These are the Days
Ib Glover Tim J. Veling
I was born in 1980. Mum once told me I was a Christmas present because she found out she was pregnant while hosting a Christmas party. I arrived on July 25th, six weeks premature. Mum had to stay in hospital while I spent time in an incubator. Dad used to tap on Mum’s window after visiting hours. He used to stand outside in the freezing cold with the dog all night to keep Mum company. In those days Mum reckons Dad was a highly affectionate, doting man. She says they were some of the happiest times of her life. We were a family.
Last night Mum gave me her diaries to look at. Over six months she managed to fill three books with writing and photos. The first page I turned to was about me. She was wondering how to tell me she might have cancer, that her doctor had found a lump and she had to have a biopsy. She was wondering if I needed to know at all.
I was thirteen years old. I remember talking to my mother. She was in Auckland, calling from hospital where Auntie Jan was in a coma. Mum told me she had been helping the nurse give her sister a sponge bath. She said Jan was a dead weight, that they had trouble redressing her. “Come on Jan, help us out,” Mum recalled muttering. And Jan did. Her body became limber and Mum was able to guide her into a bed gown. In my mind I imagined this to be a sign of improvement, but looking back I can recall the distance in Mum’s voice, how she spoke without emotion, her sentences drifting away like mist.
After hanging up I announced to my father that Jan was getting better. We sat outside on the decking, the pale light of the moon and stars shimmering in the water of our swimming pool below us. He drew on a cigarette between sips of his gin and tonic. He looked at me, eyes sombre and careful. “I don’t think that’s right, Tim,” he replied. I told him excitedly about what Mum had said, that Jan had helped Mum dress her. I said if she wasn’t getting better she wouldn’t have responded to Mum’s request. “Tim, I’m sorry, but your auntie is going to die,” Dad said, putting his hand on my knee. “I’m sorry, Tim. I really am sorry,” he repeated.
Things were different after Jan died. Mum started to lock herself in her room and listen to old Van Morrison records. They had played These Are The Days at Jan’s funeral. To this day I remember the lyrics off by heart. Mum left soon after.
– Tim Veling
I came home from Jan’s funeral and Pete asked me if I wanted something to drink. I told him I wanted a whiskey. He was shocked. I never drank spirits. We didn’t have any so he went down to the shop and bought some. The bottle didn’t last long. During the months that followed I looked hard at the people surrounding us. Neighbours, friends and even people walking down the street. I was angry with everyone. I thought, ‘my sister is dead. You never know when you’ll lose someone you love. How can you all be so complacent and comfortable?’ I began to resent your father for being the way he was. I was on at him all the time, trying to get him to talk about what he was feeling inside, which only made him do the opposite. I pushed and pushed for words and when he finally did talk I didn’t listen. It was too late. We’d fallen out of love. I couldn’t be with him anymore, neither of us was happy. Life is too short.
It just happened. I started crying one morning and couldn’t stop. I had to come home from work to pull myself together. Your father happened to be home and, before I knew what I was saying, I told him I was leaving. I let him have it. He didn’t get a word in. You were at school. When you got home we sat you down and told you what was happening. When we finished talking you stood up, got a drink from the fridge and went to your room without saying a word. I followed you, kissed you goodbye then left.
– Ib Glover
When she said she was leaving because I didn’t need her – that I was content to be by myself – it hurt. I was angry for years, but I’ve come to realize she was right, your mother was right. I do like my own company. I’m a loner. Looking back I can see it. We didn’t talk. Even if I was angry or upset about something I’d keep my mouth shut. We never fought because I’d just walk out of the room, go and spend time in the garage alone and do what I could to try and forget about things or keep the peace. Problems were never properly aired. That’s not a relationship, not a healthy one.
– Peter Veling
Subject: I am still alive and well.
Date: 5 June 2007 10:58:13 PM
Guten morgen, ich lebe noch vnd mir gent es gut. (Good morning. I am still alive and feeling well.) It is absolutely beautiful here, Silvia and Moritz have a gorgeous house. It’s the kind of house I know you would love. I will take photos and send later. I have my own small bedroom upstairs and it looks out to the alps. All around are chalet type houses with window boxes overflowing with geraniums. Each hour the church bells burst into song. They have a musical tone to them.
Hope all is well in our little house. I’m off for a walk around the village. Tomorrow Silvia and I will take the train to Venice then Verona. I remember you saying you went to Verona…
Say hi to Pete and thank him for the lovely card he gave me at the airport. I was touched by what he wrote.
Lots of love,
Your Mum, the intrepid traveller!
I am in the Breast Care waiting room losing a fight with fear. I am waiting for the results of the biopsy I had the previous day. Tim is with me. We sit without talking. People are coming and going. I glimpse the surgeon and her nurse in the outer office. I cannot read their faces. Is it good? Is it bad? We follow them into a cubicle and sit down. I am not comfortable. I sit on the edge of the chair. Tim puts his hand on mine. It feels clammy. Words begin to hit my ears - tumour, cancer, mastectomy. I hear Tim’s voice but I don’t know what he is saying. I am already in another place that’s so familiar it frightens me. I have been here before. When Jan got cancer the whole family got cancer. We carried it around with us. There was no choice. I have no choice. I am glad Tim is here to ask the hard questions for me. I hear someone saying ‘thank you’ then realise it was me. Thank you for what? Finally, I stand up and move one step at a time. This is how it will be for the following months. I will myself to be positive. I feel Tim’s arm around me and I feel loved.
We go in search of good coffee and something that looks like normality. I wonder what that looks like? Is it seeing Pete sitting in the café over the road and him being the first to hear my news? We haven’t spoken for over twelve years but it seems natural he is the first to know. He is shocked and immediately offers his help in anyway that will be useful. We sit quietly. I look at the table. The ash tray in front of Pete contains four half smoked cigarettes. I’d forgotten he never smokes them to the end. “What about your ticket to Europe?” Tim asks me. “Can you get a refund?” I pretend not to have heard him. “Next year. When you’re better,” Pete says, stubbing out another cigarette. “I’ll drop you off at the airport.” He is in it too now. It gathers us all in its clutches.
I waited for Mum to return from the operating theatre in a nearby McDonald’s. From the booth I sat in I could see the hospital. After finishing my burger and fries I sat staring, scanning its windows, trying to figure out which room belonged to Mum. A man wearing a Mickey Mouse tie sat across from me. “It’ll be okay,” he said, breaking my concentration. I realized he was an old family friend. “How is she? We’ve been thinking about her. We’ve been thinking about you too, Tim. Make sure you take the time to look after yourself through all this.”
Smoking while talking, Dad mused about what might have been if he and my mother had stayed together. I had stopped by his house to let him know that she’d had the operation and that her surgery seemed to have gone well. “If I could be sick for her, I would,” he said. “What your mother has been through over the last few years, both her parents dying, and her sister before them. The way our relationship ended, I wish I could have handled it better. She deserves all the help and support I can give her.”
Lizzie and I have spent the night together for the first time. The sound of my phone wakes us up. It’s a text message from Mum. She has been admitted to hospital. Rushing into A&E, I find her lying beneath a picture of a fat cartoon clown in the children’s ward. A bad strain of the flu has hit Christchurch and this is the last bed to be had. Her white blood cell count is dangerously low and she has a chest infection. The nurse says she is preparing a room for Mum in the isolation unit. She’ll stay there until her blood count returns to normal. I tell Mum the news, that Lizzie and I have become an item. It seems to cheer her up. “About time,” she says. “I was beginning to think I’d have to make a move for you!”
I was eight years old when I began noticing girls. I had my eye on one in particular. She joined my primary school class half way through the year. The teacher asked her to stand in front of everyone and introduce herself. She said she was related to a famous Hawaiian princess, had brown eyes and was good at art. I kept my feelings for her a secret until one night, when Dad was tucking me into bed, he asked why I’d been acting oddly. I didn’t answer him, just wrote what I was thinking on a piece of paper ripped from my scrapbook. He smiled, nodded silently, then kissed me goodnight.
Dad’s knees shake as he bends into the car. He supports his weight by clutching hold of the doorframe while dropping slowly into the front seat. After a pause for breath and with a rigid back, he feels for the seat belt, pulling it across his body and fastening it into place. As I pull out of the driveway he sits quietly beside me. A once charismatic man, his posture now wilted and closed, Dad exudes melancholy. It colours the air around him as much as the hazy cigarette smoke he sucks into and blows out of his lungs. We drive to Merivale and sit in a café. I try my best to be good company.
Eight months ago Dad returned to New Zealand from Holland. He had followed his childhood sweetheart to Amsterdam, where he had grown up during the sixties. Since getting divorced from my mother he had remained single but often talked about a woman from long ago, someone he thought was the one that got away. “She’s the only one for me,” I remember him saying on many occasions. The statement was always followed with a loud sigh, the clink of a Zippo lighter then the soft crackle of a cigarette.
I am B from the netherlands and i’m looking for your dad for a long time. To day i got your e-mail from Maria and hope you can help me. If you want you can give him my telefonnumbers, home or mob or e-mail. I wonder if this message reach you, i just started to work on the comuter and surprised all the time what’s happening. I think that sounds crazy for you, growing up with computers. Hope to hear from you,
Dad replied and within three weeks she had landed in Christchurch. A month later - I would learn much after the fact - they were engaged to marry. He was euphoric, but there was one problem. She had to return to Holland to settle her own divorce. Dad went with her but returned despondent. Their relationship had ended suddenly. He gave no reason except to say he could only ever be a man alone.
Mum tells me if she dies I can find a copy of her will behind the couch, under the staircase.
He’s told me a million times how to choose the cut. ‘Rib Eye, look for good marbling, not too fatty and none of that tenderised or marinated shit.’ Medium-rare, pink in the middle, Mum always said no one could cook a steak like my father. When Dad found out Mum had breast cancer he confided in me that the news had shaken him to the bone. They hadn’t communicated in over twelve years but he offered Mum his company and help if she needed it. She’d asked him to cook a steak for her. She wanted to eat something special before starting chemotherapy.
Dad is wearing an Adidas tracksuit – a cream three-striped sweatshirt and navy-blue pants. He wears tan slippers and stands rubbing his hands together over the frying pan. Mum has prepared scalloped potatoes and salad. She decorates our plates with parsley and special sauce then Dad drops the meat onto each of them. We sit in Mum’s dining area and savour the moment. No one mentions the elephant under the table. The next day Mum has her first infusion.
Background music: ‘These are the days of the endless summer. These are the days, the time is right. There is no past, there is only future. There’s only here, there’s only now.’
The nurse wears industrial strength protective gloves to ensure against contact with the highly toxic chemicals.
I pick the passport up off the dresser. Turning its royal blue cover, the person I see staring blankly at me on the first page is now dead. Her hair was always perfect, never a strand out of place and definitely no greys. Her eyes look tired, bored even. When she was a little girl they had such a spark. On the family farm she used to climb trees and draw pictures for hours on end. That little girl was a real dreamer. This ID photo, this woman, with her stark and complacent stare, shows a person I could no longer relate to. The woman in the photo is me.
My bag lies on the bedroom floor. It’s packed full of the things I will need for my journey around Europe. In two days I will leave for Austria and France but I’m already travelling in my mind. I try to imagine the places I will see, the people I will meet and things I will taste. It feels like a miracle I am still here and able to savour the anticipation. I am the lucky one. Jan didn’t have this second chance.
The phone rings interrupting my thoughts. It‘s Sandra phoning to tell me Rose, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a month before me, now has secondary liver cancer. She tells me Rose intends phoning to talk about chemo. The thought scares me. Not because I’m afraid to talk about my experiences, but because I know I will have to be honest about how awful it was. I decide not to wait for her to ring. I make plans to visit her today. I take a huge bunch of pink and white flowers, more to cheer me up than anything. She doesn’t look well, her tummy protrudes and her skin is sallow. She tells me about the treatment she will endure over the time I am away. I hold back tears as I hug her to me, thinking of my own experiences and also my sister’s before me. We talk candidly about treatment, feelings, dreams, family, our children. I want to give her more. I want to give her hope. I grasp for it myself. All I can think to do is promise to light a candle for her in Notre Dame.
Chemotherapy kills healthy as well as cancerous cells. After her first infusion Mum’s immune system almost shut down. She had a critically low white blood cell count and had to live in isolation for a week to minimise the risk of catching infections.
Subject: From your European Mother figure
Date: 12 June 2007 11:05:22 PM
Dear son of mine.
Gosh, it must be cold - colder than usual. I saw on the news here it’s snowing at home, it that true? It’s so nice to be here among trees and hills, under the sun and eating good cheese and bread!
I feel staying here in Austria has been healing for me in many ways. Being with a young family is special. It’s nice to watch the two girls and Moritz and Silvia interact together. The whole family atmosphere is something I miss and will miss for the rest of my life. When Pete and I seperated I knew I didn´t want to be with him, that he didn’t want to be with me either, but I also knew I would miss living as a family - everyone together at the end of the day, sleeping under the same roof then waking up together again in the morning. At some stage a parent has to accept their children will leave home, and they wish that for them, but to have that cut short because of marital separation is devastating. I needed to leave but I didn’t want to lose you or the feeling of being a family. I hated the fact you decided not to live with me but I knew in my heart it was just the way it was and further along, as you grew and aged, you would form your own opinions gleaned from how it was for you, how I related to you and in some cases didn´t relate to you. Back then I had a lot to come to terms with within myself. More than ever, I realize that Jan’s death was a real kick in the pants. I was overwhelmed with grief and I didn’t feel like I could try to articulate my feelings to Pete. He is a kind man and has a good heart but at that point we were not good with each other. I was impatient to change him. That is not good and never works, especially when you’re not happy within yourself. I’m lucky to have Pete as a friend again, now. I feel blessed to have regained that friendship.
How did this all come tumbling out? I will write about it for you in a better way - my thoughts then and now. I’ll try tomorrow but I don’t think it will fit on just one postcard!
Lots of love.
It was the first time I’d seen Lizzie wear colourful clothing – she’d finished making herself a new summer dress just moments before this photo was taken. That morning, on a whim, she had also dyed her hair bright red. Lying in bed that night she told me she felt nervous wearing bright colours and preferred to blend in with the background. In the morning she redyed her hair black and unpicked the dress.
Auntie Jan used to wear purple jeans and fluorescent t-shirts to oncologist appointments. She knew the pain she felt in her back was more than a strained muscle or bruise. She knew her cancer was spreading but hoped a bright, outrageous look would be positively infectious. “He can’t tell me I’m going to die if I look larger than life,” I remember her saying. I offered to lend her my fluorescent yellow knee socks if needed.
Rubbing her arm after exercises to restrengthen muscles damaged during testing of lymph nodes.
I go through the motions of showering, cooking, shopping for food, visiting doctors, giving blood and taking chemo infusions. During the good days, when friends turn up, I am cheerful. “It’s not too bad. It could be worse”, I say. I talk myself into feeling better and will them to feel better about me. On the bad days, when I feel wretched and emotional, I don’t answer the telephone or the door. I am forgetful and fuzzy in the head – chemo-brained. I am going through menopausal hot flushes all over again. My whole body is tender and feels bruised. My clothes are uncomfortable on my skin. My mouth is sore and the skin on the roof of my mouth is peeling off. My fingernails and toenails hurt and my feet are raw. Tim sees me as I really am. I am the closest to honesty with him. He can see through any bravado. It’s not easy for him. Bless him. He has wonderful intuition and comes when I most need him to, whether he knows it or not. He listens, shops, transports, loves and supports and he does it all for me. He knows when I want to be by myself. I feel sorry at times he has no other siblings to share all this with. It is not fair on him. But he is blessed to have Lizzie in his life. She is there for him and has been all along. I love her for that. She is his support just as he is mine. And we both have Pete. We share my load as a family.
I drive to Mum’s to pick up her pyjamas and bag of toiletries. Dad has asked me to help him rewrite his CV for a job he’s applying for. He’s computer illiterate so it would take him an eternity to type it himself. I do it at Mum’s, using her laptop, then pack a bag full of the things she has asked for. When I’m finished I head to my fathers. He opens the door with a drink in his hand. ‘Mum is stuck in an isolation room in the Bone Marrow Transplant Isolation Unit,’ I think to myself. ‘Dad’s relaxing with a drink at home, and I’m running around after the both of them!’ Dad asks how Mum is but I don’t answer, just hand over his CV, turn away and head for the car. He stands at the window watching me reverse out the drive. Out the corner of my eye I see him wave goodbye. His forehead is creased with confusion. I pretend not to have seen him, do a u-turn and head to the hospital.
I’m made to put on a sterile gown and facemask then wash my hands before entering the ward. An air lock separates Mum’s room from the rest of the world. In the air lock I have to wash my hands a second time before I can pass into her unit. Mum’s sitting on her bed dressed in a pale green gown, watching Desperate Housewives. Her expression tells me she’s pleased to see me. All I want to do is hand her bag over and leave. Instead I sit silently with her, feeling bad for leaving Dad in a huff and guilty I want to be somewhere else rather than here with her. As usual, she tries to be positive for me. If she wasn’t sick she’d be packing for her adventure in France now. She was due to fly out tonight. She makes up reasons why she’s better off in hospital than on her way overseas. Faced with her stoicism, my own petty thoughts fade away.
Conversation moved from the weather, to sport, to his broken heart. “I’ve been desperately unhappy at times,” Dad said to me. “After what happened in Holland with B, I didn’t care what might become of me. If I lived or died it didn’t seem to matter. All I knew was I was in love and happy and then, out of the blue, the complete opposite. Now also your mother is sick. Finding out she had cancer put things into perspective. I felt I needed to help her and I realized I couldn’t help others if I wasn’t prepared to help myself. She’s my friend. No matter what, I’ll always be here for her.”
Lizzie waits up for me. The French doors that lead from her room to the garden are unlocked and I creep in quietly so as not to wake her flatmates. She’s lying in bed. When I see her, I forget where I’ve come from. As I near sleep she nudges and reminds me I’m fully dressed. Once naked and under the sheets we lock limbs. Morning arrives quickly.
I still have hair. I tug at it every morning but so far it stays put. Good. I'm not ready for it to fall out.
It is my first morning home after being in isolation and two weeks since my first chemo infusion. Each morning I wake up and gently tug at my hair. So far it has stayed put but this morning it gives way and comes out in clumps. For the last week my scalp has been tender to the touch and very itchy. I study my pillow and find it is covered with hair. I swear, which doesn’t help but makes me feel better. Then I pray for the strength to get through the months to follow. I make my way downstairs, running my hand through my hair as I go. More comes away in my fingers so I swear again. “Fucking cancer!” I make a bowl of cereal and take it outside to eat. There is a soft breeze and I watch more hair fall into my breakfast then contemplate the dark strands floating on my cup of tea. After a minute I tip my drink and cereal onto the garden and move inside.
I phone Helen and ask what she is doing. She lives ten houses up the road. I tell her I need her help to chop my hair off. She doesn’t say much, just arrives soon after. I comment I should phone Tim so he can take photos. He joins us moments later. The three of us sit in the garden. Helen drapes a towel around my shoulders. I’m not allowed to see the progress until the job is finished. I don’t want to look at myself anyway. I’m scared of what I might see. A pile of hair lies on the grass like the remains of a catfight. On the far side of the garden wall, cars pass in noisy succession. Life goes on. On this side Tim’s camera clicks repeatedly. The three of us laugh and make jokes. My own laughs drown out the anxious thudding of my heart. My own Mum whispers from somewhere in my ear, ‘This too will pass,’ and I take heart knowing she is here in my garden with me. I smile to myself thinking she would have heard me swearing this morning. She always said I was lazy with my adjectives.
The chunky sewing scissors Helen used have left ridges and patterns in my remaining hair. It is cropped as close to my scalp as she can get it. Her verdict is, “It’s quite funky,” but I’ll be the judge of that. I want to be alone to take the change in. Helen says goodbye and Tim follows me upstairs to the mirror. He quietly snaps a few photos then leaves me to my thoughts.
My hair is very dark. That is a surprise. My eyes look haunted and stare out from my swollen pale face. When I am through the initial shock of it I begin to think I am lucky. My head is small and nicely shaped. No fat wrinkles at the back of my neck, just a pale strawberry birthmark. My ears lie flat against my head and, for now at least, I still have my eyebrows and eyelashes. Some makeup will do wonders. Yes, I can live with this. To prove it I set myself a challenge – to go out this very afternoon to Merivale Mall with no hat on. I think if I can do that then everything from now on will be all right. Two weeks ago I wouldn’t have remotely entertained he thought. I ring Helen and tell her of my plan. She laughs and tells me she can meet me for a stiff drink afterwards if I need one.
Within the month I have no hair at all. My scalp is shiny white. My eyebrows are thinning and my eyes are constantly itchy and watering. I have very little to hang my mascara on but I persevere despite it all. I will not paint eyebrows on though. That is one thing I will not do. I joke with Tim that I haven’t just lost the hair on my head, the hair on my lower body has fallen out too. Having no pubic hair is pretty strange, God, even the fine hairs on my bum have fallen out.
During treatment Mum was often confused and forgetful. If she felt disorientated or thought she was frustrating me she’d say, “Sorry, I have chemo-brain today.”
This was the first time I saw Mum’s scar. She’d offered to show me before but I didn’t think I was ready to look. On this day I finally asked her if I could photograph it. She pulled down her singlet for me. It was hard to look at it, I just lifted my camera and absently snapped a few frames. I would contemplate the photographs later, think about what I saw in them in my own time.
Mum’s birthday marks the halfway point for her chemotherapy treatment. To celebrate both milestones, my cousins–Jan’s daughters’–Alannah and Megan fly down from Auckland and Dot travels up from Ashburton for a night of good food, wine and laughter. We go to the most expensive restaurant in town, a Japanese teppanyaki grill. We marvel at the chef as he plays tricks with his knives and, for a few hours at least, forget about what might happen tomorrow or after the next infusion. We are together and happy and that’s all that matters.
I arrive back in Christchurch and phone Sandra for an update on Rose. She has been transferred from the public hospital to a hospice. Sandra suggests I should not leave it too long to visit.
I walk into the main entrance of the hospice. The day outside is grey and cold and moody. Inside the air is warm but I can’t stop myself shivering. A family group stand outside a room across the foyer talking in hushed tones as nurses come and go. I flash back to the Auckland Oncology Ward Jan stayed in thirteen years prior. I can hear the same sounds. I smell the same smell. It is death.
I approach Rose’s bedside. I am tentative. I hold her hand, give her a kiss on her forehead and whisper, ‘It’s me, Ib.’ Her skin is cold but clammy. She opens her eyes for a few seconds. I try without success to hide the shock I feel upon seeing her. I’m not sure if she can see me but she smiles and mouths hello. Where is the Rose I left six weeks ago? I keep hold of her hand as I talk to her husband. He talks about everything and nothing. Time passes and I realise I have been there for two hours. He looks exhausted. It’s time for me to go but I can’t leave until I tell Rose what’s in my heart. I didn’t do that with Jan. I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. I must tell Rose how I feel about her and I have to do it now.
Her breathing is laboured. It comes and goes in hoarse bursts. It’s like I am back sitting with my dying sister. My words get stuck in my throat. I take a deep breath. Finally, I tell Rose I admire her. She squeezes my hand and her eyes suddenly open widely. “Why?” she asks. Her pupils are dilated but quickly contract as she tries to focus on my face. I tell her I admire her because of her courage and of the energy and commitment she lived her life with. I tell her she has taught me a lot about living. I tell her she is brave and I will not forget her. Without thinking, I tell her I will see her later. I know I won’t. She knows too. She smiles slightly and nods her head.
We’ve said goodbye.
I go back out into the grey, moody day and the tears I don’t realise I am holding so tightly come pouring out. I cry for her, I cry for my sister and I cry for myself.
At the time of Mum’s treatment, the New Zealand medical system did not fully fund drugs that have been proven to kill HER2 positive cancer cells. Mum’s doctor said she had a good chance of survival without extra treatment but would have benefitted from a series of special infusions. She could not afford to pay for them herself. In 2009, full funding for Herceptin was announced by the new National led government.
She’s out of breath.
“Have you been running?”
“Are you okay?”
She takes off her pink hat. Underneath, a black stocking clings to her head. She’s cut up an old pair of tights and turned them into a head warmer. It also stops the hat from slipping off her head, gives it something to grip. She hooks her thumbs and peels it back from her temple, revealing her bald scalp. “I’m not sure,” she says finally, looking around at nothing in particular. She wipes her eyes. “Perhaps it’s the weather. It’s so cold and damp outside.” She slips me a paper bag full of food underneath the table so the café staff don’t see it. Inside I find a savoury muffin, tan square and a banana. A waitress presents us each with a coffee. She sees Mum’s food parcel but turns a blind eye. “It’s on me. You’ve got to look after yourself and eat properly,” Mum says once the waitress has gone. “I worry about you.” I don’t reply, just try to read her eyes. She turns away. The back of her scalp is textured with sporadic tufts of fine hair. She scratches it, turns back to face me then slips the stocking and cap back on her head. She’s crying now. “Actually, no. I’m not okay,” she finally confesses. “The oncologist just told me I’m HER2 positive. That means I can’t get all the treatment that might help me unless I pay for it myself. The government doesn’t fund a full course of the drug I need.” She shields the side of her face from other customers in the cafe with the palm of her hand. The hum of people surrounding us seems suddenly overbearing. Above Mum’s shoulder a painted copy of Aphrodite smiles softly. Its gaze unnerves me. Tears run down my mother’s cheek. She wipes them with the back of her wrist before anyone else notices. “I’ll be okay, won’t I Tim?” she asks. “Yes, you will,” I reply. Secretly I’m not so sure. She looks down at her coffee, stirring slowly and playing with the foam before raising the cup to her lips and taking a large sip. “I will be okay,” she suddenly asserts, looking straight at me and arching her back in a concentrated effort to seem self-assured. “And who knows. When my hair grows back I might look like her.” She gestures back at Aphrodite, her long feminine hair waving in the wind. “Actually, I’m going to look better,” she whispers. “Much better!”
Between each infusion Mum’s hair grew about half a centimetre before falling out again. The Cancer Society subsidises wigs for people undergoing chemotherapy. Mum was reluctant to take up the offer because she thought each wig she tried on looked like a ‘dead cat.’ In the end she got one but never wore it. She kept it buried in a drawer under a jersey, some socks and her fake silicone breast.
Mum and I had been talking privately about the future. She told me she felt lonely and insecure, that after starting back at work she felt weighed down with old, seemingly petty problems. The day before, her doctor had prescribed her anti-depressants. Dad appeared at the door without notice. He pulled the slider open and promptly launched into fits of laughter while recounting stunts performed in Jackass – The Movie. Mum and I couldn’t help but laugh along with him. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he gasped for breaths between sentences. “Shit, that movie was just what I needed,” he said when finally regaining composure. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Nothing clears the head better than a good laugh.” Mum and I looked at each other. I winked at her. She turned to Dad and smiled.
Date: 07 July 2007 8:47:56 PM
You’re finally there! Paris! Exactly 365 days ago I watched you get wheeled down a dark hallway, get hooked up to a drip, then disappear behind double doors. You re-emerged with a scar covered in iodine fluid. Because of the drugs you were talking some real nonsense. Something about ‘those bastards’ down at the bar who only full your wine glass ‘half empty.’ You’ve always been a glass half full kind of woman, everyone knows that! At that time I should have been photographing you packing for Europe, instead I was pointing my camera at something a lot less fun. You asked me to take photographs for your diary. The truth is I would have photographed your journey anyway. Taking photographs of family and friends has become second nature over the years. We got through the last years trials together - you and I with Dad and Lizzie beside us. I love how you and Dad are talking again. I know he loves it too. We send our love your way and hope you’re smiling. You deserve a holiday more than anyone.
Love you heaps.
Tim, Pete and Lizzie.
Mum shows me a poem written in memory of her sister, Jan, who died of breast cancer exactly thirteen years before this photo was taken. Jan is on the left of the photograph Mum has taped into her diary.
The first family Christmas in thirteen years. Dad takes control of the barbeque. Sausages, bacon, eggs, hash-browns, mushrooms… I fall asleep on the couch after eating and wake up to see Mum and Dad sitting outside in the sun. They talk about old times, family stuff, air old problems that have lingered long unresolved. I get up and join them. Conversation changes to happy anecdotes about my childhood and our extended family. Dad follows the sun, his skin glowing a deep fleshy orange while Mum hides in the shade. The three of us fall silent. A quarter of an hour passes before Mum fishes for a remote and chooses some background music. We listen as the sun begins a slow dive in the distance. The temperature drops and Mum disappears inside. She returns wearing a beanie hat and passes Dad his t-shirt and jersey. We enjoy a nightcap as the light turns from gold to a deep, cool blue. Dad finishes his drink and I offer to drive him home. He hugs Mum goodbye awkwardly, standing rigid while patting her on the back. After pulling away, Dad and I move towards the front gate. Mum follows. “Thank you for the wonderful day,” Dad says before getting in the car. “Just like old times,” Mum replies. I smile. In the background I hear the faint sound of Mum’s stereo. It’s on random play and has landed on another Van Morrison track. As my parents part company and Dad drops into the car I catch the final line of Coney Island.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”
Subject: More ramblings from your mother.
Date: 18 July 2007 19:16:33 PM=
Thank you for your e-mail. I read it in the hotel lobby and it made me cry. Here are some more thoughts I’ve had while ‘on the road.’ I’d like to share them with you. Look forward to talking to you, Pete and Lizzie about everything in person soon...
I am thirty-one years old and in Wellington trying to do my Christmas shopping. You’re asleep in your buggy. We’ve been to a Christmas party for your Dad’s work. You are sixteen months old – old enough to enjoy Christmas and delight in the colourful wrapping paper and ornaments. You open your eyes just as I am pushing you into a shop full of Christmas decorations. I spot a little wooden mouse that wears a tiny knitted Santa hat and green and red painted jersey. You also spot it. Your face tells me I have to buy it for our Christmas tree but not before I check it for small bits that may come off and get swallowed. It looks safe so I give it to you. It’s a favourite immediately.
In that moment we began a tradition we’ve honoured together each year. My little family’s Christmas decoration collection consists of twenty-six special mementos, each one a reminder of the time in which it was bought, one representative of every year of your life since, plus contributions from our extended family. Each year we hang them on the tree and admire them together. Each year I get a lump in my throat watching you, wherever we may be, helping hang those decorations. Last Christmas was extra special. I had finished my chemo and felt a change in the air – a turn for the better.
Christmas in Blenheim:
I make plum puddings and shortbread using recipes I have claimed from my Scottish mother. Pete loves ham so we have a glazed one that lasts for sandwiches for days afterwards. Christmas eve sees Pete and I up late wrapping presents and tip toeing around the house so you don’t wake up. It is absolutely delightful watching you, still with sleep in your eyes, tipping your oversized Christmas stocking and discovering all the treasures inside it. We join friends from around the corner for a BBQ breakfast – bacon, eggs, hashbrown’s, tomatoes, toast, Baileys and coffee. Pete is great on the BBQ and gets into the spirit of Christmas even though he professes to hate it. After breakfast we have a lull until dinner is ready and the eating begins again. We swim in the pool and enjoy the relaxed summer afternoon. But a melancholic mood settles inside me by the end of the day. By this time you are fast asleep. I look back on everything with thanks that I have so much, but also with regret. I long to talk to Pete and share my concerns and joys with him but he can’t be reached. As usual, he has gone to bed without me. I spend the evening by myself.
Christmas just past:
This last Christmas, 2006, was a special one. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I declared I would like the three of us, Pete, you and myself to spend it together. Pete and I are back talking after many years. Who would have thought cancer could in part be responsible for our marriage ending and now our rekindled friendship? Once again the BBQ is installed in a prime spot. We take the old customary break from eating and sit quietly with our own thoughts. At four o’clock I begin to cook peas and potatoes, check the plum pudding and decorate the pav. It’s a wonder we are hungry but we eat most of what I’ve made. It is a mixture of emotions I feel. We three have been in the same place all day. The mood is easy and the old tension has been put behind us. I am pleased we have spent the day together. For a few hours it has felt like we are a proper family again. I pack Pete a little bag of goodies and hug him goodbye. He says he will return tomorrow and mow my lawns. It’s thanks to him my garden survived through my treatment! You go to see Lizzie and I settle down to read my book. I smile to myself remembering Christmases past, your beautiful face as a little boy with eyes full of wonder, Pete over the BBQ, us both wrapping gifts and preparing food. I feel blessed I am here and healthy enough to enjoy it this year. What a year, full of surprises, lessons and best of all special people.
What will happen next Christmas, I wonder?