It’s around lunchtime on Christmas Day, 2007, as we negotiate the maze of hospice corridors – presents in tow. Today is almost surreal; like I’m watching things happening to someone else. Denial, I suppose. She's smiling – sitting up in bed, supported by a mass of pillows; resplendent in red! Red was her; the fiery madam she'd always been. Just like her star sign, Leo.
Mixed emotions we felt that day; sheer elation she’d actually made Christmas – touch and go as it had been over the last few weeks; abject despair, plus a bit of anger thrown in for good measure. What had she done in life, and us for that matter, so terrible that we deserved this? And if there was indeed a ‘god’ up there somewhere, as she believed, why was he putting her through this hell? She hadn’t been christened, it’s true, but as a ‘born again Christian’ she did get confirmed after all.
I had bought a multitude of presents for her, way back in November, when we were still full of hope, wrapped in pretty paper and satin bows. As Christmas drew nearer, it became apparent she would be way too poorly to appreciate, or even use, the majority of them, and, one by one, I stashed them out of sight, out of mind, at the bottom of my wardrobe.
Hard to accept for people like us; charmed, or so we thought. The model family as we were perceived, Childhood sweethearts, happily married; blessed with two beautiful daughters and their dad with a steady job. We had it made – nice house, two cars...the lot! Until one afternoon in 1988 when I received a phone call from our eldest, Andrea who was undergoing nurse-training at Lister Hospital. It was an afternoon that irrevocably changed our lives.
She’d been diagnosed with a rare, slow-growing, but totally incurable cancer of the parotid gland, situated at the base of the ear at the jawline. As if that wasn’t enough, three years later, her sister learned she had ankylosing spondylitis; a degenerative form of arthritis which affects the spine, and in 2001, their father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
The bottom had fallen out of our world, big-style, but Andrea’s insatiable thirst for life, kept her going through numerous operations, and in a way, it kept us going too. If she could smile through adversity, what right had we to feel sorry for ourselves? Her fight to postpone the inevitable was to continue for the ensuing twenty years; during which time she became a past master at helping me, and them, treat their respective conditions with the contempt they deserved.
Over the years, her battle scars were many and obvious; a tumour had ravaged her facial nerve and, after radical, disfiguring surgery she was left with a deformed jaw and cheek, plus total paralysis on the affected side. By necessity, she must learn to eat again, and to sleep with one eye partially open; all of which she took in her stride. Picking up the pieces of her life, she returned in her professional capacity as Senior Lecturer attached to the medical school of Hertford University.
Her career became paramount and she continued in her job until but a few months before her final decline – the cancer subsequently having spread to her kidneys, lungs and spine. More than ironically, one of her final engagements was to give a talk to patients and staff at a Hertfordshire hospice...little realising then, that in but a few weeks time, she herself would be admitted.
I had wanted to give her so much that day, but she was gravely ill by this point – far too ill to bother with pretty slides for her ash-blonde hair, or to wear the jazzy socks I’d so carefully chosen. In the end my gifts dwindled to a cosy dressing gown, a travel guide on Madagascar (a place she and her best friend had hoped to visit in the new year) and Ginger Lily massage oil by Molton Brown; ‘moisturise, moisturise, moisturise’...always her mantra. Last, but not least, a book of poetry by E.E. Cummings, ‘Pretty How Town’ her perennial favourite, which she asked me to read to her after lunch.
Her heart’s desire, the same as a good few of us, was to find the perfect partner, put her roots down in a ‘pretty how town’, and she did...twice, as it transpired. Except, her illness put pay to her ‘happy ever after’. Two failed marriages later, through financial necessity, she was forced to sell up and to re-home her constant companions, two dogs and a cat, and spent the last few months of her life, in a tiny flat she hated; it had no garden you see, and Andrea was the perennial ‘flower child’.
I massage her feet, legs and hands, and she whispers, ‘Thanks, Mum, in my ear’. Gifts duly given, her lunch is served, courtesy of the nurses and indeed, the hospice chaplain to whom she had grown close. Despite being on a continual diamorphine drip, and in terrible pain, it does little to curb her appetite. Pretty soon, after she’s polished off a generous helping of roast turkey, plus the usual trimmings, her familiar cry of, “More custard...please!” resounds along the entire length of the corridor.
We laugh and joke about past events; what’s taken place in that small hospice room of hers over the last month or so...Like the evening when two husbands and a lover turn up at exactly the same time, consciences pricking, needing to wish her a ‘Happy Christmas’. How ironic is that?!
Incidentally, husband number two, technically, she was still married to; divorce proceedings dragging on, she’d decided to call it quits... preferring to remain, as she put it, ‘an eternal thorn in his side’. Her caustic tone understandable, seeing as prior to their split, he’d already moved in his ‘replacement wife’, a lady with a remarkable likeness to Andrea, until she could bear it no more, concluding three was definitely a crowd and giving them both the boot. But that, as they say, is another story.
As for her lover, whom she’d only met but a few months ago, it would seem she had at last found the ‘perfect partner’, courtesy of an online dating agency, but as with most things in life, timing is crucial, and their timing was indeed ‘crap’, on this particular occasion. (Andrea’s summing up of the situation, not mine, I hasten to add.)
Foolish, as it may seem, when we left her that day, driving home in the pouring rain, we kidded ourselves she’d rally round...a miracle might happen and we would still have her with us, celebrating yet another Christmas, next year. In reality though, she died, aged 39, four hours before Big Ben heralded in 2008, and it still seems just like yesterday; her last Christmas day, when I’d told ‘The Lady in Red’ how lovely she’d looked and she’d smiled that familiar lopsided smile of hers, and said,
“Not bad for a dying lady, you mean!” and as I read, she'd drifted to sleep.
‘summer, winter, autumn, spring –
reaped their sowing and kept their came,
sun, moon, stars and rain.’
‘Pretty How Town' e.e. cummings