Friday, July 28, 2006

All Things Must Pass

Sarah Helen Miles (née Chalkley) died today at around 12.30 in the afternoon. I got the chance to see her for the last time yesterday. Her hair is still brown, uniquely, amongst the women in the hospice, which suggests that perhaps she died too soon, but if you'd seen her, unconscious and struggling for breath you'd know that the end couldn't have come soon enough.

Cancer has a bad reputation. But while it has taken both of my parents from me I have been spared much of the heartache that this disease can cause. My father was pretty much himself the day before he died, and I am lucky that I can remember him like that. The secondary tumour on my mother's brainstem meant that she was significantly incapacitated the last couple of times we were together. But again I can count myself fortunate that less than three weeks have passed between diagnosis and death. Enough time to prepare oneself, and to say goodbye. "Oh well," she said to me, after we got the bad news but while she was still compos mentis, "a short life, but a graceful one."

Whether or not she led a graceful life might be open to debate, but I truly hope that she believed that she had. She was a good mother, and she loved us all.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What You Will

Jacques, Shakespeare's great pessimist, details man's seven ages in theatrical terms. The final age is bleakly detailed thus:-

...Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

They took my mother to the hospice yesterday. While she sleeps, or rests fitfully, I can believe that she's just drowsy because of the pain relief. When she's half-awake, half-alert, the whole inescapable nastiness of it is hard to bear. She sat up to take a drink of lukewarm pineapple juice, just as we were leaving. The juice comes in one of those little cartons, meant to fit in a lunch box. She is a large, flamboyant woman, but she looked tiny and helpless on the bed. It was about the saddest thing I've ever seen. How terrible, to be a child again, without any of the attendant joy and innocence. We took my grandmother home. It is impossible to imagine how she must feel, and impossible to comprehend the resilience of spirit that keeps her from breaking down. I am so proud of her that even to think of it brings me to tears.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nobody loses all the time

I try to avoid the familiar territory of a journal - Woke, brushed teeth, travelled to work, worked, took lunch, worked more, returned home, watched The Usual Suspects very carefully hoping to discover plot holes - that kind of thing, but I have to say that today was a winner, so I'm ignoring previous practise. I spoke to my mother this morning while she was in the garden, managing a little breakfast, with grandchildren somersaulting around her. She sounded pretty weak, and I was at work, swallowing hard at times. But it was a good call, to the benefit of both parties. I need her to know that I am thinking of her all the time and I know that she appreciates that my capacity for dealing with the nitty-gritty of serious illness is startlingly limited. So we small-talked, and told each other things we already knew. There will be no new good news, not now. Whatever your theological position I suppose that what we all seek at the end is peace. We found a little bit this morning.

My last day at work, for a while at least, passed without incident. Paul is a little tentative around me, understandably perhaps. We speak about our kids, mostly. Neutral stuff. I invoiced all the people who have yet to pay us, which felt good, as the completion of an uninteresting but necessary task often does.

I waited 45 minutes for a bus. No matter, still a good day.

The London Tecumsehs, well, they were extraordinary. We may lack consistency at the plate, but we're a team, a family, a happy breed. Unstoppable. Today we won, and I caught a good game.

The hire car is nice, although my daughter is already fretting about having to return it next week. It didn't get us home for the end of the Red Sox game. No matter, they won. The Yankees lost. This is an absolute good. Life continues to supply these nuggets of joy, to prevent you from withdrawing altogether. Life says:- look, there are acorns and hazelnuts here, as well as large swooping raptors who want to feed you to their offspring.

Thank you, Sunny, for your sage, yet still flippant advice. You're almost as good as a ZOOM.

Thank you too JD, Josh and Mishi. I've read your kind words and I still think you're all full of shit. Kidding. I'm bewildered by your kindness. How strange to have friends you've never met! Brave new world.

Friday, July 14, 2006

i thank You God for most this amazing

The primary site of the cancer is in the lungs but there are secondary tumours in the liver and brain. We saw her, my wife and I, yesterday morning. It didn't feel, as I expected it to, that there was someone else in the room, whom we had to ignore, as he sweated beneath his black hood, sickle glinting. Partly because there was a real person there most of the time. My sister, the District Nurse, the dogwalker, the Doctor.

She is home, our home, where two of her children were born, where she spent her last night with my father, reunited with the spaces and objects she loves.

My sister has borrowed a wheelchair from the Red Cross. I observed, in passing, that it was easy to fold away and assemble. "Of course it is, Darling," said my mother, "those things are generally propelled by stupid people." Her faculties may not have faded yet, but they will very soon. The consultant seems to think that two months is a reasonable expectancy. I didn't know they did that kind of thing anymore; it seems like a General Hospital cliché. I keep thinking of Lady Bracknell:

To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

But I don't think I'm careless. Disorganised perhaps. It's a hard-knock life.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Moon's a Balloon

My mother is ill, perhaps very seriously ill. I don't deal with these things well. My brother called me early this afternoon. I am mean to him because he let me down when I was eleven. De profundis, I believe, I understand him better than anyone. Anyway, I love him very much but I never, ever tell him so, because of what happened a quarter of a century ago. He and my sister have decided to be present when the consultant explains the results of my mother's MRI, tomorrow morning. I can't be there. I have builders coming and it's my daughter's school sports day. Moreover, I don't want to be there. I hate hospitals, doctors; I can't take them seriously. My mother told me (I have, at least been to see her) she'd been referred to the oncologist and might have to be moved to the cancer ward. This prompted a lame joke about Solzhenitsyn. I've never even read Solzhenitsyn; that's how shallow I am. Fuck it all. I am relieved that my father doesn't have to put up with any of this, having long since succumbed to his own batch of aggressive cancer cells.

Here's some other news. I'm a shit father, impatient and inattentive, but my precious little girl just got her school report, which really couldn't be any better. The headmistress has written "I am proud to have you in my school" at the bottom. Who knows, perhaps she writes that on every report. It had the intended effect, even if so. Which is to make slapdash parents like me grab their occasional offspring and say "Well done on not letting me ruin your life thus far." She is an absolute fucking marvel and I wish I had a Jiminy Cricket around to punch me in my fat head when I forget this. I will try harder. And I believe in fairies.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Of The Abyss

Jack London thought Spitalfields the worst of places, "a welter of rags and filth". That was a century ago, and the properties he describes with disgust have been cleared of sweat-workers and are now occupied by wealthy Bohemians, west of Brick Lane, or have been razed by the Luftwaffe and the LCC to the east, where post-war housing projects stretch out towards Stepney, populated in the main by Bangladeshi families. There are still homeless people on the streets, however. They are a filthy, curiously ageless group, mad, or alcoholic, or both. Some faces come and go, some have been here for ever, it seems. Other shopkeepers know them by name.

"Do you know Susie?" asks the woman from the picture framers. "She used to sit by the cashpoint opposite you."
"No," I tell her, "I've never noticed her."
"She's dead. Died in the street."
I feel nothing but a mild annoyance that I've had to hear this bad news. And almost immediately I wonder "What's wrong with me?"

I walk on by. I avoid eye contact. There's a big black guy, "The Maddest of the Mad" we call him, but in fact he's not as intimidating as some of his peers. I think of him as a kind of Socrates, because he doesn't ask for money, he just tries to share his confusion. "Why have you got cash?" he'll ask passing city workers. "Why am I so thirsty?" he'll wonder aloud. This morning I find him sitting on the step next to the shop when I go out for rice crackers. "I'm hungry," he moans. For once I stop and look at him. "I can't help you," I tell him, and it feels true. His eyes are wild with something other than hunger. I can't rescue him. He has fallen too far.