Feirg – it’s backwards

This is probably going to be my longest prose so far, but it’s been bubbling in my head for a while and I’m setting it free.

This is a half and half share of fiction and reality, blended in to one story, but split in to two perspectives.

I’m learning about character building in fiction, and the different voices created when you pad out the narrator and perspective. It made me want to apply the same principles to a story that’s been on my mind lately. I experience a lot of flashbacks and memories of those I love that are now departed. It’s a common theme for me at this time of year.

This is done as therapy and catharsis selfishly for me, but will likely resonate with anyone managing grief.

For that reason this comes with a TRIGGER WARNING as I’m going to talk about mortality, mental health, death and the backwards bastard that is grief.

**********

Why?

Part 1 – Mum

I didn’t call you the afternoon of the appointment. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t know how to say it.

My shock put me on high alert, and I hastened out of the room as fast as my feet would allow. I knew the diagnosis, and that was bad enough. I didn’t want to hear the prognosis. I wouldn’t even talk about it and I’m grateful you didn’t ask me. I wonder now, even though it’s too late, would it have helped you or I to have the length of the short time we had left revealed?

I walked to the hospital car park, my brain tumbling memories. Us sat in garden together. I think it’s summer time. You’re playing swing ball – I had to get the washing in early so the pole could be installed. You’re looking at me asking questions in mute. Requesting a drink, maybe? Or asking to stay up late. Again. You didn’t have the same freedom as your peers. I wonder if you resent me for these things? Should I have reminded you? Or was your childhood something you’d rather forget?

I’m distracted momentarily by a man helping his wife out of their car. They look 65 maybe 70. My inquisitive brain starts inventing their story and designing reasons she needs a walking aid. She’s too young to have one in my eyes. Is that where I’m heading? A car passes by too fast and I flip him the bird, forcing my anger and resentment that have amassed today behind it. Yesterday I’d have been afraid if he’d stopped. Today I don’t give a shit.

With the car at the other end of this concrete monstrosity, I mentally drift back to the old days. My best memory, at 45, when you came home after your first evening waitressing. You were 14 or 15 I think. I didn’t want you to go, but you craved independence (mostly to buy cigarettes) so I let it happen. ‘She’ll never last an hour in a job’ I remember telling myself. It was the first and only time you told me about the job animatedly. You loved it. Black skirt, blouse and apron with heels that would have made me queasy. You looked 19. I think you knew I hated it. You couldn’t have been happier. It was the last day you were my child and the first day you were your own woman. Soon after that secrets, booze, men and shopping became your life.

Do you remember the top I got you? A black velvet corset with roses. You loved it. I wonder now why I felt the need to support your nights out suddenly? I think I wanted you to like me again. I realise now your mind was just elsewhere.

I dug my brain deep in to my career. It was almost the millennium and my life was starting again. No child to care for. Just a lonely empty house in the evenings. Do you remember coming to visit me at work? My colleagues missed you when you grew up. I missed you too. But my career was the real winner. I realised suddenly that was about to change too. When will I go back to work? Who will cover? Should I write some notes?

Those thoughts carry me all the way to the car. I drive home in silence. The radio I usually enjoy is off as I try to empty my head, in retrospect I should’ve kept the radio on. It would likely have prevented the headache steaming towards me.

That day I got home and went to bed. I’d booked the afternoon off anyway. Suddenly I wished I was busy. I’d intended to sleep, instead I sat in my dressing gown on the end of the bed for hours. Endless questions pouring from my mind, frustrating me because I couldn’t find answers. Every conversation in my own head left me with one word. Why?

I knew I’d have to find the courage to say these words out loud to you but for the time being I just needed to close my eyes, with Classic FM playing lightly in the background, cradling my thoughts until I slept on an imaginary cloud. The weight of the day was temporarily forgotten. It lost its power. I slept.

Making a coffee the following morning, I realise the time is fast approaching for me to say the words out loud and make them real. My consultant of oncology told me that I’d have to start chemo straight away, so it was about to get real quickly. I drain the mug, refill it and walk to the living room holding the phone.

Sitting on the sofa, I watch my trembling fingers, frail and skinny with sharp broken nails, as they dial your number. I mentally prepare for how we are both about to feel. Where our lives are heading. Our fears, our anger and our questions will hang silently as we try and hold it together for each other.

“Mum? Can you hear me? I’m on Bluetooth. I’m driving”

“Sorry darling. I’ll call back” I felt relieved. Did I think I’d avoided the conversation? It was 9am I think. Maybe earlier. BBC breakfast was on the television on mute. Traffic outside was busy. People walked by not knowing the life inside the adjacent house was falling apart.

“It’s ok. I’ve just parked up and I’m early. What’s up? You ok?”

“Um. Oh, um. We need to talk. Can I call you later?”

“Mum. What’s up? You know I’m just going to worry. I’ve got time. Talk to me.”

It sounds strange, but I heard you waving to colleagues in the background. Mouthing ‘hello!’ to them and indicating you’d be in the office shortly. Did you think I was getting a cat? Or I wanted to talk about gas prices? I was secretly angered and it made the words pour out, no filter, like diarrhoea.

“I’ve got cancer.”

Silence

“What?”

“I know it’s a shock. I’m so sorry to tell you this way. I found out yesterday. It’s spread. I’m having treatment. It starts tomorrow.”

My hearing became razor sharp. I even heard the blood drain from your body, the breath removed from your lungs and the happiness taken from your demeanour. For a moment you silently broke and felt fear. Did you have questions? Did you want to know more but grew afraid? No sooner had your happiness departed, than your brain stepped in and took over.

“I’ll be there in an hour”

The line, infuriating me as it mirrored my future, went dead.

Part 2 – Daughter

I remember the phone conversation in sections, even though it was short anyway. The words ‘cancer’ and ‘spread’ repeat in my mind. I’ve never known anyone with cancer, although I am reminded of the colleague you told me about. Mary? Or maybe Marge? Her breast cancer came back, and last year you were at her funeral. She was 56 and you were shocked.

Is that how long we have left together? Is our time now limited? Are you already close to the front of the mortal queue? Should I ask you that question? I realise I don’t want to upset you so I practice a few questions in my head, knowing they are safe and factual rather than emotive. I’ll let you guide the way. You can tell me as much or as little as you want.

The internal narrative becomes repetitive and I notice I’m only 20 minutes in to an hour-long journey. My thoughts migrate to my childhood. You were strict and I was rebellious. But I never wanted for a thing. Just the two of us and we made it work.

Summer weekends were spent in the garden. I was short and weak. Getting my garden toys out of the shed was difficult and scary. Many eight-legged creatures lived there. Swing ball was the only game that didn’t require a stroll through spider-central. I couldn’t reach the top of the clothesline, so I stood on a patio chair and took down the washing, piece by piece. Jackie was always round. Her parents argued, so she liked to come out. She folded as I passed the washing down. Working together we pulled out the washing line and replaced it with the swing ball set. You were baffled when you realised I’d helped. Shocked that I was growing up. Shocked that I’d successfully completed a chore. Shocked I’d observed your washing folding technique to such accuracy. I knew tears had filled your eyes and you scurried away to the kitchen.

Jackie and I played swing ball for hours, broken only by the odd delivery of a choc ice or lemonade. The summers were amazing. Everyone wanted to visit me because I had EVERYTHING. My Little Pony, Sylvanian Families, Lego, a Nintendo, HiFi, CD player. I was rich. Kid rich. I’m reminded how lucky I was and wonder how you made it work financially on your own? I add it to a list of questions I need to know before… well just things I need to know.

I’m interrupted by my blinking petrol light. The tank is nearly empty. I’d only needed fuel for work usually, so I never filled it. I pulled in at the services and filled up the car. I watch as a woman struggles with a mobile phone, keys, purse and a look of worry and stress. I wonder what’s so important that she has to juggle so much? Has she had news like mine today? I realise it’s not possible to get more catastrophic news than me today and crown myself the most worried person at the services, no, in the county. No one can beat this shit storm. No one can imagine how gut-wrenching the thought of your parent having cancer and having to consider their mortality is.

Questions return. How did your parents die? Were you there? Did anyone else have cancer? I add all the questions to the list, lock the car and pay at the kiosk. Flowers smile at me as I walk past. I remember a Disney movie we watched. Snow White maybe? The flowers coming to life around the heroine. Their colours are vivid and they stand straight and proud towards the sun.

Out of left field, I’m reminded of your fear of the movie Bambi, and the outright refusal to rent it from Blockbusters on a Friday evening. I saw it in the end. As an adult. I cried. I didn’t tell you. Bambis fear, sadness and sense of being lost are all waiting in my future as, I guess, my own mother is going to meet the same fate. I cry the same tears I did at the movie, but for a new reason. I make a note not to mention Bambi. In fact no Disney at all. Any dangerous subject will be given a wide berth from now on.

“Madam? Madam? Would you like to come forward? You can pay here”

I jolt back to life from my engrossing daydream, pay for the petrol and a bunch of flowers and walk away. I remember being drawn to the cashier. A young man, maybe 28? A sadness behind his eyes matched mine. The urge to talk to him, to converse about my reality and fear and listen to his in return, is overwhelming. We look between each other, and I’m sure that somehow, he knows. He not only knows, he understands. As I walk back to the car I wonder if I’m now part of an exclusive club of cancer patients children with a telepathic ability to feel each other’s pain and recognise someone with the same desperation and sadness.

The car is jumpy and I create a new list in my mind of things I need to remember. Get the brakes checked and the air conditioning gassed.

As I merge neatly back on to the motorway I make a concerted effort to think about anything but cancer. I’m filled, almost immediately, with regret. The years of worry I caused you suddenly gush over me and the guilt forces the air out of my lungs, it’s painful to recognise and admit, even to myself, that I left you paranoid and alone many nights for many years. You gave me that beautiful bodice to wear, and selfishly I thought that wearing it made me closer to you when I was partying at 16. I believed it had magical powers to calm your fraught nerves. Telepathically telling you I was ok. Through clothing.

I make a note that I’m an idiot.

I need to make another list. A list of apologies. The refusal to go to school. I had a job. I didn’t need school. The men, the late nights clubbing underage, with a short skirt and in high heels. The cigarettes, 20 a day from nowhere. Money stolen from your purse to pay for the habit. I realised how sorry I was and disgusted that I’d never realised or said it before.

I’m drawn to a fourth list. In fact it seems to form organically after the apologies. A list of thank-yous. My dark matter darts to another corner and reminds me of the sacrifices and effort you made to make my life great. You came to all the nativities, the school plays. the opening of the new school classrooms, parties. Oh Jesus, the parties. There must have been 25 every year. I wonder if you ever had to stop me going? How did you pay for the presents and cards? How did you manage hosting my birthday party? More questions for the list.

Thinking about money makes me worry how I’ll manage work while you’re unwell. They might give me annual leave, or gardening leave. I always wondered what that was for.

How will you cope without your job? Should I ask you about money? I’ve got savings and I can help, but do you want me to? On the list.

I realise my mind is now settling in to a pattern of anxiety. I’ve been a worrier for years, I’m going to have to manage it for a while around you. I need to be strong and stable. I need to provide, fix and manage. I need to love and care. I need to be a mother. The roles are going to reverse.

Tears fill my eyes and the view becomes blurred. I wipe them with my sleeve and watch as the lorry right ahead jackknifes in front of me, I pummel the brakes with every spare muscle, my foot should be going through the floor, but it’s hopeless. The pedal does nothing.

My final moment on this mortal coil is filled with regret. Slumped over the steering wheel, it stinks of diesel and there’s a metal pole through my car roof. I think it took away a chunk of my head. I can’t move. I’ve got seconds. I know I’m leaving, I’m leaving you behind to manage this alone. I’m sorry.

I’m so so sorry.

Part 3 – Mum

My wig is uncomfortable, but the hair loss is worse, so I grin and bear it for the sake of the day.

I’m standing behind your coffin, broken and consumed by guilt. You were on your way to me. You were going to help and support. I didn’t even say ‘I love you’ last time we spoke. My darling daughter.

The funeral is more sombre than most, and everything happens around me. People I haven’t seen for years show up and offer support, but they don’t mean it. I turn away to scowl at their empty promises. When was the last time they called me? 4 years ago? And you want to mourn my daughter? And offer me false help? I want them to leave. They don’t deserve the honour of saying goodbye to you. Revelling in their ego for attending. They are sanctimonious.

I compare their words to your actions and feel 100% confident they’d never come close. They have no heart. They wouldn’t have left work in the blink of an eye to help me fight this battle. I’m proud of your caring attitude. I silently acknowledge how much of you I’ll miss. Shopping at Christmas, teaching me to use my mobile phone, laughing in the garden with the radio on, crying during a nature programme, arguing over who should control the remote.

Knowing we could face anything together.

The reality that I now face this alone.

I wonder how upset you were by the phone call. Blaming myself for the accident. It’s a mistake I’ll always regret.

As I approach the car, I notice myself in the reflection. I’m gaunt. I look as hollow as I feel. My heart has been smashed and it’s a mess I wear on my sleeve.

It’s a cold day and the car heater is necessary for frost and a welcome relief for my hands. The theme tune to The A Team blasts from my handbag. “Thanks for never teaching me how to change my ringtone. And thanks for giving me this one to live with”. It makes me smile as I speak.

“Hello?.”

“Mrs Johnson. I’m glad I caught you. It’s Mr Hamilton from Oncology. I have good news. The lesions are receding, so the chemo has been successful so far. We’re going to continue the treatment, so we’ll see you on Monday. Ok?”

He hung up before I answered him. I said one word in that conversation. Another person offering advice without giving me the chance to ask for it.

I guess it’s good news though. I realign my thoughts to what’s important.

I’ve bought myself more time. More time here, alone. More time at night, remembering. More time in the car, afraid.

More time until we share a hug, comforting.

I’ve bought myself more time.

For nothing.

Published by stephc2021

Hi! I'm Steph, an amateur writer and illustrator specialising in Mental Health and being a self-confessed Spoonie. My website is home to any successful fiction I create, with stories that have won so far covering difficult subjects such as baby loss and mental health in grief as well as some funny and heart-warming tales when I get the inspiration. Every drawing and picture on my website was created by me. I spend a lot of time coming up with illustrations to accompany all of my posts and pages. I try to create original content across all of my channels, whether I'm writing about my own fiction or just generally musing on mental health or my own issues. I want to be part of the change because I believe the understanding of MH in the UK is getting better, but has a very long way to go. By being honest about my own struggles and symptoms I think others will relate and hopefully it will encourage them to talk to someone and get the help and support they need. Long term my goal is to help children too, help them understand their own mental health and how to help with the mental health of those around them. I live in the UK with my partner, daughter and dog, I swear frequently and I adore a well made, traditional, gooey, chocolatey, delicious brownie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: