The Book Says
It's difficult to know what to say to someone who suspects he's dying. Especially when I love him.
Some mornings when I bring in his breakfast his eyes are exhausted, smaller almost. 'not slept too soundly' he explains, then gauzes through the bedroom window into the narrow garden with the sun slanting low. 'a perfect morning. I'm feeling better, stronger.' and I know nothing, nothing at all, except it would be so good if it were true.
Most evenings he goes to bed early. Often around 7pm. He's so apologetic about leaving me on my own. But I insist it is well worth the sacrifice. Sleep heals. 'Today, after all, you have eaten better, and we must buy some more smoked ham. It's tasty, isn't it?'
He kisses me gently, thanking me for everything that I had done for him today. But I am gauche, less refined than him. 'For nothing' and I shrug. Before he has closed the door I have begun the pretence of reading the newspaper. So, if i could make changes, I wouldn't have opened the paper until he had switched the light on in his bedroom. just that.
I sleep in the small room now. The move was better for him. He could read during the night, or listen to the radio, or stretch diagonally across the bed.
It was better, too, for me. I could read 'the book', write silly little notes to leave lying around, cry under the clothes, or pray.
They've changed, my requests to God. At first I shouted my rage. 'He's the best man ever, leave him with me, please, please. I love him, see'. Now I ask quietly that he takes us both. I need a miracle.
The book boasts 'the treatment of lymphoma is an area of progress in which medicine can crow. Some side effects occur, loss of hair, nausea. there are tablets to minimise these.'
In the outpatients' clinic I count the number of buttons on the sister's uniform. I shade in with even, oblong strokes the gaps between capital letters in the telegraph, or I write in bright red letters 'isn't this wait long. i know of a far spicier way of filling it' he grins in a shy way 'we can't leave that thing about' - and folds the paper neatly across his knees. Ice blue veins gleam at his parchment wrists.
I have a concentrated look, a look of control, far removed from fear, or so he says. That pleases him. 'what positive thoughts are you having?'
My answer is vitally important to him. 'soon we'll be joining the Tuesday group.' I smile easily. On Tuesday the 'cured' come back for their six monthly check-ups. I wonder do they thank the duty doctor, or lady luck - or simply their own ability to laugh.
'75,000 people are cured of cancer every year' the book boasts. I cut out that statement and stick it on the door of the downstairs toilet. And the book advises discussing the illness. I've tried. Then i hug him a lot and kiss him plenty.
And yet he died. Seven weeks ago now.
My love for him was everything. All things. There's nothing left.
Without him I am now longer me. I don't know how to be anyone else.
I loved him, saving nothing. so there's nothing to fall back on. I can't put myself back together again. Anyway, what for?
The vastness of it all paralyses. Were there boundaries, some sort of fencing, any limits i might try to think. 'tomorrow i'll make a new start.' But it's infinite, it's forever.
The book suggests that faith can be a great comfort. How? I want him back, to touch me, to hold me tight. very tight, and kiss me, long slow kisses. Faith doesn't heal that.
The book never warned of the despair of being on earth without him, the insanity of crying before strangers, the certainty that had I the choice I would select to die.
Now I'm terrified of time, its endlessness, its ugliness. I sit sometimes in silence and search my mind for things of beauty. but they're nowhere. Odd. I can't even remember what they were called when they were around. There was a radiance once in the sky, in arched bands of colour. They're gone, whatever they were.
It's terrible, it is, this living. I wish I weren't so terrified.
I never thought I'd add to what I have written. Eighteen months ago I folded it up and put it in the book. today I reread it. Yes, yes, to every word. it was so indeed so.
Today, too, I found one of my silly notes in is wallet. 'Hello johnny doughboy,' it said. 'and aren't you the luckiest lad alive - this brilliant, beautiful woman dotes on you. God alone knows why!'
Today? Well, I still have this mental block of 'how' to live without any 'why?'. But I am improving. I don't cry before strangers anymore, nor indeed with friends. I still sob a lot alone. I am less afraid of creaks in the night. I don't break so many things, bump into fewer objects. I have fewer nightmares. No shortage of breath anymore. Do you notice it's all me, me, me. Haven't I become very self centred.
I am still full of uncertainties in any belief in 'something outside myself'. In the end, I hope it will be the human comfort that will bring me back to a religious belief. May be a different faith. Not too different though. He had such an uncomplicated belief. I want to be with him in his heaven.
I miss him such a huge, wide lot. He made me very happy.
He had brown hair with slight grey streaks. I had almost forgotten them, but they are there, in that last photo. It sits above the TV
We look across at each other all through the evenings.
And now I remember rainbows.
A longer version of this piece was broadcast on BBC radio 4 on 12th January 1998, 4 days before my mother's own death.