In the weeks leading up to mum’s last Christmas two years ago, it was clear that something had changed. She was holding her stomach more, where her swollen liver pushed into it, acting as a constant reminder that something was wrong. She was having more naps. She seemed a bit more distracted. I also felt less in sync with her which, on reflection, was an attempt to try and distance myself from how she was doing because deep down I knew it wasn’t good. My compartmentalising skills by this point were well practiced from two years of having to learn not to let the worry about mum seep into my everyday, and so my solution to it all was to completely shut off any bad looking-in-to-the-future thoughts. In my head, if I just kept going with making juices, trying to make sure mum was eating well and keeping some semblance of normality at home, everything would be fine.
But by this point I felt exhausted. There are always a lot of exams in the lead up to Christmas. This, combined with going back and forth to Brighton and pushing away the increasingly obvious fact that mum wasn’t doing as well as she had been, made everything much worse. An uncomfortable thought was also flitting in and out my mind, however hard I tried to dismiss it. What if it was mum’s last Christmas? What were we doing to make it a special one? I had always refused to entertain the idea that mum could die anytime soon, and in doing so almost protected myself from the truth. But these thoughts simmered beneath the surface as much as I tried to pass them off as ridiculous. It also turned into a bit of a catch-22. If I tried to make Christmas more special would that be accepting the possibility that it was mum’s last Christmas but if I didn’t try, what if maybe it was and I’ll always think we could have done more.
These thoughts hung over me as a dragged myself around the horribly packed shops in town, trying to get mum some lovely things before we all left to go to Wales. I was in charge of not just mum’s stocking presents but also with helping choose mum’s Christmas and birthday presents from dad. Mum’s birthday was on the 18th December and I wanted to make that special as well, but with uni work I hadn’t had much of a chance to organise anything (aside from a massage appointment I had hastily booked in the middle of a lecture). I felt annoyed at myself for being so last minute about everything, and this further added to my conflicting thoughts at how shocking it was to not be more prepared on what could be mum’s last Christmas and birthday. I had the hugely uncomfortable realisation that perhaps I couldn’t do better next year because maybe there wouldn’t be one. This was a sad and sickening feeling… tinging everything with a little regret that perhaps we should have appreciated more how limited our time with mum was. Maybe acting like she might not die meant we missed out on certain things that that understanding could have given us… but this is a complicated topic that I want to talk more about at another point.
I was pushing everything away; repressing all my worry, ignoring what was happening and trying to make up for not being organised with mum’s presents (I had focused on this as being the evidence of my failure to think ahead). I think I was also pinning my unease on the fact that I wasn’t organised, as opposed to the fact that mum wasn’t well. The combination of all of this was getting more ill than I’ve ever been. By Christmas I was completely bed ridden with hugely swollen tonsils and a pain in my throat I didn’t think humanly possible (it sounds dramatic but I’m not exaggerating!) I think what might have been just a little bit of tonsillitis was made much worse by the exhausted and worried state I was in.
After mum was first diagnosed, I took on more of a caring role and this inevitably changed the dynamic of our relationship. However, over Christmas, mum was the one directly caring for me. She fed me soup in bed and helped me drink water while I tried not to choke on my hugely swollen tonsils. She wiped my head with a cool cloth and read me a book when I didn’t have any energy to even open my eyes. She also did that thing which parents do a lot when you’re younger and thought ahead for me, calling the doctors before we left fo Wales when I first mentioned my really sore throat to make sure I had some strong enough painkillers in case it got worse (and I was so grateful she had or else I would have been stuck with Paracetamol).
By Christmas day I was in a very sorry state (see the delightful photo I’ve included). In the early hours of Christmas morning, I woke up with the most horribly painful sensations in my throat and on checking the time could see I was able to take another two painkillers. My stomach was so sore from taking them on such little food so I got up and went downstairs to try and eat something beforehand. Stupidly I tried to swallow down a crust of bread and some peanut butter (!?). This just contributed further to the pain and I ended up sat at the kitchen table sobbing, feeling completely sorry for myself, particularly because it was technically Christmas day.
Mum heard my trying-to-be-quiet wailing (aren’t I dramatic) and she came downstairs. She sat opposite me and helped distract me while we waited for the painkillers to kick in. She got me to do some tapping exercises on my head and various other things until finally the pain began to numb.
I always remember mum being a light sleeper. I think she must have been so used to years of waking up quickly when one of the four of us needed her and so never really got into the deepest of sleeps. While Ned, as the youngest, would be the one to wake her by crying, I would wake mum up by tiptoeing to her side of the bed when I was being kept up all night worrying (I used to be a big worrier). I’d tell her my fears about a super volcano ending the world and she’d tell me worrying about it wouldn’t change a thing, and then I’d creep back upstairs feeling calmed by mum’s words. Mum hearing me in this sorry state downstairs was such a beautiful reminder that no matter how old I was, mum would still be mum and would always listen out for me.
It was like we came full circle. In the two years since her diagnosis I had tried to look after mum as best as I could, taking on an almost motherly role at times. Then we ended up with me feeling like I was 6 years old again; having mum read to me, tucking me into bed, then hearing me cry in the early hours of the morning and coming down to help me. No matter how much the caring role had been slightly shifted to me (and I enjoyed the responsibility of looking after mum), that Christmas was the perfect opportunity to remind us of how we had once been before her stage 4 diagnosis.
One memory that has stuck with me from this time was on the evening before this dramatic Christmas day ordeal. I was feeling quite woozy from the Codeine, and lying half asleep in bed. I remember mum coming into my room, kissing me on the forehead and then telling me she loved me in a whisper. She said it with such meaning, love and sincerity and so quietly that I don’t think it was meant for me to hear. This is one of my most special memories.
It’s quite emotional revisiting this Christmas because it reminds me how much I miss this unwavering, selfless, motherly love and care. I’m struck sometimes with how I’ve settled into this new normal of life without her, and blurred the edges of what I’m missing and what it was like when mum was alive. Of course I have the most amazing and loving dad (and I’m very lucky that we’re so close), but I sometimes just need mum. Most of the time I don’t dwell on what I’m missing, but when I’m reminded of it, it is searingly painful. I’ve realised it’s not just missing mum; it’s also missing having a mum.
I also want to mention that being ill at Christmas was a welcome distraction from how mum was doing. She could discreetly go and have a nap and that was nothing because I was the one who had been in bed all day. I looked and acted more ill than she did that Christmas and so the attention could shift from mum not looking well to me.
The first Christmas after mum died was actually much easier than I thought it would be. I was really glad to not be ill and actually enjoy Christmas lunch, and we were with a lot of family so it was not as obvious that mum wasn’t there. I was also not in tune with my grief and sadness then, still quite disconnected from it all. This Christmas, however, I found much harder. Christmas is always a wind down period where things get busy, but this year I noticed this unbudging layer of emotions that combined with the busyness made me more low than normal. On what would have been mum’s 48th birthday I just kept wanting the date to not be the 18th. I had always thought that I wouldn’t be bothered by ‘significant dates’ that are so often mentioned when talking about grief, but on the 18th I was just irrefutably reminded that things had changed. With mum not here to celebrate with, I just wanted the day over.
I take being more emotional as a good sign of being more in tune with myself and my state of mind. I like that I let myself cry more often and more freely (even more openly – before it was very much a bedroom affair). It’s an acknowledgement that mum isn’t here and also serves as a reminder to be kind and forgiving to myself because even though its nearly been two years, it doesn’t mean it’s easier.
On Christmas day morning last year, after we had finished opening our stocking presents in dad’s bed (a family tradition), Tom showed us a video he had been making for us all. It was a montage of the film he had taken on our last holiday altogether before mum was diagnosed again. Since mum died I have steered clear of any video of her and the more I have, the more nervous I am of seeing some. I worried it would sharpen the edges I have carefully blurred of what it was like when mum was around and I also didn’t want to have that feeling of seeing mum alive and momentarily forgetting she died.
As soon as the film started I could hear mums voice in the background and then suddenly there she was, getting into the taxi as we made our way to the airport. Without realising it, tears were streaming down my face. Part of me wanted to look away, but the other part was transfixed. It was like watching our other life. The old life we had as a six. It was amazing to see mum as mum without cancer and how we all functioned as the family we had been before. However, it also left me with this horribly strange feeling that I really hadn’t seen mum in a while. This didn’t sit well with me. That’s the thing that happens as more time passes; it’s more time since I saw mum. While time going by has given me more of an opportunity to understand how I grieve and to feel more in control of it, it also just plays out a future I could never before have imagined; a future without mum. The more time that passes, the more of a memory she is. I can’t go ‘oh the other week mum said…’ it’s ‘oh years ago mum once said…’ and that’s just sad.
I still haven’t watched the documentary mum was in (for fear of how i’ll feel afterwards) but actually the film Tom made was beautiful to watch. It was so special to see mum and be instantly and effortlessly reminded of every little bit about her. It reassured me that even though nearly two years has passed, of course I haven’t forgotten certain parts of her (a big fear I had after mum died). They are still accessible memories and I know always will be. Video of mum can just help me tap into those memories when I want them – and that’s really comforting to know.