled to see me. He summoned over the whole team who were all smiles and welcomes and full of words about how sorry they were to have seen on the news that my husband had passed away – he was such a lovely man, they said. So humble. We’d had no idea how incredible a career he’d had, they said. Nor did we, I thought.

Then, of course, at the sudden realisation that I was quite clearly now a patient, the joy turned to concern. They wanted to know if I’d be OK. The oncologist asked after the boys. One of the nurses ran off to find catering quantities of tissues, and shoved sheet after sheet into my hands as the tears came – just as they always did, for my husband and me, every time we mentioned our darling boys as we sat together, holding hands, in the room just steps away from where I stood again, on my own.

They hadn’t forgotten us. It made me feel validated again. I was a human being – not a patient – and, more to the point, so was my husband. Of course they’d wanted to save him. They wanted to save everyone – and for the people like us with young kids, they throw as much as they can at us, even when they know there’s barely a scrap of hope. A scrap is sometimes enough. I think I understand that now.

I looked around, and realised that there would have been a string of patients who’d died under the oncologist’s care since my husband was discharged. The corridor still buzzed with people walking up and down; some in hats, some with lanyards, some in uniforms. A woman pushed her husband, too frail to walk, in a wheelchair. I looked at her sympathetically – I’d been there, even though my husband never opted for a wheelchair if he had the strength to walk. I realised she was looking back at me with sympathy too; I’d forgotten that I was now quite obviously a cancer patient, not a carer. Her husband had probably been normal and healthy, when mine was the patient in that wheelchair, just over a year ago. She smiled a smile of cancer solidarity, which implied that she knew how I felt. You haven’t a fucking clue, I thought. You poor, poor woman. Just you wait.

I realised then, that I’d been carrying so much anger within me for the team who couldn’t make my husband better, even though it wasn’t their fault. They can’t possibly shake every patient by the hand when they send them away to die, or point their relatives towards the BEREAVEMENT SUITE, because they’d be doing it every day. It would be soul-destroying. But, they did remember us. My husband was someone to them; they liked him, and they did their best. Sadly, it wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t because they hadn’t tried. They tried everything. In fact, they probably tried too much – and my husband had wanted them to. Anything for another few precious days with his family.

Maybe, I didn’t just need this wound to scab over. The act of coming back here – of ripping it off, letting the blood flow out, and starting again, is perhaps just what I needed to do to let the healing process start afresh. It’s been a bloody long and complicated way of healing, though.

Just because my husband’s time at the cancer hospital ended, doesn’t mean that time stopped here for everyone else. The place still functions and runs without him, even if the home I return to doesn’t function anywhere near as well.

Wives still push dying husbands up corridors. Bald little children with tubes in their noses still walk into the garden to sit and read for a bit, and try to be children. Women with hats and drawn-on eyebrows still complain about the shit coffee, but buy it anyway.
 

And the lucky ones get to walk past the door of that fucking BEREAVEMENT SUITE on the way out, and keep on walking.

Love Fanny x

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A Picture of Denial.

I spoke to a friend the other day. A friend who was deeply upset, because one of his friends had left it too late to check himself out… and now has a cancer which can’t be cured. We don’t yet know how long he has. It’s heartbreaking, and more so because it could have been avoided.

In the meantime, I’ve been receiving – for two bloody years – requests to put a heart on my wall, or an eight ball as my status, or to accept the challenge of posting a black and white picture, or a no make-up selfie, to raise awareness for cancer. Well, challenge accepted. Here’s my black and white, no make-up selfie, no hair selfie, no boob selfie, and no husband selfie. Our most recent portrait together, a few weeks ahead of our fifteenth wedding anniversary. ❤️

You don’t raise awareness of cancer by putting little gimmicks on Facebook. You raise awareness of cancer by sharing links to websites which outline the signs of cancer, like this one. You raise awareness by talking about cancer, and not being frightened to tell your doctor, or your friend, or you partner, that you’ve got a lump in your boob or bollock, or that you’re pooing blood, or that you’re struggling to swallow. The earlier you catch a cancer, the easier it is to treat. It’s not going to stop growing just because you don’t want it to be there, but it might not kill you if you do something about it early enough. And guess what? The process of my husband’s death was far more undignified than any check-up or operation, and had we caught his cancer earlier, he would still be here now – healthy, happy, and bringing up his children.

I’ve had more people pummelling my boobs over the last few months than I’d ever thought would be appropriate only weeks after being widowed, but it’s been worth it, because our little boys won’t have to watch another parent die. My left breast is now dangling in formaldehyde in a lab somewhere, probably. My hair is in landfill. And my husband is ashes, in a box. We miss him every second of every day.

I hate the way I look at the moment, but I hate the way my husband looks more. He’s going to look like that for far longer than I’ll look like this. Anyway, he was always keen to make a point at any cost, so maybe, together, at our least glamorous, we could save a life.

What are you most frightened of? Looking like me? Or looking like him?

See your doctor if you’re worried. This is what denial looks like.

Love Fanny x

Fanny’s Family Portrait 2017

Chemotherapy: The Highlights.

As I come to the end of my final cycle of chemo for breast cancer, and as the side-effects gradually start to wear off, I’d like to reflect on my personal highlights. If you’ve been there, feel free to add your own in the comments… 

1. It’s a bit like being pregnant. You’ll spend at least three months of your life feeling nauseous, with a hospital bag packed and ready, and you’ll have to treat soft cheese and shellfish with the same contempt as nuclear waste. And your tits will never be the same again.

2. Baldness can be liberating. At first. As even more hair falls out, the time you save not having to do your hair will be spent attempting to draw on ever more complicated eyebrows. You’ll save a fortune in waxing, though, so – every cloud.

3. But… as a cancer patient, you’ll qualify for a Look Good Feel Better course. A makeup lesson, complete with free bag of makeup in someone else’s colours, in which an unfeasibly elderly Michelle teaches a roomful of baldies how to contour their faces back out of The Chemo Swell and more towards normality. An extra tutorial on blending into the non-existent hairline might have been handy.

4. You probably won’t lose weight. In fact, the combination of anti-nausea drugs and steriods may make you pile it on, and apparently the one lost boob and a whole head of hair weighed nothing. Fucking NOTHING. I added a stone in 18 weeks. The pre-treatment weigh-in is a reverse Slimming World in which the nurses congratulate you for gaining a few pounds, and you have to smile and try to hide the fact that if you’d known about The Chemo Stone you’d never have agreed to having the bastard stuff in the first place. ( Obviously that’s a lie. You graciously and gratefully take whatever drugs might make you better. But you still feel shit about piling on the weight.)

5. It’s not all dreadful. Towards the end of each cycle, you may feel quite well. While there are many, many days ranging from feeling very ill to mildly off-colour, for much of the time, you can live your life. I worked daily (from home, admittedly,) still took the boys to their sports games even if I couldn’t always watch, and walked the dog on non-shit days. In fact, the more you do, the less time you have to think about how awful it is, and there’s no need to think like an ill person. Being widowed on chemo has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but actually, in hindsight, I’m proud of myself for not crumbling. I couldn’t afford to. I’m also truly grateful to friends and family for stepping in on the occasions when I’ve been stuck.

6. Talking of which, you’ll definitely find out who your friends are. And who your friends aren’t. ‘Nuff said.

7. Wigs. Itchy little fuckers. I didn’t usually bother. You’ll only need to find out once though, the hard way, that it’s a good idea to keep an Emergency Hat by the front door for that unexpected visit from the postman.

8. Chemo Brain. It’s an actual thing. I had a point to make about this. Forgotten what it was.

9. Needles. You’ll get used to being cannulated all over, but the daily self-injections are prickly little bastards that boost your blood cells, and you have to do those all by yourself. Take a deep breath, lift your dress, shove it in, and breathe out again. Similar to, but much less fun than, mediocre sex.

10. Loss of taste. Tabasco on EVERYTHING. You’ll know you’re officially ill when you go off alcohol.

11. The menopause. Or not. My ovaries decided to have a ten week long bloody protest in desperation, but have given up for good in favour of hot flushes. Keep a leaflet with you at all times as a makeshift fan (in my case, I use the order of service from my husband’s funeral which has never left my handbag. I like to think he’s doing his bit to help.)

12. Constipation. Or diarrhoea. Or both. Either way, when you finally produce a firm, slippery, satisfying turd you’ll never have been more pleased with yourself.

13. Every fucker’s an oncologist. Smile politely as perfect strangers trot out all the miracle cures they’ve read about on the internet. Or share their own cancer stories. My personal favourite amateur surgeon is a chap I meet on my dog walks. He’d noticed I’d lost my hair and, because we’re northern, he wasn’t too polite to comment. He told me he’d had radiotherapy ten years ago. “Doesn’t work, you know,” he ventured. Well, mate, I’d like to wager that if you’d had it ten years ago, then it probably actually did.

14. Sympathy central. Cancer is the Rolls-Royce of illness, bringing with it everyone’s sympathy (and free parking at the hospital,) but there are definite degrees of shit, and most people who catch theirs early will almost certainly survive. People with other, more permanent life-limiting conditions – Crohn’s, MS, MND, mental health problems, etc. – don’t tend to get the same cocked-head reaction, yet their condition is ongoing, with no cure so far. If you’re lucky enough to have a treatable cancer, please remember those less fortunate when your hair has grown back and you’ve got your all-clear.

15. Sick bowls, not swords. Walking around with a sick bowl under your chin for a few weeks doesn’t make you a warrior. There are no “survivors” and it isn’t a “battle.” I found a stage three tumour in my breast in enough time to be cured. My husband had a stage three tumour in his oesophagus and died. Did he not tell the doctor in time, or fight hard enough? No. We both turned up to all our appointments and took all available treatment. I was lucky. He wasn’t. For his sake, and our children’s, don’t tell me I’ve been amazing. He was, too.

16. Living is lucky. If you’re fortunate enough to be rid of the bloody thing for good, please don’t let the shadow hang over you forever. Worrying about it won’t change anything. We all diagnose ourselves with an incurable brain tumour the moment we get a headache, but people who’ve had cancer before are more likely to be taken seriously by a doctor if symptoms persist. So, keep an eye on yourself, alert the doctor to any changes, and in the meantime, bugger off and live your life to the full, in honour of those who didn’t make it. They really do want you to.

Love Fanny x

*Bear in mind that all cancers are different and all chemo regimes have different side effects. Many don’t cause hair loss, for example. My treatment regime was Cyclophosphamide and Epirubicin for 9 weeks, and then 9 weeks of Docetaxel/Taxotere. Oh, and a massive overdose of tumour humour.

Picture by Askell on DeviantArt

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.)