Fanny for Grabs.

A few weeks ago, I did a deal with my son. My angry, grieving, difficult son. It wasn’t a deal I wanted to do, and – in many ways – it felt like a pact with the devil. I told him that if he would engage with a course of counselling, then I’d do what he’d been asking for, and start to look for a new partner. 

I knew that it would take several weeks to sort out my son’s head, and, through counselling, he’d probably realise that his problems were not going to be easily solved by my acquiring a substitute for his dad. I wasn’t ready for a relationship, and was otherwise muddling along as a double – not single – parent, but at my wits’ end.

Both boys have been desperate to see me happy again – and that, they believe, means for me to be married off as quickly as possible. Even when my husband was still alive – on the day we sat the boys down at nine years old, and told them their Daddy was dying – one of them disappeared with the laptop to look for a dating website so they could find me a new husband as a matter of some urgency. It took a little while to explain the concept of marriage vows, sickness, health, and death us doing part etc., but we got there in the end.

Since my husband died, though, the boys have made several less-than-subtle suggestions. On holiday last year, barely four months after I’d been widowed, they danced around me singing Love Is In the Air while I was having a perfectly genial conversation about table tennis with a 19-year-old member of the Croatian animation team. They’ve come home from school full of optimism every time one of their friends happens to have a set of parents in the throes of divorce. On the holiday we’ve just returned from, I sat in the bar most nights being elbowed in the ribs by an enthusiastic twelve-year-old who had spotted the multi-millionaire Saudi Arabian fortysomething with a penchant for $160 shots of cognac. Although he seemed like a nice guy, and we found commonality in being widowed parents of teenage boys, I couldn’t quite shake off the thought that anyone who could spend $160 on a single shot of cognac was probably more than a bit of a twat. All I wanted was a cuddle and a conversation with my ageing scruffy intellectual, who was usually floored by half a lager – the cheapest one available.

I’ve apparently had sniffs of interest via friends – which has been flattering, but unreciprocated. I’ve just not been ready to even contemplate a relationship with someone other than my husband. Since we interred his ashes in the churchyard a week after my treatment ended, though, I’ve felt an element of closure and optimism that I haven’t felt for a long time. I miss him, terribly. I always will. But he is dead – and burying a box in the ground with his name on it hasn’t brought him back to life, much as we all wish it could have done. Now, with every new hair that appears on my head, I feel a strand of hope; of a future which is new, exciting, and seems to be within my grasp. It’s been such a long time.

A few weeks ago, having returned from another very lonely holiday in which the children mainly made friends and buggered off, just as I’d expected and wanted them to do, I asked my husband’s dearest friends for advice and reassurance about the next tentative step I thought I might want to take. Without exception, they gave me a monumental thumbs up, and later that night, I got myself royally pissed and set up an internet dating profile.

I met my husband at work over 16 years ago, at a time when entire families were sharing a single dial-up internet connection, so online dating is completely new territory for me. As a widowed parent working from home, though, it seemed like the best place to start.

I knew that my husband had wanted me to move on after – and I quote – a “suitable period of mourning,” but my mourning period has been long and difficult, and isn’t over yet. It never will be, completely. Nonetheless, I was nervous as I filled in all the criteria (including an upper age limit of 48 – the age my husband was when I met him,) and selected that any potential suitor must be educated, and that he must have a proper job. There was no option to request that he have no pre-existing medical conditions, or a family history of cancer.

Out of about 25 possibilities, only one face leapt out at me, but I duly went through each profile one by one. As more and more so-called “compatible” matches appeared, and as I read through each one (deleting them with gay abandon) it became clear to me that I had a few more criteria of my own, which couldn’t have been picked up by the website’s algorithms.

– He must have a nice traditional name, but not the one belonging to our dog.

– He must be able to spell and punctuate.  

– He must not be a Tory.

– He must not be topless on his profile picture, although bonus points for removing his anorak.

– He must not be wearing a football shirt.

– He must not still be proud to display one of those Celtic arm tattoos.

– He must use a picture of his face, not his car.

– He must not use “LOL” at any point, especially not as an appendage to an otherwise rather dull statement.

– He must write something to make me smile.

– He must be someone that my husband would have liked. A lot.

Likewise, I tried to answer all the questions as honestly as I could.

– I explained that I liked all types of music, but that I wasn’t allowed to like anything too modern on account of it being embarrassing for the children. I also warned that I’m rather keen on musicals – particularly reenacting certain death scenes at full volume during long car journeys – and that I tend to forget that I am not in fact a member of Little Mix.

– I listed my hobbies, which include refereeing arguments between twin boys, swearing, and being the world’s most unremarkable cook.

– I said I was widowed with pre-teen twins, and looking for someone who, like me, was not in a rush, but who would enjoy intelligent debate, wine, sarcasm, and companionship. I also asked that he should be a dab hand at DIY, an enthusiastic grammar pedant, and enjoy getting up early to let the dog out.

I decided not to mention the missing boob and ghastly post-chemo crop at this point. I expected the search to take several months. I also knew that anyone who could jump unscathed through all the hoops would be a chap worth getting to know better, and if he still managed not to care about how many mammaries I currently possess, then that would say everything I needed to know about him.

I whittled my own shortlist to a grand total of one. A tall, handsome, marathon-running scientist, with an attractive smile and a self-effacing biography, who also happened to live the closest to me – just up the road in the next valley. The one whose picture had stood out in the first place. He was probably way out of my league in intellect and looks, but I’ve learned that life’s too short to not even try. We exchanged messages, and I was relieved to find that he used the correct version of “you’re” in a sentence. He had found my profile to be quirky and interesting, although I’d made the first move – it turns out, if left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have given me a second look as he normally goes for leggy blondes. As did my husband. My husband had not been a health freak – in fact, he got out of breath running a bath – and that was often a stumbling block in our relationship. A whole new outlook on health from a partner would not be unwelcome, but in the long term, I want a man who can stimulate my mind as much as he can stimulate my somewhat imperfect body. A man as imperfect as me. A man as imperfect as – though different from – my husband.

I will report back. Even if nothing long-term comes of this, I’ve had the joy of communicating with another adult, on the same wavelength, whose epic banter (in exquisitely-punctuated messages) has made my heart leap and a smile reach across the full width of my face. Who knows what will happen? We’ve been on a few dates already, and the connection is strong. We miss each other when we’re not together. He knows the score. All of it. He’s had his nose in my Fanny for the last few days (which is absolutely not a euphemism) and still hasn’t been put off by the grief, the booblessness, or the frequently awful children. If all else fails, he knows he could end up as material for the next blog post, so he’s trying his best to not be too much of a twat. And so am I.

I wasn’t expecting to click with anyone so soon. In fact, I realise now that I wasn’t really expecting any kind of life at all. I’ve simply been existing, day to day, for three and a half years. Three months ago, I was quietly planning my own funeral (I was going to have Brimful of Asha as my coffin came in, by the way. I thought it would be funny,) but now I’m planning a future, and it feels wonderful. The boys haven’t met him yet (nor has he endured Trial by Friends,) but they’re delighted that we’re going out on dates and keep asking me why I’m smiling for no reason. And, they’re both still receiving and engaging with counselling. These are still very early days, but they’re good days, and – far from feeling like cheating – being with this man already feels like the most natural thing on earth.

In actual fact, it feels as if somebody, somewhere, has played a very special part in this. He knows that the time is right for the boys and me to smile again after so many years of pain. Maybe, a loving hand from heaven has given things a nudge in the right direction. Time will tell, and I have plenty of that.

Love Fanny x

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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.

End of Part Two.

Today marks 1172 days since cancer came into our family. 1168 days since my husband and I walked through the doors of this hospital, hand in hand, for the very first time.

Those doors were the last thing my husband saw of the outside world, before being wheeled into an ambulance and brought home to die. He said, at that point, that a bag for life would probably be an unwise investment.

Today, 463 days since my husband died, and 343 days since my own diagnosis, I walk out of the same doors once again, on my own, to the outside world, for what we all hope will be the very last time. To freedom. To our children. To countless more days.

Here, they’ve given me the most precious gift – my life, wrapped up in a metaphorical box with a bow, when my husband couldn’t even begin to pick off the sellotape. Here, my treatment has finished, and I am cancer free. The words don’t even seem real, after so many days of nothing but cancer. It’s going to take a while to adjust.

To say thank you, I brought a big box of chocolates for my radiographers, and asked them to share it around my husband’s oncology team as well, in the room next door.

Next week, it’s our fifteenth wedding anniversary. My husband’s life in a box – the ashes which are all that remain of his hands, his smile, and his wonderful mind – will be interred in the church yard where we stood and kissed for our wedding photographs, and where his dearest friends carried his coffin as we said our goodbyes. In sickness and in health, I was with him, and he with me. Maybe it’s time now to let him rest.

Until my husband and I meet again, I’m going to do one thing – for him, for our children, and for me.

I’m going to invest in a bag for life.

Love Fanny x

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

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.)

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