I am surprised by how calmly I have dealt with my mum’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and subsequent death. She was diagnosed with cancer in March 2016. Truth be told I was not in the least bit shocked when I found out the news. I had just come back home and overheard my dad chatting on the phone to, I later discovered, a Macmillan nurse. My dad wryly joked to the nurse that perhaps it would not be such a good idea for him to listen to Mahler, and that, instead, David Bowie would be a better choice of music. I immediately grasped the connotations of this remark before I knew the exact purpose of the conversation. As soon as my dad replaced the receiver I asked him what was ‘going on’. ”They think mum has cancer”, he replied in a matter of fact tone. ”Cancer?” I replied. ”She is not going to die is she?”. ”Yes, she might do”, my dad honestly answered. I did not experience any emotion. Many people get cancer, I told myself, and it can be cured these days with the latest medicine. It is not necessarily a death sentence. I wondered what cancer it was. I instinctively suspected throat cancer because my mum had had this persistent cough since November 2015. When she spoke her lips curved downward as though she was having a stroke, and and they were a dark shade of purple. She had been looking increasingly wizened and frail, but I had put it down to stress. I think, though, that deep down I knew something was not right, hence the lack of shock when I found out the news. Upon further questioning I found out from my dad that they thought it was lung cancer. I told him I thought this was unlikely. After all, lung cancer is a ‘smoker’s disease’. My mum had never smoked or been around smokers. I took to the Internet and researched lung disease and other conditions that include coughing and breathlessness as the main symptoms. I simply could not entertain the idea that it was lung cancer! Anyway, the diagnosis had not yet been confirmed, although a dark shadow had been detected on her lungs. We could not be completely sure what the diagnosis was until she had received her biopsy. There was still a glimmer of hope, albeit attenuated by the news that, whatever it was, could not be treated.
The final diagnosis was, indeed, very grim. My mum had terminal lung cancer, and it was the most aggressive form of the disease: adeno-carcinoma. The cancer had spread to her spine, bones and blood. Knowing the gravity of the situation my mum refused treatment that would prolong her life but would also prolong her suffering. She was put under the care of the local hospice, was signed off sick from work for the first and last time in her life, and awaited her end. Right up to to her last weeks of existence she still went out for car rides with my brother, but could hardly walk and became completely emaciated. Notwithstanding she braved the climb downstairs to eat at the table until eventually even this was impossible, and finally she could not leave her bedroom. My dad nursed her and made up her supplemented drinks. In my mind she had already died at this point because she was no longer the fit and active person I had known. I cried, but quickly accepted the inevitable. My mum was going to die. What can you do with such an inevitable certainty? My logical brain kicked in. I can’t change this grim fate that has no rhyme or reason.Getting emotional over something that I have absolutely no control over would be a waste of energy and would be completely absurd. Even my OCD rituals could not help me here – there was nothing to do but to continue with life and accept the laws of nature.
My mum died on Wednesday the 25th of May, at 8:30 am, in her bed. My dad was by her side. I was in the house when she died. I heard her gasps of breath and my dad’s cries of agony and despair. ”I love you Frances”, he cried, amidst her moans. I was in the bathroom. ”Shall I call an ambulance?” I said calmly, while knowing that this would be futile. I actually felt nothing. I did not even feel anything much when I looked at my mum’s dead body. Possibly I felt a passing sensation of sadness or loss, but I cannot say for certain. Emotions are complicated and I have never understood them. If I did feel anything, it was not enough to shatter my impenetrable calm. After all, I felt well, I had things to look forward to, projects to complete. I wish my mum had not got cancer. I wish she was still alive. I do miss her. But I cannot change what has happened. My intellect is stronger than my emotions, and it speaks the comprehensible words of logic and reason instead of the scrambled jargon of vague feeling.
I have only cried once or twice since my mum died, but each time I have to intellectually control the display of emotion. I have to think really hard about what has happened to my mum. I have to meditate deeply on the fact her poor body gave up on her at such a young age, her suffering and loss of dignity, and then I can say to myself ”it is sad”, and tears will come. But this is all forced and I can choose to end the tears in the same manner that I summoned them up. It can feel good to cry sometimes, if only to assure myself that I do have some capacity for feeling. I worry sometimes about my calm detachment because emotions are meant to define our humanity. However, on another level it could be argued that my equanimity is what my mother would have wanted. If she was looking down on me, would she want me to be suffering because of her death? Would it not please her to see me enjoying my interests and carrying on with life? I hold onto this thought whenever I beat myself up for lack of grief.