I have a small mouth; a fact most people find hard to believe – I’m told I can be quite loud at times! Just to clarify, it’s the inside of my mouth that is small, it’s not like I have tiny lips and can only eat crumbs, that would be weird! What I’m trying to explain is that there just isn’t enough room in my mouth for all my teeth. Actually perhaps I haven’t a small mouth after all, maybe I’ve got giant teeth, or maybe I have too many teeth, who knows! What I do know is that I spent an awful lot of time at the dentist growing up! I spent hours having braces tightened until it felt like my skull was being crushed from within, retainers were mended on an alarming frequency and I’m sure I started saying ‘arrrrghhh’ in my sleep! At one point my mum and I were taking weekly trips to the orthodontist, it didn’t take long to developed a tradition of sharing a packet of white chocolate buttons on the drive home.
As with all traditions, the chocolate button practice quickly evolved to become the first medicine administered for any aliment faced. There was the time I attempted to demonstrate my great acrobatic skills by skipping not one but two rails on the monkey bars, apparently failing in my quest and only succeeding in simultaneously shattering both my monkey bar dreams and my right arm as I fell to the ground; then there was the glandular fever episode (I believe it’s called mono in the States) during my late teens, possibly caused by kissing one too many frogs and even once I’d managed to scrape my way into university, white chocolate buttons appeared in care packages to cure home sickness; there really was no end to their magical healing properties!
These care packages were the greatest, most wonderful thing ever! Who doesn’t love to get an unexpected parcel from a love one? And one filled with chocolate is never going to disappoint! Mum crowded these parcels with little stories she’d written about daffodils growing up in the shade of weeds only to finally make it into the light and reveal their beauty to the world; smiling suns beaming from the front of silly cards, trinkets from home and of course, white chocolate buttons. Just as the button tradition had evolved, so too did the care packages; every single Christmas from university right up until she got sick, she sent chocolate advent calenders for both me and my house-mates (even when I had 12 of them!).
In my entire life she had never been sick, sure there was the odd cold here and there and she’d thrown up once from some poorly cooked meat and well let’s not forget that time the entire family got sea sickness on the way to a summer holiday! Well I say the entire family, my dad stood there eating a giant hot dog completely unfazed as the rest of us quickly turned green. The point is, she was a rock, reliable and strong. And then suddenly she wasn’t. I didn’t understand and I’m ashamed to admit it but I was very good about it…
You see, I was angry. I was so, so angry and I didn’t even realise it. It annoyed me that she was sick, how dare she be ill! She was the mother and her job was to look after me! – I just want to interject before I go on because I appreciate that I sound like a spoilt brat here and my mum’s world was filled with so many more things than me and I’m an adult, you know, I pay my bills and go to work and take responsibility and do all that other rubbish stuff you have to do when you grow up but somewhere deep inside, as soon as the core stability in me that my mother represented was shaken, I inadvertently regressed to this toddler mentality and the worst thing was I didn’t even know I was doing it.
So I was angry at her, I had no patience, I was frustrated, I made inappropriate jokes, I refused to accept any of it was real and therefore I didn’t pander in any way, I put my own priorities first, I went out with my friends, I didn’t visit as much as I could have, I switched between reading every thing there was to know and bugging her for ‘what did the doctor say’ when she didn’t want to talk, to then refusing to talk about anything at all when she did.
Not long after she’d first been diagnosed, I was staying for the weekend and she was struggling to swallow even water – the tumour was blocking the bottom of her oesophagus, after two days of this I convinced her to call the doctors, they instructed her to go straight to hospital. She cried in panic and I hugged her. It’s a horrible thing to see your parent cry, I’d only seen her do it once before and that was when I was eight years old and the big fat man bashed into her chair in the cafe at the swimming pool whilst we all sipped from giant mugs of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows oozing over the brim. He bashed her chair and yelled as if it had been her who had knocked into him. She cried in the car over the steering wheel whilst my brother and I looked at each other not knowing what to do or say and instead just agreed that the fat man was a big mean nasty pants! She cried the hospital day and said it was too soon, she wasn’t ready. I didn’t have my brother to look to for guidance, it was just me and her. So I pretended it was all fine and played cheerfulness because in my head, none of this was real.
We sat in the hospital that afternoon, she was scared beyond relief. I sat there icy and thinking, and this will sound awful, I sat there thinking, just die. Die now. I don’t want to go through this. I didn’t understand what death meant at that point. How it felt, how much it hurts. I didn’t want her to be dead but if this was the start of her dying I wanted it to be over with as soon as possible, I didn’t want to see her get weaker and weaker, I, and here’s where I’ll sound horribly selfish again, I didn’t want to be caring for her, I wanted to go out and get drunk and wear big sparkly heels to dance the night away in, I didn’t want a dying mother, I didn’t want any of this! So she lay there desperate to live and I sat there wanting it all to be over. The doctor explained she would need a tube in her stomach for a while to help her feed and three doses of chemo. She was going to live but it was going to be hard.
She spent a week in that hospital to get her strength back and then they moved her to the big hospital up the road to have her first dose of chemotherapy. I called the hospital from my desk at work, they’d somehow lost my mum between the hospital moves. Of course they had! After several hours of phoning she turned up on some ward at the big hospital. Above her bed hung a large sign ‘NBM’ – nill by mouth. Every time the tea cart came round she politely refused the cup of coffee and slice of cake she so desperately wanted. Her neighbour, in the next bed was visited by the female equivalents of Tweedledee and Tweedledum who had brought their sick mum burger king. My mum retched at the smell and washed her mouth with water before spitting it into a pan. I brought her a teddy bear.
Once home she was bearing up well with the chemo, her stomach tumour had shrunk enough to allow food to pass down the throat, meaning she wouldn’t have to use that horrible feeding tube that detached itself in the middle of the night and soiled the bed sheets with liquid food whilst she slept, only to wake up exhausted from the chemicals killing her cells and having to clean it all up alone in the dark.
By the third dose of chemo her hair was starting to fall out. She asked if I wanted to cut it for her one weekend I was visiting. I pulled away in disgust ‘ugh no!’ I stated without even lifting my eyes from my phone. It was only later as I drove home I realised what she was asking. Her hair was falling out and she didn’t want a stranger to cut it for her. It must take a lot of strength to cut all your hair off, it must take a lot more strength to ask someone to do it for you, I guess cutting the hair makes cancer real, it highlights to the world that you’re sick, it’s a part of your identity, it represents so much and how callous of me to not even recognise it, dismissing the request without even seeing her face.
Guilt is a horrible feeling, it eats at you, clawing away at your insides and there is nothing you can do to change it. I didn’t like her being sick, but she was only sick, she wasn’t dying and if at any point it dawned on me that I wasn’t being as supportive as I should be, I would conclude I’d have years to make it up to her. Only I didn’t and the worst thing? I didn’t get her any white chocolate buttons and every thing that they represented!