As was always the case, she got ‘the good one’. A pretty boy. Not really my type per se. But undoubtedly put together in the right way.
Anyway, his mate – ‘my one’ – was a decent enough guy. Polite. Played the trumpet. Had a trustworthy name (who’s ever met a nasty Albert?). Overall he was pretty average. Except for one thing. His hair. It was indisputably, horrifically awful. Thick. Wiry. Mad.
Let’s just say it was hair that didn’t belong on his head. Anyone’s head.
So we were all sitting together. Having a few drinks. And my friend kept saying nice things to ‘her one’. You know. The usual drunk stuff. Lovely eyes. Cute smile. Nice Walkman (I did say it was years ago). And I suddenly felt really bad for ‘my one’.
I wasn’t interested in him one bit. I think he’d worked that out.
But it didn’t stop me feeling sorry that his good-looking mate was trouncing him in a compliment-off.
So. Without thinking it through properly I cleared my throat for attention, turned to him and said “and you Albert, you’ve got really lovely…” Pause. I looked at his hopeful face. Lost for words. I could see only one thing. Then… “hair”.
My friend burst out laughing. As did I. As did his aesthetically-unchallenged friend. Yeah I know. What a bastard.
Fast-forward quite a few years and my first meeting with my mum’s oncologist. It was the initial diagnosis.
He smiled so much his eyes crinkled up. Greeting us like new neighbours. With forced jocularity and much shaking of hands. Warm. Cheery. In an “I’ll look after your spare key if you look after mine” kind of a way.
Very smart. Almost good looking. Hair neat and gelled back in place. Despite it not being the 80s, it was a good look. Pristine suit. Jaunty pink shirt. Tie clip even.
He kept the smiley crinkly eye thing to deliver the news. Lung cancer. Stage 4. It was terminal.
Mum and I both noticed his bitten fingernails. “Problems with his girlfriend” she said when we came out. “He’s bitten his nails down with worry”.
You’d have thought she had other things on her mind. But no. She always loved a puzzle to solve.
Then he did his sales pitch. Well. Technically it’s called a prognosis. It just felt like a pitch.
He said that Mum was the epitome of good health.
Stupidly, I felt relieved. Good health. He’d said that
Hang on a sec…
Inside my skull there were desperate computations going on. Additions. Multiplications. Every calculation delivered the same result. Data error.
I felt like that Beautiful Mind bloke – John Nash. Rolled up shirtsleeves. Sweat flying from the chalk as it urgently scratched away at the blackboard.
Epitome of good health. It just didn’t make sense.
She sat next to me. The epitome of good health. My mum. Just as she was before. The same lovely mum who was always humming along to nothing. Dancing to Take That in the kitchen. Making my brother and I crack up on Sundays for saying she’d made us a joint. Her spot-on comedy rendition of Ethel Merman’s ‘There’s No Business Like Show-Business’ and her high-kicking can-can girl competitiveness: “I’m double your age and can still kick higher than you!” (It was true. I blame my tight hamstrings).
The same lovely mum who’d never smoked cigarettes in her life. Fit as a fiddle. Now being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
The sum didn’t add up right. The calculator must have got it wrong.
But the calculator hadn’t got it wrong. The calculator sat across from us with his badly bitten nails telling us again just how bad it was.
The average life expectancy for someone with cancer as advanced as this was 12 months.
12 months. One year. 365 days.
However, he said. Suddenly quite cheery. There was a new wonder chemo drug in town. Which could extend that by 6 months.
How we whooped with joy.
No. Of course we didn’t.
He sat back. Pleased with himself. As if to say “so, what do you think about that? An extra 6 months?”
It was a strange moment. It was obvious we were supposed to respond. He’d clearly signalled that he expected a reaction. But what?
You know The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks out of the window and everything’s swirling away in a cyclone?
It was the opposite of that. Outside the window everything was calm. Still. But in that office we were clinging for dear life to stay attached to those seats.
He looked at us. Waiting. Then. As if to seal the deal. “It’s an extremely expensive drug you know. Until now I’ve only been able to use it privately. But it’s recently been approved for the NHS. By the government”
I had my hand on my mum’s lap. Holding hers. Gripped. Frozen. Like something ancient dug out of a pete bog thousands of years later.
All I wanted to say was fffffffffuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkk. Life has fallen apart. My wonderful mum. The most sensitive person I know. The one who always puts everyone else first. Who, despite my protestations of independence, had woken me up with breakfast in bed every day until I was a teenager (yes, really!). I couldn’t bear it. That she would have to go through this. That I couldn’t take it away with a damp flannel on her forehead like when I was little and she didn’t feel well. Or by writing a silly ‘ode to mumsy’ in a card which was as simple as can be but which she raved about every time as if I was the most talented daughter in existence. I wanted to save her. I didn’t want her to hurt. Be in pain. She’d already had enough of that over the years. I wanted to shout all that out. Right there. In that office.
But I didn’t. Instead. What I said was “well, thank goodness for the Conservatives”
That’s the power of shock. You say some fucking stupid things.
It reminds me of the time I visited Dachau concentration camp. I’d walked through the atrocities almost numb with the horror of it all. An American man behind me had a handycam out, taping everything and broadcasting it to his wife ‘“look honey, this is where they went to the bathroom”.
He really pissed me off.
At the end of this ordeal, there was a book in which to write something. To express your thoughts. Communicate how you felt. Commemorate the victims somehow. The man with the video camera had whizzed past me and got there already. He’d written 5 words. “Thank God for the Americans”
We all say stupid things when we’re at a loss for words. Whether that be distilling the essence of the holocaust into a slogan for national pride. Telling a terminal patient she’s the epitome of good health. Thanking the Conservative Party for approving a drug which could extend your mum’s life by a meagre 6 months. Or drawing attention to some poor Catalan trumpeter’s pube-head.
Let’s give ourselves a break. Sometimes words just don’t cut the mustard. And we come up short.
Later that day – after the appointment – we’d gone to the cinema (what else does one do after a terminal diagnosis?). The film was The King’s Speech. Another example of when words just don’t work.
Mum said she’d felt sorry for the oncologist. Having to deliver such terrible news to folk. Typical of mum. Always putting herself in other people’s shoes.
I felt sorry for him too. But only because of his fingernails. They can bloody hurt when they’re that short.
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