Mum used to love her tea and toast moments. It would be a cup of PG tips tea together with chewy brown toast with marmite and butter. She would often call on her way back from the station after work to put the kettle on and her toast down so it was nearly ready for the time she got in. However, mum was very particular about how her tea was made and it took some time before I had mastered it. The trick was to pour the water from the kettle onto the tea bag as soon as the water had boiled (as in as soon as you heard the click – if you didn’t hear the click, you had to re-boil the water). Then the bag had to steep for a moderate amount of time (you couldn’t rush mum’s tea because you’d risk it looking like ‘cat piss’ [mum’s words not mine]). After taking the tea bag out, it was a splash of milk (and maybe a little more) so the colour of the tea was a solid caramelised brown. I make my tea how mum liked it and each time I do, I think of her.
My tea and toast moment has become a mum moment and it’s a good mum moment because it’s not sad. After mum died, I felt like crying was my only real and tangible way of connecting with her. I got into a routine of running along the canal near me in London as fast as I could, every other day, because that would always trigger a cry if I wanted one. The heavy breathing and heaving shoulders mirrored how I’d be when I cried, and my body would almost be tricked into it from the similar motions. Running also connected my mind to my body. I had got really good at detaching myself from how I was feeling after mum died (a slightly disconcerting feeling once it’s gone on too long) and so running was a very grounding thing to do. I also enjoyed running because I felt like mum was having a positive influence even though she wasn’t here. It was like trying to make her dying a not all bad thing…in my head, by running so regularly, I was making myself ‘better’ because mum had died.
I do still definitely feel close to mum when I’m having a huge cry (and it will always be a very powerful release), but it became a slightly intrusive activity. Having to cry to feel close to mum meant that if I didn’t cry, I wouldn’t have a ‘mum moment’ in my day. I felt a pressure to actively find time to feel sad and get that closeness to mum, and while in the initial months after mum died that was ok for me, it didn’t really make a future without mum bearable. I imagined having to forever compromise being happy to feel sad to then feel close to mum (I hope this makes sense). I was also getting a bit obsessive and dependent on running. I’d feel nervous going somewhere if I couldn’t go on a run, and would want to bring my trainers with me if I ever went anywhere for more than a few days. Like with my tea and toast moments, I want to find more positive mum moments that can be part of a normal day. Running and crying use lots of energy and can be quite overwhelming things to do. I want to find ways to think about mum that can be part of a normal, daily activity, as opposed to being a completely separate thing… almost like merging grief and life together; making space for it.
After mum was diagnosed the second time, we changed her diet dramatically and for a few months she went completely vegan (before we started adding in a few of the foods she really missed). Sadly, this meant that mum stopped drinking milk and having black tea, and so no longer had her tea and toast moments. Mum’s diet change was a big part of her post-diagnosis life and we threw ourselves into reading about the different things you can do to be as healthy as possible. Because I was in my gap year, I had so much time to dedicate to mum and our plan to help her get better. We were completely in sync in that year and nearly everything we talked about was about what we read, what our next plan was and how we were going to help mum live as long as possible. While I’m now appreciating more the strain of those two years, I am very grateful I had this year with mum because it was an opportunity to achieve a closeness that would never have otherwise been possible.
One of the first changes we made was introducing a homemade, cold-pressed, vegetable juice into mum’s day each morning. I was in charge of making this juice. We had read that it wasn’t good juicing lots of fruit because without the fibre that you’d get from actually eating the fruit, it could be very sugary (and we were trying very hard to avoid sugar). Combined with this knowledge was also wanting to take the opportunity to fill mums juice with as many vegetables as possible. However, in the end, this meant that mums juices just consisted of a range of vegetables with not much consideration to the taste (poor mum). On at least two occasions, after forcing down a juice I had made her, mum threw it all back up (in both juices I had put in a whole (huge) beetroot which, after some more reading, is apparently a very ‘nutrient dense’ vegetable – so [evidently] a whole one was a bit too much to handle). After a lot of trial and error, we got better at making juices that mum ended up enjoying (or at least not hating). We worked out that ginger is very good at masking the taste of loads of veg and so are lemons (particularly for getting ride of the taste of kale). Mum’s favourite (and friendliest) juice ended up being carrot and celery and, if I was feeling generous, half an organic apple.
I could go on and on about all the diet and supplement related things we did in those two years, but the main thing it gave me was an active way to help mum. I could put my energy into making juices (however disgusting they might have been), cooking vegetarian and vegan food (to the dismay of Tom, Will and Ned) and helping to create a stress-free environment at home. On a side note – the vegetarian cooking generally went ok and the only time I made something completely inedible was when when I put lime peel (what I thought could replace ‘Kaffir lime leaves’….) into a Tom Yum soup I was attempting for mum. The lime peel completely ruined the whole soup and it genuinely was disgusting (so disgusting that I even didn’t make mum eat it!)
These lifestyle changes were a big part mum’s post-diagnosis life, and I hadn’t really appreciated the impact that this period would have after mum died. For the two years before she died, mum was the centre of everything for me. She was my purpose and I wanted to do everything I could to care for her. However, after mum died, I lost this purpose - although there were two sides to the feeling. A small part of me almost (guiltily) felt relief about not having to worry about mum anymore. I had got used to the worry and the pressure of thinking about all the things I could be doing for her, only realising it had been there once it was gone. However, I felt completely uprooted. I didn’t really know myself if I wasn’t in that caring, responsible role that mum and I had carved out for me. Mum had grounded me. My way of dealing with her stage 4 diagnosis was to look after her, but then after mum died I didn’t really know what to do. For two years I hadn’t really processed what was happening because I was just putting my energy into mum. However, in dealing with her death there wasn’t anything to ‘hide’ behind anymore. The only certainty was that it I couldn’t do anything to change it. I think it goes back to the tendency to always want to be doing something, and trying at all odds to avoid accepting that sometimes, I actually have to just feel the feeling.
One of the things I find hard is having more memories of mum post cancer, but less pre cancer. Mum didn’t want us to remember her as ‘weak’ (which of course she never ever was). She wanted us to remember her as the active, energetic busy body she had always been. I’m sifting through memories, but the memories of mum after her diagnosis seem to be more ingrained in me. I want to remember more the times of mum being mum without cancer - I know she’d want that too. I’m almost angry that the post-cancer memories dominate because they intrude on my memories of her as she had been for nearly my whole life until cancer ‘rudely interrupted’. I know that how mum faced her diagnosis is in a way the best example of the hugely strong and determined woman she was, and I know she still remained mum, but after her diagnosis our lives changed completely. Whilst we found a new normal, maybe I’m also grieving for our old normal and for my relationship with mum when we didn’t have to worry about cancer.
I think that’s another dimension to grief; I am sad about so many things as well as losing mum. I’m sad for our old family life before cancer, and each time I mention it’s just dad at home (as opposed to mum and dad) I have this feeling that I’m talking about someone else, not me. I’m sad for dad, sad for the boys, sad for my grandparents, sad for mum’s siblings, her friends, but I’m also so sad for mum, that she had to die much before she should have. I could go on forever about all the the things to be sad about so I’ll stop, but what I’m trying to say maybe is that grief permeates into every aspect of life and there are so many things to consider and be sad about because of it (which I know might be obvious, but I think the fact it touches upon every part of life can sometimes make it that bit more exhausting). I think in appreciating this, I am learning to be more forgiving of myself when I have a low day and then attempt to rationalise my feelings, because it really shows that losing mum is just sad, and there is no denying it. I think that’s also why it’s harder to compartmentalise grief (at least for long periods of time) because nearly everything relates back to mum, however hard I try to avoid it. This understanding means I tap into the sadness more voluntarily now. By this I mean if I sense a missing mum moment, I try not to immediately distract myself and acknowledge it instead (easier said than done). I know if I don’t, something else will tap into it at some point without warning, and if I haven’t had any mum moments for a while, it can then mean a HUGE outburst of emotion that had just been building up.
Anyway, this has been a bit of a longer blog than the previous two! As with my tea and toast moments giving me a mum moment, writing this really gives me time I feel I am giving to mum, and I am very grateful for that.
Mum used to write poems and I came across a little book of them (which is now one of my most treasured things of mums) - I thought I’d share this one…