At the top of our garden is a stone patio area in the shape of an inverted teardrop. I built it in ’96 when Elaine was undergoing her first ever course of chemotherapy.
I was given the stone after building some mini dry stone walls for a friends mum and Elaine and I decided it would be nice to have an area to put a bench on and maybe sit outside of an evening.
We were married in late ’95, being told the previous day that the cancer had returned and after our honeymoon Elaine would have to have quite radical surgery and then a course of chemo’ afterwards to hopefully save her life.
Chemo’ day was once every three weeks, with a total of five gruelling sessions in all. After each session Elaine was completely wiped out for about a week and I would stay at home to look after her.
She was always feeling sick with no appetite whatsoever (she couldn’t taste anything anyway). Her energy levels crashed, her hair thinned out, and she just felt diabolically ill all the time.
Naturally she spent most of her time in bed, and while she was resting of an afternoon I would mix-up some cement and then go and lay some of the stones. It was a slow process, but I had plenty of time.
While I was doing this I would occasionally glance up and notice my wife carefully watching me from the bathroom window.
I didn’t let on that I’d seen her, but she was often there, though when I went indoors she would always be back in bed.
Both the chemo’ and the patio were duly finished, and though a bench- now long gone- was placed on the stonework we rarely sat there.
One afternoon when I came home from work, Elaine made tea and suggested sitting outside to drink it.
“Lets’ sit up the top.” She said, so we went to the teardrop and sat down.
After chatting for a while we were quiet until Elaine broke the silence.
“I used to watch you. When you were building this, I used to crawl out of bed and watch you from the bathroom window. Did you know?”
“Yes, yes, I did know. I used to catch glimpses of you peeping over the window sill.”
Then as an afterthought. “What were you thinking then?”
“I used to wonder if we would ever get to sit here together. Whether we would ever have a first wedding anniversary, or would you be sat here alone of an evening, tearful and miserable, and me sat beside you unseen, unheard, unknown and unable to comfort you.”
“What did you think when you saw me?”
“I was thinking, she had better not go and die, or I’ll have built this fucker for nothing. I don’t want to sit here alone, sod that, I’ll go and watch the telly.”
“Mark Edsall, you are incorrigible!”
“Maybe, but if you go, wherever I sit I’ll be miserable without you. I think I’ll just imagine you’re there and talk to you anyway.”
“Don’t worry- I’ll be there to listen.”
Wednesday 23rd December. Late pm.
I leave Forest Holme about 5.30 just before Elaine’s supper arrives.
I’ve always found it difficult visiting in a hospital situation when the patient is trying to eat their food. You tend to ‘hover’ somehow, and whatever you do it just feels awkward being there. So we say our goodbyes, and I head for home.
Two anxious cats are waiting when I get back. Cats love routine. But lately that routine has all changed. They know that something is not just different, but wrong, they can sense the tension in me I’m certain.
They’ve started to get very ‘clingy’ and hang around me more. The aloofness, especially in Sammy Elaine’s boy, has mostly gone, they are unsure and want to stay close.
So I light the wood burning stove in the lounge, then feed them thinking they’ll head for the fire after food. But they pick at the meal, then lurk around the hallway and stairs, sitting and staring, sometimes at me, sometimes seemingly at nothing.
Sitting down at the kitchen table I pour a beer as the quickest form of sustenance, and start to think.
Something is playing on my mind and I just have to sort it through.
It’s to do with Elaine’s attitude. Something has altered over the last few days, but what is it?
I sit and rack my brains (not a long journey) and slowly a dawn breaks over the valley.
Elaine is not afraid of death I know that much. We’ve lived with its probability for years now. It’s more likely the manner of death that she would worry about, but of the actual event she is more curious than fearful.
That’s not to say she’s been looking forward to it in any way. She has fought and fought to stay alive and stay with me but there is a definite change now. As I’ve stated before, we aint quitters. But I can’t ignore the acceptance in her attitude that was not there previously.
Where did it come from? Has Elaine now chosen to give up? I can’t believe that. It’s the dawning in my mind that brings the answer.
She has been given official permission to call it a day. There is little point in trying to fight on when all the ammunition is spent, all reserves are exhausted and there’s nothing left to fight with.
They’ve told her this now is the end, and I believe she has known it for some time, but hasn’t wanted to hurt me with that knowledge.
For Elaine the worrying is over, she can fully relax for the first time in decades. She is safe in the hospice they’ll look after her, do the worrying for her.
There’ll be no more operations, scans, ultrasounds or x-rays. No more radiotherapy, biopsies or blood tests. No more endless hospital visits to arrange or keep or fearfully awaiting of results and having to plan life around cancer.
No more drugs, blood thinners, steroids and tablets by the dozen every day. No more utterly vile endless side effects and no more hated chemo’ to endure.
Plus, no more having to see the disappointment on my face as some news comes to confirm what is always feared.
Free of it all she has passed the baton. The overwhelming odds now mean that Elaine can stop running. She can turn, at last, to the cancer.
It is the dark child of her existence. Born into her from the moment of conception it has lived within her like a stunted twin, a broken embryo that never knew life of its own and has always tried to steal that to which it has no right. That which nature has denied it.
Elaine is now staring into it without fear. Its threat lay in its hiding. While it remained a shadow, a whisper, almost unseen and unheard, its power was mighty.
But now exposed in the open that faceless shadow, that unrelenting darkness, which has haunted her days and her dreams, now at last she can fully embrace it.
She can stare into the eyeless face that has been trying to push her over the edge for years and hold on to it tightly.
It is in her death grip now and she will dictate the terms, taking it with her to the end.
If only that face had eyes. I would love to have looked into them as the realisation dawned that Elaine’s dying would mean the end of its trying to live, all hope gone. That soulless bastard would cease to be, but Elaine somehow, somewhere would carry on, free of it at last and forever.
As this all comes to mind I smile and raise my glass to the picture of us tucked in the frame of the mirror before me. It is a bit of a hollow toast as I don’t feel joyous, just numb, everything is now feeling too adult for me, too coldly real.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, always a favourite day of the year. Not quite the event itself, but with that anticipation of good things to come which is almost as enjoyable-but not this time.
I’m at the hospice by 1 o’clock and am a bit dismayed to find that Elaine is still in bed. She is sitting upright but apart from the occasional hiccup, she seems very peaceful.
She is very pleased to see me, and we hug and kiss hello.
I notice her lunch is on the bedside table, virtually untouched.
Elaine is sleepy, but she has had a pain free night, thanks to the syringe driver, which is under the bed cover beside her. She has talked with friends on her phone, and sent and received texts also.
It doesn’t take much to tire her so she dozes for a couple of hours, while I sit beside her, reading and watching.
The nurses offer me a cup of tea mid-afternoon, and Elaine wakes, and wants one too.
The drinks duly arrive, but a couple of sips is enough for Elaine. She sits back taking my hand in hers, and starts the conversation.
“You know darling, it seems like we’ve spent the last thirty years just keeping me alive.”
“I guess we have to an extent, but it was worth it.” I reply.
“It’s been good hasn’t it Mark.”
I know what she means, she means us, our lives together. She has used this phrase before.
“Yes sweetheart, it’s been more than good, it’s been wonderful.”
“I wouldn’t change anything Mark, not even the cancer if it meant we couldn’t have been together.”
“I wouldn’t either, but that’s easy for me to say, I’m not the one with cancer.”
“I think it’s worse for you, all I’ve got to do is die, you’re the one who’s going to be left behind to carry-on without me.”
She continues: “There’s nothing more I can do for you now darling. There’ll be people around who will help you, Julie, Mike, Bob, Stacy and others, but I can’t do any more now.”
There is a pause, I don’t speak. The tears are running freely down my cheeks. Elaine is the captain of this exchange, and she speaks first again.
“Mark, I won’t mind if you love somebody else.”
I try to smile, but I can’t. I just look at her, I don’t know what to say. This has come right out of the blue at me.
I manage: “Are you sure about that?”
“Well, maybe just a little, but it would be an awful waste if you didn’t.”
I couldn’t find an answer for her then-I still can’t now.
“You’re going to have to move on Mark, in everything I mean. You’ll have to be strong or you won’t be able to live.”
“Not sure I’ll want to live.”
“But you must. For me, for Sue and Ian (my sister and friend who both died young), you’ve got to carry on Mark. I know it won’t be easy, but you must. I promise I’ll be with you as much as I can.”
“I know you will sweetheart, I know you will.”
There is a slight pause, and I notice then just how tightly we are holding hands.
Elaine continues: “I’m not afraid you know, it’s just a new adventure, like a new challenge, I’ve got to start out on my own this time, that’s all. I know we’ll see each other again, I just know it. We’ve done this before Mark, I’ve always felt that, you know I have, at some other time in the past- and we’ll do it again.”
“Well I hope if there is a next time we can do it without the bloody cancer.”
“Perhaps you’ll have it next time, then I can look after you.”
“That’s cheered me up no end, thanks.”
We manage to laugh.
I don’t remember many conversations, even serious ones, where we didn’t laugh at some point. It was a strength in our marriage.’
Though the tears have flowed freely from my eyes, Elaine’s remain unclouded.
As she looks at me, all that flows from them is love.
To be con’t….
P/S I hope at some point to be able to respond to everyone who leaves comments on the blog. Whether it’s by email or Elaine’s Facebook page or on the blog itself, I read and re-read them all.
At the present just writing each week is about as much as I can do. Though I am sure it is helping me to do it, and I feel it is the right thing to do, there is also a certain ‘corrosive’ element to it as I’m sure many of you can imagine. Please bear with me.
My heartfelt thanks to all for your continued support of Horse, Husband and Cancer…Mark.