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Done, not-done, undone

June 6, 2013

It’s been well over a year since I posted here. The last entry before this was written fresh from the horrible news about my father-in-law being ill. He died in August of the same year.

Seeing someone go through the process of a cancer diagnosis, treatment, palliative care and, sometimes, premature death is a visceral experience, waiting to burst full-colour into your consciousness whenever a trigger word, smell, taste – anything – signals it to do so.

For me, the three times I have borne witness to this process, cancer was the lead character, a needy, greedy, omnipresent black hole. The centre of a heartbreaking, frustrating, hopeless and unstoppable chain of events.

You’re torn between grasping onto any extra time possible – as units swimmingly switch from years to months to weeks – to wishing it all be over, lest the person you love has to endure any more. Silences expand to mind-bending gulfs, boredom and petty fights. Pleasure becomes relative more than ever before. It’s very nice [given the cancer]. We’ve had a good day [in spite of the cancer]. Are you ok [having cancer not withstanding]? What’s been happening [apart from the cancer thing]?

People you love diminish before your eyes, like shrinking fairy story characters who have drunk from the wrong bottles. You forget how they were before, you feel guilty for asking how they are, you feel guilty for not asking how they are. You feel bad for discussing things that they may not be around to see. You feel bad for being normal. You are helpless, hopeless.

The first time this happened I was young. Not too young that I didn’t know what was unfolding, but young enough that people would stand guard – human shields between us and the most extreme of the things that were happening. The most recent time I was an adult. Equipped with what I imagined could be useful insight, a long-abandoned pair of gloves I might be able to force onto my hands once more, I soon realised I was not any better off than before, and now without as many people to deflect so much of the reality.

Having started a hospice writing project around the same time, I was heartened by the way some of the patients there seemed willing to have a go – maybe it was a distraction, something different, or just better than making a collage Union Jack. Any way, I thought this might help with talking to K.

We had some good conversations. Small openings into his internal world that would come out in the spaces where everyone else was in the kitchen washing up, or where we were walking two-by-two along the towpath. He was pleased me and his son got married when we did – something I couldn’t agree with more. He wasn’t sure which type of death was preferable – a prolonged illness with enough time to square your affairs and get things straight with the people in your life, or a here-one-minute-gone-the-next heart attack. He was excited about his youngest’s new house, concerned about his wife, and anxious to leave things tidy.

Still, though, I have no idea if he wanted to say more.

The idea that there’s unfinished business is one of the most gut-wrenching aspects of unexpected or premature death. Unpacking the freezer at my gran’s I can feel the spikes of ice encasing the cardboard box of rainbow trout fillets she’d bought but never eaten. It reminded me of the pretend food we’d had a primary school for the pretend corner shop.

Unopened Christmas presents, cashed-in theatre tickets, unworn clothing, cancelled holidays. Somehow the not-done hurts more.

Potential becomes diminished. A trip to have a coffee is a major achievement. Life becomes a clear-up operation rather than a planning meeting.

If this sounds hopeless, it isn’t meant to. If this sounds sad, then that’s because it is.

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