LISTS

Elaine was always one for getting things done and sorted well in advance, so as to be ready for the event if and when it should occur.

I’m not certain she was always like this. I suspect it was the possibility, or probability, of recurring cancer that got her thinking this way. But certainly in later life she was big on making lists, and was always pleased when something was accomplished and a line could be drawn through it.

A few weeks before she went into the hospice I noticed the words- Contact Jane Arnold-on a list, on Elaine’s desk.

Other things got crossed off but this name remained, so I asked one day, “Who is Jane Arnold?”

Elaine explained that Jane was a friend from the Vintage Fair days, who also happened to be a professional funeral celebrant.

Though we had most of Elaine’s future funeral well sorted, we had nobody to take the actual service, until Elaine thought of Jane. She wanted to ask me if it would be a good idea to get her over for a meeting, but she hadn’t yet plucked-up the courage to ask my opinion.

I figured if it helped Elaine it must be a good thing, so I readily agreed, and Jane was duly contacted.

I’ll be careful here, as I know Jane reads the blog, but I liked her and knew she was right, as soon as we met.

Both Elaine and I wanted someone to preside over her service who was professional, yet human with it, but not austere or pious. Someone with a foot in each camp of respect and humour but understanding of the fact that humour and fear go hand in hand.

Jane ticked all the boxes.

She was enthusiastic and humorous when it was called for, taking her leads from us. But at all times she was totally professional with an obvious care and a real love for her work.

We met on the Friday before Christmas, and none of the three of us realised just how fast things were now going to start moving. Elaine would be back in hospital that very afternoon, and by Monday afternoon she was in the hospice.

I remain deeply grateful that Jane’s name got crossed off that list.

Tuesday 5th January 2021.

It’s a few minutes after 8am and I’m looking down at the body of my wife on the hospice bed.

Elaine passed away- whatever that means- just seconds ago, while I cried and held her hand. Now I’m stood but I’m not aware of having done so, I just am.

The tears have stopped, abruptly, suddenly, just stopped. Like a tap cut off in mid flow.

There’s a coldness, not in the room, but inside me. It’s spreading quickly, as winter frost does on a pane of glass, but there are no pretty patterns here.

All I can see is the bed and Elaine, so still, unnaturally still. Nothing else exists in my world right now, just the scene before me.

But there is something else, inside, deep inside, there’s something talking to me. A flat sexless voice that’s gradually getting louder.

“How’s it come to this? Why? Why Elaine? Why your wife, didn’t she do enough, try hard enough? What’s she ever done to deserve this fucking room and this end?”

“What about all the rotten selfish grasping self- serving bastards there are on this planet, you know some of them for Christs sake, why aren’t they here dead on the bed instead of Elaine, or their bloody wives. Where’s the sodding justice in this? WHY THE HELL CAN’T………”

I guess each of us has a limit, a point where we are pushed so hard by others or events, that we simply snap. We don’t mean to or want to, it just happens and regret nearly always follows.

With me though there is a less distinct edge. I have known for a long time that there is a point within me that it’s not a good idea for anyone, or even myself, to venture beyond, but right now it’s just been kicked off a fucking cliff straight in front of me.

With all reason rapidly disintegrating, my minds become the landscape of Hiroshima.

I am aware, inside of me, of a ‘reaching back’, back to something normally too far away to touch. It’s not the body, more the spirit and it goes far further than this lifetime.

Back, back to something ancient and feral, not evil, it knows no allegiance, but its madness is rising faster within than I can check it.

 Its voice is in my head now and it whispers convincingly of rage of fury and blind mindless hatred.

“Mark, Mark!”

It’s Clare, I had completely forgotten. It seems I’ve been stood here for ages, but really it’s only been the few seconds that it has taken her to come round the bed to be near my side.

“Mark, I’m so sorry, I’m so very sorry, we all loved her.”

Her gentle words fell the demon with a single stroke, and it falls forgotten into the void inside of me.

“Mark I have to tell the others and get some help in here, will you be alright if I leave for a few minutes?”

“Yes, yes I’ll be OK, you do what you have to Clare.” (Where did that calm voice come from?)

“Are you sure? Do you want me to leave the door open?”

“No close the door and please don’t worry, I’m alright.”

She hurries out pulling the door shut behind her. Fuck the world it can keep its nose out of here for the next few minutes.

Again I look down at Elaine. There is no anger now, just sadness, a deep impenetrable well of sadness that is heavy, vast and impossibly silent. At its centre is what’s left of my heart.

I notice her right eye is still partially open, so I brush my fingers gently downwards against her eyelid, closing away that beautiful blue iris from the world forever.

She looks so small. She always was very petite. Only five feet and a few inches tall and never overweight. But what she lacked in stature she made up for in presence and personality, and she had a big heart.

Don’t get me wrong, she was no saint. Elaine could be as stubborn as a mule at times and she had the unfortunate habit ( to which she fully admitted ) of engaging her mouth three seconds before engaging her brain.

She could easily upset others by telling them the truth, as she saw it, whether they wished to hear it or not. But it was always with the best of intensions, she hated losing friends.

She possessed a wicked sense of humour, dark and sometimes merciless, but nearly always self-depreciating. She would not want to be the cause of embarrassment to others.

If Elaine saw someone slip on a banana skin in the street, she would laugh.

But she would then be the first there to help them up. Then drive them home, make them a cup of tea and feed their cat, and the next day she would return with a cake she’d baked to cheer them up.

That was Elaine, that was my wife.

She despised wasting time. Constantly coming up with new ideas, she was always on the go, as much that is as the cancer would allow, or the treatments for it. But she never complained about her lot. There was no “why me” with Elaine. It was more “why not me” with her, and she hated it when people moaned on about their own health issues, especially the petty ones.

Here was someone who despite all the shit flying off the fan in her direction, managed a full life in far less than full circumstances.

Many a person, and I include myself, would have sunk under the burden that she endured. The constant threat of unstoppable cancer and an early death, endless treatments to try and prevent this, which in their own right poisoned her body, all conspired to extract a heavy price for her survival.

She was and is the bravest person I have ever known.

I look around the room. Are you there? In the corner maybe, or perhaps by the outside door.

You could be by my side, invisible, unheard, watching.

You know the secrets now, the veil has lifted for you. The universe, God, how and why, but you can’t tell me.

Though you could be by my side the distance between us is immeasurable, and we never wanted anything to come between us. Only death has managed to do this, and even it can’t part us forever. Nothing and no one else ever did, or ever will.

Is what you believed in true Elaine? As this life has ended for you do you now remember that there have been others before? Were we together then? Will we be again in some distant future?

Although Elaine was born into a Jewish family she didn’t really hold too much with organised religions.

She thought that each contained a piece of the puzzle and that if people got hope and comfort from their own beliefs, then that had to be a good thing. Though she had no time for the self-righteous and falsely pious who look down on those who do not share their views.

Elaine believed more in a benign, all knowing and loving universe, being the God figure, and that the spirit of it is in us, and all things around us, in nature and the world in general.

She, like myself, had come to see life as a continuous circle. A cycle where each individual keeps coming back to learn more and more, though for what reason and purpose we could never guess.

Elaine was unshakeable that we had been together before and would be again. I hope she was right.

Voices outside the door break my thoughts and Clare returns with another nurse. Their sadness is not forced but is genuine and felt.

I move to the outside door and open it up. The rush of cold air is like a kiss from the new morning and is most welcome.

Outside the day is bright and I breathe in as deeply as I can, enjoying the physical presence of the air in my lungs.

 I feel guilty, guilty, that I’m still alive while Elaine is not.

The guilt of the survivor I suppose, unjustified, but guilt nonetheless.

Stepping back into the room I’m told there will be forms for me to complete and other formalities to sort, but that everything can be done to suit me at my own pace.

There has been a shift in priorities. The attention is now more on me rather than Elaine. It’s a crown that sits heavy on my head.

I collect my phone and go outside, it’s time to start letting the world know what has happened. The private moments are over, at least for now, and I call Julie first.

She knows by my calling at this hour what has occurred before I can tell her, and the heartbreak is evident in her voice. She tells me to hang on and that she will soon be with me, as her home is only a few minutes’ drive away.

Thank you Elaine, you certainly did know how to choose a best friend.

Next I call my best pal Mike. He’s not at home. I don’t want to call his mobile, his fondness for Elaine goes very deep, as did hers for him, and if he happens to be driving, well you get the picture.

I ring Colin, Elaine’s brother, we have been in constant contact. I know he is expecting this call but it doesn’t make it any easier.

Then I call Jane Arnold, the sorrow in her voice is real, she tells me to call the Woodland Burial people straight away, and she will contact them herself later on. I do so, and am re-assured by their response to my questions and I feel both Elaine and I are going to be in good hands.

I am so glad now that we did all this groundwork beforehand, to try and organise things from scratch, at this time, would be beyond me.

A couple more brief calls and then I get through to Mike. He too was expecting this but the devastation is obvious in his words. He’ll see me at home later, and I know I’m going to need him like never before.

 I’m bloody lucky to have a friend of his quality, they don’t grow on trees.

Julie arrives and we look at each other and tearfully embrace, nothing needs to be said.

The nurses remove Elaine’s earrings and are going to take off her wedding ring when I stop them.

Some years previously Elaine had said,” You’ll want to keep my wedding ring if I die won’t you Mark?”

“No”, was my reply, and for a second or two she looked crestfallen.

Then I explained that she would always be my wife, even in death, so the ring will stay with her. I don’t want it just gathering dust in a draw then ending up on some other finger after I’m gone.

She was very pleased with this, and my wedding ring from her will be with me when I’m laid beside her at last.

Julie and I pack-up both Elaine’s things and my own. It’s a thankless task but it has to be done so we just get on with it.

I’m reminded of times when Elaine and I had been away and would pack up our room on the final morning. We liked going away but returning home together was always fun too. This time going home won’t be fun, and the fact is nothing is going to be the same for me ever again. I know this, but am nowhere even close to grasping the enormity of it.

Once everything’s in the car and the final paperwork is sorted, it’s time to say goodbye to Forest Holme.

I give a last kiss to Elaine. I know that it’s just her body I’m leaving, she’s already gone, but I feel a bit like Judas leaving her there. In truth I am completely numb.

The drive home is uneventful and quick, Julie follows a few minutes behind me.

Back at the Lodge all feels alien and empty. So many things still exactly as she left them, and she’ll never move them again.

The Christmas tree and decorations, witnesses to so much happiness and joy over the years, look embarrassed to be seen, but there’s nowhere to hide.

Julie arrives close behind me and I stop thinking and make us both coffee. Sitting down beside her at the kitchen table she asks if I’ve got a notebook or writing pad, so I fetch both.

As I sit back down Julie takes out a pen, opens the notebook then looks at me and says;

“Right Mark, it’s time to start making a list.”

To be continued…

“YOU’LL BE ALRIGHT.”

“Elaine, no matter what where or who, I will simply love you forever.”- Mark.

I guess we all have strange or weird experiences throughout our lives. Random and unexpected events which occur without any explanation or any known reason, but just happen out of the blue often during the most ordinary of days.

Some hit hard at the time and aren’t easily forgotten, others by their nature are so mild and brief that they pass into memory fairly quickly and are then only resurrected when something in the present trips that memory within us.

This doesn’t mean that their impact at the time was any the less real.

What I’m starting with here is not dramatic or supernatural at all, but coming as it did under the circumstances at the time it had a marked effect on both Elaine and myself, but we rarely talked of it afterwards.

It came to mind because the words “you’ll be alright” always bring it back to me.

We were at the Harbour Hospital in Poole (yet again!) and were there because Elaine had come to the end of a chemotherapy course involving new- for her- drugs. She had recently had a scan to determine if the new regime was effecting the spreading cancer within her, and we were here this afternoon to be told the results.

Results days were always a bastard.

There is usually a week or more between the scan and getting the result, and we would both start getting a bit uptight as the day drew nearer. It was a few years ago now, and the appointments then were always late on a Friday afternoon, so you had nearly all of the day itself to sweat as well.

We arrived spot- on time as Elaine hated being there any longer than was necessary, and were a bit dismayed to find the waiting area almost full.

Waiting, consists of easy chairs and little sofas, arranged around small coffee tables, so you often have to sit opposite complete strangers, something I personally dislike.

The only seat available for us this afternoon, was one of the sofas, so we sat down together with Elaine on my right. In the seats across from us were two older women.

Across from Elaine was a woman of late middle age, with short dark hair, wearing tinted glasses, she was engrossed in a magazine. Opposite me, a much older lady who looked to be into her eighties.

She was immaculately dressed in a long grey skirt, black woollen cardigan with a white blouse beneath, and an expensive looking necklace around her neck. It was obvious she was no stranger to money, but it was her face which commanded the most attention.

It was thin, but not gaunt, with very pale almost translucent skin and a straight lipped ungenerous mouth. She had light grey, nearly white hair, well cut and shaped and the brightest grey eyes I have ever seen.

What struck me most though was that since we had come in she had not taken those eyes off of Elaine.

She wasn’t exactly staring at her but more studying her, as of someone with a personal interest. She didn’t even appear to blink.

Elaine was aware of this and when we sat she gave the lady her usual big smile as a way of saying “Hello.” But it had no visible effect.

The woman wearing glasses carried on reading her magazine, and did not look up at us at all.

Elaine looked at me and raised her eyes slightly as if to say “What the?” and then she turned back to the woman who was still studying her with no hint of embarrassment whatsoever.

We spoke between ourselves, though I don’t recall what we said and then we fell silent, there was something unnerving and bizarre in this situation, she was still intensely watching Elaine, and I noticed now that my wife was returning her gaze.

Then, with no warning, or attempt at any introduction the elderly woman leaned towards Elaine and said in a clear toneless voice;” You’ll be alright, don’t worry, you’ll be alright.”

Just those eight words, and that was it.

Elaine’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth to speak but only managed a whispered, hesitant, “Thank you.”

The other woman then spoke to her companion and was showing her something in the magazine when we heard Elaine’s name being called to go through.

As we followed the nurse Elaine said to me in hushed tones;” What was all that about? Why was she so interested in me?

“I don’t know”, was all I could say, as we had now reached the office of Doctor Chakrabarti and were shown in.

It was good news, very good news. The cancer had taken a hammer blow and receded right back. Elaine did not need any further treatment at present, we were ecstatic.

(Indeed, she did not need more treatment for over a year, a long time for us.)

We were walking back towards the waiting area when Elaine suddenly grabbed my arm and said; “That lady how did she know?”

We hurried on through but the seats they had occupied were empty.

As we got out to the car Elaine stopped and looked at me.

“Mark she was real, wasn’t she?”

“What do you mean, do you think she was an angel or something?”

“No, not exactly, but it was weird wasn’t it? Why would you say that to a complete stranger, in there of all places? She never spoke to anyone else and thinking of it, nobody else seemed to notice them.”

Looking back that was true-but I guess Elaine knows the answer by now.

Monday 4th January 2021.

My wife is dying in this room before my eyes. She is hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads, and when it breaks, which must be soon, she will be free. She has been at Forest Holme hospice for two weeks now, and I know this is the last stage of her life and our lives together.

I cannot conceive of a world without my darling, it is too great a thing to take in. We have been together thirty years, twenty five years and six days married and I would not exchange one second of that time for a lifetime with any other, it would be too high a price to pay.

I know she would rather have left by now. Never afraid of dying she would want to spare me, and others, this hovering around deaths anti-room that has many entrances but only one exit.

I’m sure that once we got to our twenty- fifth she would have been happy to call it a day and stepped through to begin her next adventure.

It’s a dull morning outside, and for the first time since I’ve been here there is a heaviness in the atmosphere of this room.

Elaine is asleep, or is she unconscious? I’m not sure of the difference now. I have it in my mind to shoot home this morning and sort that damn credit card bill, but I’m nervous about leaving her.

Thinking back now I don’t understand just why an outstanding bill took on such importance. Elaine was always insistent that bills were all paid up on time to avoid any penalties, which she viewed as wasting money. But given the situation did it really matter.

I can only assume that I needed something else to focus on, something I could control, but other than that I can’t explain it.

One of the nurses looks at Elaine around 9am and states that my wife is not in immediate danger, so I get ready to leave and even say goodbye to her, but I just can’t go. I don’t want to leave her alone, so it’s coat off and I sit and think.

The solution comes to me later and I call Julie who agrees to come in this afternoon, instead of tomorrow, so I can go home for an hour or so. I pass the morning reading and chatting to the nurses who come and go at regular intervals. Elaine remains seemingly oblivious to all.

Julie is with me bang on two o’clock, and after hugs and hellos, I’m on my way.

Back home I find the cats sharing one of their beds together, whether for warmth or companionship I’m not sure. They look at me but I get no greeting.

I go through to the lounge and switch on the computer, then dig out the bill. Never have been keen on internet banking. Impersonal at best, and a balls-up waiting to pounce nearly always.

Sure enough they require a raft of new security measures to be put in place and I could happily launch the pc through the window, but this has to be done, so I take a few deep breaths, and get on with it.

After the longest twenty minutes of my life it’s all sorted, and I’m on my way back out to the car.

I remember stopping outside and thinking is this really happening? I feel stuck between two worlds. Everything around me here I’ve known for decades, yet I don’t feel I belong here. The hospice feels to me right now, more like home, I assume this is because Elaine is there and I need to be by her side.

There is no time to think, just act, so I start the journey ‘home’ to my wife.

After parking in the same space I left earlier I walk around the hospice to the outside entrance to Elaine’s room.

 Julie is stood outside.

A glance through the window reveals three nurses fussing around Elaine and my guts go into an instant knot.

“She’s OK Mark, they asked me to wait out here while they change the bed and replace the syringe driver batteries.”

“Oh Christ Julie I thought she’d died and I’d missed her.”

“No she’s about the same as when you left, I’ve been talking to her but there’s no replies.”

They soon call us back in, and after briefly warming up, Julie takes her leave. I am once again alone with my wife.

So I sit and read, have supper, a drink or two, then later shower and read some more, holding on to Elaine’s hand between turning pages.

Night descends fully, and with it comes that creeping silence that seems so particular to this place.

I turn on Elaine’s glowing Christmas ‘candle’ at the foot of her bed and sit close, stroking her hair and making no attempt to halt the tears on their familiar route down my cheeks.

Once again I feel the need to speak to her and I do so loud enough that she can hear, if that’s possible.

“We have to leave Elaine, we’ve got to get out of this bloody room. We need to go, both of us, there’s no reason to hang on like this love.”

“You’ll be alright, I’m sure of it, you can let go now you’ve done enough. I’ll never forget I promise, and I’ll never stop loving you, just be there for me when my time comes, I’m so sorry I can’t go with you.”

The tears choked any more words, and its back to the shower room to wash my eyes and try to compose myself. Then I settle into my now familiar recliner bed by her side.

Tuesday 5th January 2021.

Its 3am, I’m awake. Elaine is in the same position on her left side, facing me. She’s breathing OK but it’s slower I know it is. I drift back to whatever it is that passes for sleep and am awake again at 5.30.

Her breathing has changed, more laboured. I’m up, wash and change my clothes and am back beside her before 6 o’clock.

Somehow I know that which we have dodged for the past thirty years has, at last, found this room.

One of the nurses hears me moving and brings coffee. She checks-out Elaine then leaves without comment, which says more than words to me.

I sit and whisper to my wife and hold her hand.

Another coffee and more nurses. They look over Elaine then leave us alone.

About 7.30 I realise that Elaine’s breathing has become shorter and quicker. I know what is happening, there is no point calling for assistance, she is beyond any help now anyway.

I keep repeating how much I love her and saying thanks for the wonderful life we have shared together.

It is my tears that run down her cheeks and eyelids. Her right eye is slightly open but I don’t know if I have caused that brushing away the tears or if she somehow did it herself.

Just on 8am the door opens slightly, its Clare one of the nurses, just come on duty.

“Morning Mark, how are y….”

The look on my face must have said it all. She darts out, puts on her protective gear, and is back in the room in record time.

She bends close to Elaine, whose breathing is now erratic and very shallow, then straightens up and looking over at me shakes her head, answering my unsaid question.

I cry, not like a child, but like a man. A child could not comprehend the depth and measure of this emotion, but I know it only too well, I cry because of love and loss, but mostly of love.

I will her to die, not live, but die as it is now the only door open to her as that to life has all but closed. I know one way or another, she will be free the struggle over at last and I want her to know peace because I love her more deeply and intensely than I would ever have thought was possible before I met her.

The lights are going out in my world with her. They I know, will never shine out so bright again, if ever at all. My darling My wife My love.

Her breathing is now so shallow. She is still on her left side, right eye slightly open, I am holding her hand.

There’s one longer breath in, then out, then a short breath in and then …….

I look up at Clare and she leans forward and then looks at me. The small shake of her head has the biggest meaning ever in my life.

To be continued…

HOLDING ON.

“I don’t want to linger. I want to go while someone still has something bad to say about me.” -ELAINE KIRSCH EDSALL.

                                           

On a hot Friday afternoon in July 1990, whilst I was working on the cottage where she lived, Elaine came home and as we talked announced that she wanted to go for a walk by some water.

I suggested a local spot alongside the river Stour close to my home and she agreed that it sounded just right.

We drove over in my old Mini, and no one took any notice of us as we set out together on what was effectively, our first ever date.

Neither of us could have known then where that initial adventure was going to lead to. But since our first meeting some weeks previously, we both knew that the spark that existed between us had flared into a fire which was growing brighter and stronger all the time.

As we walked Elaine ‘casually’ held out her hand, and I just as ‘casually’, grasped it.

We walked and chatted quite naturally along the riverbank almost into town, then turned and headed back in the heat of the afternoon sun, towards the car.

With two fields left to cross we again came to a huge Willow tree close on the riverbank where we both spontaneously stopped and turned to each other. I pulled her close and that was our first ever kiss.

All through our years since then, on or around the anniversary of that first walk, we have trod those fields once more, and stopped to re-kindle that kiss beside the Willow tree.

Nearly twenty years or so ago we found the tree had fallen and were saddened to see our friend and witness lying on its side, seemingly a lost cause.

But nature had other ideas. The Willow held on and re-grew. The fallen trunk sprouted new life and it is once again a dominant feature on the riverbank.

The Lodge is surrounded by trees, they too have become like friends over so many years. One, a thick trunked Cedar of Lebanon, woke us as it fell at 3am on the 19th December 2019.

As the early morning darkness cleared to light, we discovered this old warrior almost at 45 degrees, and assumed it was the end for certain, but it too had other ideas.

 It is clinging to life, still being partly rooted in the earth.

When it fell Elaine would go over and talk to it, willing it to hold on and live.

Who would have thought then that it would out-live its encourager.

1st January 2021.

I’ve never been a New Year person. It always seems to me a sad time. More of a looking back to what you wanted that never happened, than a looking forward to what you to hope is going to be.

January, even before I lost Elaine, was never a happy or hopeful month for me, and I doubt it ever will be now.

After all the fireworks of last night, the quiet that descended over the hospice in the early hours seemed more pronounced and thought provoking than before. Elaine slept through it all.

I had a ‘bitsa’ night. ‘Bitsasleep’ ‘bitsawake’, but around 6.30 in the morning the hospice begins to stir into life and I bleakly think to myself for how much of this year is Elaine going to be able to, or want to, hold on for.

I’m not blind, or a fool. She is not eating and is hardly taking any moisture, and she is on some seriously strong painkillers. Regardless of the cancer no one can survive this way for long.

One of the nurses brings me coffee and toast and, as I sit and watch the staff going up and down the corridor I suddenly feel like screaming at them.

“LOOK she’s in here, why aren’t you doing something to make her better? Why don’t you treat her she’s your patient, your responsibility?”

I, of course, already know the answer. I just need to say it to myself.

“This is a hospice, not a hospital. There is no treatment left that can save her life. She’s here to be spared the pain and misery that her condition will bring if they do not intervene. The price is her silence, her unconsciousness, her deep slumber just as predicted, and a hastening of the inevitable”.

“Would you rather hear her screams if she were awake and aware?”

I feel foolish, chastised by my inner self and despite the coffee, the toast remains dry in my mouth.

As the morning progresses more visitors come and go for the other patients, and the voices of life beyond our room, steal in to remind me of an outside world. Nurses come to check on Elaine at regular intervals and Julie arrives in the afternoon giving me a chance of some exercise and welcome fresh air outside of the hospice environment.

The day ends much as it began, I’m left alone with my thoughts and my still sleeping wife.

Saturday 2nd January 2021.

Doctor Kevin and a companion visit in the morning. While Kevin and I talk the other doctor uses some of the small sponges on sticks which, when dipped in water are used to moisten the patient’s mouth and lips.

Her eyes are closed but at one point she playfully bites the sponge and refuses to let go. The game seems to amuse her and her smile tells that Elaine is still with us, despite the ever increasing drugs.

 Taking me aside, Doctor Kevin confirms that she only has a short time left, days at most, and as he has been correct about everything else to date, I’ve no reason to doubt his predictions.

It is so very strange to stand and talk about her impending death while she lies, eyes closed and smiling, just a few feet from us. Mostly in her own world, but partially at least, still in ours.

The doctors leave and shortly after I am given lunch, and then I sit holding Elaine’s hand, talking to her and trying unsuccessfully to stifle my tears and imploring God to wake me from this hell.

There are fewer visitors today, and after a while the only sound is Bill’s TV from along the corridor.

Now Bill’s TV was always a bit too loud but it never seemed to bother Elaine and I soon got used to it, but this particular afternoon the volume started to creep up and up, until, quite frankly, it got to ‘Spinal Taps’ number 11 on the scale.

It was simply deafening. I never would have thought that a TV could get so loud. I quickly shut our door, but it makes little difference, and none of the staff are around. Being restricted to the room I can’t go and investigate and it occurs to me that maybe he’s died and fallen onto the TV remote. It doesn’t seem very likely, but surely no one could be conscious in a room with such a horrendous sound.

Looking out into the corridor there’s nobody about, the noise is awesome, so I retreat back and decide to ring for help. As I’ve got the bell push in my hand I hear a door slam and hurried footsteps outside.

“BILL, BILL TURN THE TELLY DOWN.”

Again; “BILL, TURN IT DOWN, oh for God’s sake!”

“TURN IT DOWN BILL.”

“WHAT?”

“TURN IT DOWN.”

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU, MY HEARING AIDS AREN’T WORKING.”

“I REALISE THAT, WHERE’S THE CONTROL?”

In a few seconds came blessed silence.

“MY HEARING AIDS AREN’T WORKING.”

“It’s OK Bill don’t shout, I understand.”

It turned out that the batteries in both of his hearing aids had failed, and so he was near stone deaf.

The nurses had a meeting on at the other end of the hospice, and then they couldn’t work out just what the noise was for a few minutes.

As for Elaine, she slept through it all. If she had been awake and capable of writing, this would have been just the sort of bizarre incident to be included into her blog, she would have loved it. Another observation on the quirky side of life that she wrote about so well.

Sunday 3rd January 2021.

Elaine became quite restless during the night. I called for help when at one point she said the word “Pain”, and the night staff gave her some extra injections to counter this.

I haven’t really talked much about the hospice staff, but I do truly believe that all of the warm and generous atmosphere that prevails throughout the building is down to them.

Early on, it was apparent to me, that those working there wanted to be there.

Doctor Kevin, who comes from up-country, told me he had waited until a place was available at Forest Holme before he moved down, as this was where he wanted to work.

Talking to one of the nurses one night, it transpired she had jacked in a good job in the banking sector, to re-train as a nurse in later life, because she wanted to work at the hospice.

Let’s face it, they aren’t there for the money. They are there because they want to be there, to help, to make a difference and they certainly do succeed in that.

I simply cannot fault the care and attention they gave to Elaine. It was second to none. I can understand now why she felt she would be safe there.

I noticed when they came to check the med’s or change the bed and make Elaine more comfortable they constantly talked to her, even though, later on, she rarely replied or possibly could not even hear them.

They would talk as if she were part of the conversation and ‘include’ her at all times. Whether it was one nurse or more they always told her what they were doing and why, and talked her through it. She was never ignored.

For me to single out any one person here would be, to do all of them a disservice. But there is one incident that has stuck in my mind that I just must mention.

Late each afternoon the yellow bin-bag in the room would be changed and it was nearly always the same man who did it. He would come quietly into the room, hold up the replacement bag and nod towards the bin, which was close by Elaine’s bed. I don’t remember him ever speaking.

When the bag had been changed he would look over to me, on the other side of the bed, smile and without a backward look leave.

As I got more used to him appearing I started to just say” Thank you” as he left and this was acknowledged by a slight incline of his head.

He obviously knew why I was there, and Elaine too, and I’m pretty sure he witnessed my frequent tears.

God alone knows how many times he must have been a spectator to this type of scene.

The last time I saw him was, I believe, somewhat later than usual on this Sunday afternoon.

He came in as before, and nodded to me, but he hesitated as his gaze fell on Elaine. He seemed slightly embarrassed, like someone caught out by something totally unexpected chanced upon in familiar surroundings.

He changed the bag, then as he turned he again looked at Elaine on the bed, then he looked up directly over at me. Our eyes, almost in guilty fashion, caught each other’s and I instantly felt his sympathy.

There was between us, for a fleeting moment, a shared humanity, a solidarity if you like.

I felt in that glance that he had shouted ten thousand words of silent support across the room to me, then he was gone. I swear as long as I live I will never forget that man, or that moment.

Julie comes in today shortly after lunch and I take the opportunity to get out for a while.

As the car has not been moved lately I decide to take it for a drive around the local area. Later I ring Mike to find he’s at his house which isn’t far away, so I go over to see him and have real coffee.

Talking to Mike, I become aware that I am nervous and jittery. There is something inside that is trying to talk to me, but I don’t want to listen.

Mike confirms that all is OK back at home, it’s then that I remember the bloody credit card bill that’s got to be paid. I could have gone back and done it this afternoon, but I forgot. It’s too late now, perhaps in the morning?

Back at Forest Holme, Julie is about ready to leave when I return, she says she’ll be back on Tuesday. She has known Elaine for 30 years plus, and I know her feelings are on a level with my own.

After supper I sit and read and hold my wife’s hand frequently. I prepare for sleep around 11o’clock but before I settle I feel the need to sit close to Elaine, which I do and stroke her hair and face.

Her sleep seems deeper, in fact I know it is, then out of nowhere the words come to me, and I speak softly to her.

”We’ve got to get out of here, both of us my love. You’ve got to leave one way, me another, but we’ve both got to get out soon. There’s no need to hold on Elaine, I know it’s just your body that won’t give in, I know your spirit want’s to soar and make the break.

 Go my sweetheart, because I can’t leave before you.”

She, of course, didn’t reply, and I’ll never know in this life if she heard me, but I still like to think, that she did.

To be continued…

PLOTS AND PLANS.

September 2016.

Elaine had been on a new chemo’ regime for a while now. It involved a hospital visit every three weeks and four main tablets to take twice a day in between, plus a few others as well.

She was struggling with the tablets and seemed depressed with this treatment in general, also she was developing some serious physical side effects. On top of this she had stopped eating properly and was losing weight that she could not afford to.

I had become worried, as she was listless, vague and unlike her real self.

Things came to a head one Tuesday morning when she rang me at work to say that she had spoken to the oncology team at the Harbour Hospital and they wanted her there NOW!

I rushed home and took her straight down.

When we got there she was taken immediately to a private room and within minutes was in bed and hooked up to monitors and drips.

I will always remember her looking at me and whispering; “Is this it Mark?”

“I don’t think so,” was my truthful reply, but it was plain to anyone that she was very ill, and things didn’t look too good.

They feared sepsis, so pumped her full of powerful antibiotics which wiped out everything, and she was there for a week.

When she came out she looked as though she’d just walked from a refugee camp, she had lost so much weight and muscle tone. She was incredibly weak.

The chemo’ had all been stopped, but the side effects continued for a time, and they were horrendous.

I had to coax her back to eating with tiny bowls of porridge and meals of half a small veggie burger with a couple of florets of broccoli and a spoonful of gravy, which was laced with some vitamin powder that I had gotten hold of, and she didn’t know about.

She told me that in hospital she had felt so ill that she prepared herself to die, and had not expected to wake when she fell asleep.

Recovery was slow, and it was during this time that the decision was made to arrange and pay for her funeral.

This was because Elaine knew I would have enough to handle just dealing with her death, let alone trying to organise her send off.

Elaine was not keen on a traditional Jewish burial, or any of the local cemeteries either, nor did she wish to be cremated. But we have a local Woodland Burial Ground which she quite liked the idea of and, would I like to be buried there too, as she wanted us to be together.

I didn’t mind as long as I was dead before ‘moving-in,’ so we made an appointment to go for a viewing.

The man we met with was very nice, and decisions were made on type of coffin, service, wake and so on. Then as Elaine was too weak to walk far he took us in a buggy to see two plots that were available together.

One was end of row, the other next to it. Elaine wanted me to have the end one as I would have more legroom so the inner one was marked down as hers.

We agreed to pay for everything there and then, and now we owned two plots of real estate Elaine asked if we could plant some beans and potatoes on them until they were needed for us.

 Our guide wasn’t sure if she was joking, neither was I, as he had never been asked about vegetables before. But apparently others had asked if they could grow flowers in readiness for when they were buried, and he had to explain that they would all be lost when the grave was dug for the new tenant.

Though I had been back there on occasions since, it was Elaine’s only visit- until the last.

30th December 2020, late pm.

I’ve been back at the hospice a few hours now. Elaine is led down in bed but even from earlier on there is a change.

She seems not so much in a deep sleep but more just unable to wake up. She is also more restless, like someone living out a very vivid dream.

I have had some food, though it does feel strange, eating while she is led so near to me, but there is little choice.

I read magazines and books from home, and I’ve got a few beers and some whisky also, to see me through.

As evening has turned to night so the ‘voice’ of the hospice has hushed, and I’m left pretty much to my own thoughts.

How long will I be here?

What happens after I leave?

How the hell am I going to face life after Elaine has gone?

I know the only way to get through this is to plan for one step at a time, but quite honestly I could just run and run and keep running.

All that holds me here is Elaine, and she is everything.

The reclining chair turns out to be surprisingly comfortable, though the motors are fierce and it squeaks like hell. I do sleep OK but not for very long spells at a time.

I wake and check on my wife fairly frequently. I have been told to call for help if in any doubt whatsoever, and the staff are watching constantly.

It’s an uneventful night and morning brings coffee and toast for me to start off New Year’s Eve.

Elaine remains asleep but restless, and mid-morning the nurses come in to sort out the bed and it’s patient so I take myself off and walk the few minutes into Poole, and the shops. I want a newspaper and need to revive the alcohol stocks.

It doesn’t take long to do this and I’m soon on my way back, but I take a slightly longer route

as it’s so refreshing to walk in the crisp cold air.

My car is parked in front of the hospice, still covered in frost. It seems a good place to leave some cans of beer to keep cool, and as a makeshift fridge it works very well over the coming days.

Back in her room and Elaine still seems asleep, but she obviously hears me come in and says my name so I go to the bedside and greet her with a kiss.

She then surprises me by saying; “I want a cuddle.”

It takes me several minutes to work out how to drop the rail on the side of the bed.

When I’ve mastered this metal guardian I squeeze myself onto the bed beside my wife and for a few precious, and as it turned out final, minutes we cuddled together, sharing the moment with two syringe drivers who were sworn to silence.

One of the doctors comes in just before lunchtime. I’ve not met her before and cannot now remember her name.

She checks Elaine over, who remains mostly asleep, and then says to me; “I’ve been reading Elaine’s notes, is that right, she’s been fighting cancer for thirty years?”

“Yes, it’s all true, since 1991.

Then she said the strangest thing; “But she’s so small.”

“Yep doc, that’s my wife, petite, but with a big fighting spirit.”

“She truly must have, what a battle, what strength.”

The doctor leaves as lunch arrives for me.

After lunch I sit and read and hold Elaine’s hand as she is now sitting up in bed, eyes closed.

Later she wakes and has a few sips of tea, but the hiccups return and she stops drinking.

Her last ever food was around this time. It was three thin slices of a kiwi fruit which I cut for her from one which Julie had brought in for Elaine previously.

A fitting ‘Last Supper’ as she always did love fruit.

When Julie comes to visit Elaine it is usually early to mid-afternoon and I use these opportunities to stretch my legs and get some fresh air by walking around and around the block.

I try to plan my day, develop my own routine, if you like, to try and avoid being entirely ‘adopted’ by that of the hospice.

A hospice is like any other institution in many ways. I realised quickly, that once you are captive within its walls you soon, albeit unconsciously, go with the general flow of life there.

You are no longer part of the outside world. It is still there, but you are shut off from it, almost in a monastic sense.

Hospice is like a cog within a wheel, part of the whole, yet turning to its own decree and hurrying for no one.

I sense the need to counter this somehow, but do not want to push too hard against the walls which, to be fair, are not there to punish but to sustain.

I must be honest and say that before Elaine went into Forest Holme I had always thought of a hospice as a house of death, a place where the Grim Reaper stalked the dimly lit corridors at night, searching out the next passenger for the ferry.

I could not have been more wrong.

If any ‘spirit’ stalks there it is more akin to the Christmas one than the hooded shadow.

There was no sense of dread or misery or suffering. Instead I felt it had humour, laughter and fun with an uplifting feeling of optimism which, strangely enough, did not seem out of place.

Despite all this, I don’t belong here.

I’m not a member of staff and I’m not a patient.

I’m not really a visitor either as I am actually staying here now, briefly, but still indefinitely.

I have no real place here at all, and feel a bit like the Cuckoo in a nest, accepted, welcomed even, but still not truly belonging to the environment in which it is living.

The afternoon drifts into evening and eventually the cloak of night spreads across the last hours of the year.

Elaine became quite restless earlier on and complained of pain. The nurses are quick to counter this with injections to back up the syringe drivers and now my darling is much more settled and sleeping peacefully.

A coldness creeps through my own veins as I think how these drugs are now taking over not just her life, but her death as well.

I have a notepad with me and it’s now that I start to pen words that might be those that end up being read at her funeral.

It occurs to me just what a privilege it is to be with another human being, especially one whom you love so deeply, as their life slowly flickers out, not everybody gets such a chance.

Many die away from their loves, victims of accident or sudden fate, with no opportunity on either side for goodbyes.

It is my lot in life to be here now, and even as the early fireworks begin to announce a new year, a new start, a new hope, I know that for me what’s coming is a storm, a hell, the like of which I have never lived before.

But I would not be anywhere else but right here, right now, even if it were to cost me my life to do so.

To be continued…..

NEW YEAR OPERATIONS

One of the longest spells Elaine had in hospital was in late ’96 early ’97, when she stayed in the Harbour Hospital at Poole for nearly two weeks.

This was when she had her second mastectomy and bi-lateral reconstruction. She was, I believe, the only patient in the hospital over the New Year period at the time.

As always, I stayed and worried at the hospital during her operation and went down to see her in recovery afterwards.

When she awoke she became convinced there was a white pony running around between the beds and I was duly dispatched to capture it, and under her instruction tie it safely to the end of a bed close by.

 (Strangely she ‘saw’ that pony again one evening in the hospice).

Later the drugs had worn off, and she screamed and swore as they tried to move her from trolley to bed. Elaine was their first patient to have had that particular surgery all in one go, and they were not sure how to handle her post-op.

I used to visit at different times, but often at late afternoon/evening when, as she healed, we would get her some exercise by walking around the mostly deserted hospital together.

We owned a blue Ford pick-up at the time and as I was often the only one in the car park I would, for the sake of convenience, park next to the hospital entrance.

I don’t believe that car park saw many pick- up trucks. It was more used to Mercs’ and BMW’s ETC, with the occasional Bentley thrown in, to make the others all feel inferior.

One evening, as I parked and was just getting out, a man appeared by the door next to me. A woman, who looked a bit like a nurse, was behind him.

Stupidly, my immediate thought was that Elaine had died and they had rushed out to catch me before I got up to her room.

Without any intro’ he fired into me. “WHY are you parking here! “

“Eh, what’s happened?”

“What do you mean by continually parking this truck here, this is a private hospital and so is the car park.”

The penny dropped in my head, and an edge came into my voice.

“I’m- visiting-my- wife.”

“What?”

“My wife is a patient here.”

If ever a man wanted the earth to open at that moment and take him completely, this was it.

The woman stood behind him had developed a huge grin across her face.

“But you were parked here New Year’s Eve- all day.”

“Yes, that is when she had her operation. I stayed all day.”

“But as I rushed out to stop you last night you just waved at me as you drove off.”

“No, I waved to my wife her room is above the entrance and she was at the window.”

“I was stood in the entrance.”

“I couldn’t see you, I’ve no rear-view mirror ( it had fallen off a while back) I just wave as I know she’s there.”

“OH, God.”

Poor Keith, for such was his name. He was the manager or assistant manager I believe, I’m not sure now, and he thought I was just using the car park because it was there.

It transpired he had become obsessed with catching the ‘phantom truck driver’, but he’d missed me every time. He even admitted to looking under the back cover of the truck on New Year’s Eve, fearing there may have been a bomb hidden in it!

Ours must have been the only pick-up he had ever seen parked there, why he just didn’t leave a note on the windscreen I do not know.

He couldn’t apologise enough. Especially when I rubbed it in by telling him I thought that Elaine had died and they had come out to tell me.

When I told her, Elaine laughed her head off.

Later, on one of our evening walks, we came across Keith locking his office door for the night. She teased him with; ”We’ll bring the Range Rover next time.”

He managed a half-laugh and stole away quickly. We never did meet him again.

30th December 2020 (just).

I go up to bed later and later now. I do so as I hate going without Elaine there. She was usually in bed before me and my being alone is torture. So the light goes out moments before midnight and hopefully sleep will descend quickly over me.

Almost.

I seem to have just drifted off when a horrible ‘clacking’ noise, I don’t immediately recognise, brings me back with a start.

 The room is half lit with an icy blue glare.

“Oh Christ, it’s my mobile phone!”

I snatch it up-12.18am-and an unknown number.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is that Mark?”

“Yes.”

“Hello, it’s Clare here, at Forest Holme.”

“Oh God no.”

“It’s OK Mark, Elaine’s alright.”

“Christ.”

“She’s just woken up and got in a panic. She thought she’d missed seeing you and Kathy. I’ve explained that she hasn’t, but she is a bit confused and want’s to speak to you, shall I put her on?”

“Yes, yes do Clare, thanks.”

My heart feels like a slumbering diesel motor recently fired-up after several decades neglect, and now is trying to make up for lost time.

“Mark?”

“Hello darling.”

“Oh Mark, I feel so stupid.”

Her voice sounds frail, vulnerable even, I just want to hold her.

“Mark I woke-up suddenly. I thought I’d missed seeing you and Kathy, I felt angry then afraid and I started to panic, I feel so stupid.”

“You’re not stupid darling, you just woke-up suddenly that’s all.”

“I know now Mark, I didn’t then it was horrible. I wanted to speak to you, Clare said she’d call.”

“Do you want me to come over now Elaine?”

“No, stay there, I don’t want you to drive now I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Actually you’ll see me today at about 10 o’clock, it’s well gone midnight now.”

“Oh alright love, til later on then, goodnight, I love you.”

“Love you to darling, goodnight.”

The phone falls silent. The blue glare from the screen briefly mocks my panic, before plunging me into darkness.

I flick on the bedside light, and head downstairs. I’ve not been drinking much in case of being called to the hospice at night. I figure I won’t be called again tonight though. So now I pull out a bottle of Jim Beam, pour half a tumbler full, and down the lot. Then repeat.

I’m at Forest Holme just before 10 in the morning.

I’ve been thinking hard since last night. This situation with me on tender-hooks all the time just can’t continue. As soon as I’m back from the hospice I become a bundle of nerves, taking the phones with me everywhere in case I should miss a call-THE call.

Many years ago Elaine was recovering in bed from some cancer related problem, when I took her some tea and we started talking about the possibility of her death.

We never did shy away from this type of conversation, but we didn’t make it an everyday topic either. When the circumstances arose the subject was discussed without embarrassment, and then left alone again.

While we were talking Elaine looked at me direct and with her customary big smile said:

“I won’t be afraid Mark, as long as you’re there to hold my hand.”

So I promised her I would be, and now I’m worrying.

What if she has a bad turn and I’m at home. It’ll take me at least twenty minutes on clear roads to reach the hospice.

What if I drive like a twat, crash, injure or kill some poor bastard and/or myself. That’s not going to help Elaine, no something has to change, and now.

I know what I need to do, just have to pick my moment.

As I walk along the side path to Elaine’s room I pass the window and can see she’s lying back in bed, eyes closed.

She looks up as I enter the room.

The ever present smile appears and she greets me first.

“Hello darling.”

“Hello sweetheart, you OK?”-she sounds tired.

“I am now you’re here. I’m sorry about last night Mark, I was silly for getting in a panic.”

“Don’t feel silly love, let’s just blame it on the drugs.”

“Alright, I feel better now.”

I take off my coat then go over and kiss her and, as I gently squeeze her hand, I realise just how weak she is becoming.

Before we can say much more a knock at the door heralds the arrival of Kathy, Elaine’s councillor. She’s on time and kitted out in protective gear, which now seems so normal.

Elaine perks up now Kathy has arrived.

I met Kathy for the first time yesterday, and soon come to understand why Elaine likes and trusts her so much.

I find there is a genuineness about Kathy, coupled with an ability to connect and listen without any hint of condescension or indifference.

I don’t think it is fair for me to say here what passed between the three of us. Much of the time it was just Kathy and I talking, with Elaine joining in now and then. But as it is Kathy’s profession to council others, it is not for me to share anything, that was said, in case it causes difficulty for her.

Suffice to say we passed 45 minutes together, and Elaine was all the happier for it, so was I.

After Kathy has gone the nurses come in to tidy both bed and patient and check the syringe drivers.

I take the chance to walk the few minutes into Poole to buy a newspaper and get some air. When I return Elaine is led down in bed seemingly asleep.

I’m trying to keep quiet but she hears me and asks; “Is that you babe?”

“The one and only.” I reply as I go to the side of the bed and kiss her.

 The moment feels right.

“Elaine? Darling?”

“Hmmm.”

“Do you want me to stay with you here from now on?”

With eyes still closed her answer is one clear word.

“Yes.”

I’m hovering near the open door leading into the hospice. I can’t go beyond because of the restrictions but a nurse soon comes along. It’s Mandy and I ask her what the procedure is to allow me to stay.

“Wait here Mark, I’ll go and talk to Sister.”

She’s back in a couple of minutes.

“Mark, Sister says you can stay as long as you need to. We can’t let you use the relatives suite as it’s all closed down at present but you can use the facilities here and I’ll show you how to work the recliner, they say it’s very comfortable. We’ll give you blankets and pillows to use and as Elaine isn’t really eating now we can feed you as well.”

I’m so relieved, I can be here for however long, but there’s things to do first.

I go outside and call best pal Mike, he already has our spare keys and the codes for home, and he is more than happy to step in and look after things there.

Then I leave Forest Holme and head back to collect what I’ll need for my stay at the hospice for at least the next few days.

At home I pack up what I think I’ll be needing, including alcohol and chocolate. It’s all a bit rushed, like a last minute military operation that’s just got approval, but I’m all done in an hour or so and decide to have a cup of tea before I return.

The cat’s eye me suspiciously from their beds but make no move to come into the main house.

As I’m sitting at the kitchen table drinking my tea my eyes wander to the mirror on the wall opposite. Elaine bought that mirror at a scout jumble sale years before we met, it’s been everywhere with her since.

For some years now we’ve pushed the Christmas cards we get around the inside of the frame, and every Christmas she drapes a large length of tinsel across the top.

It’s all there now, but as I stare at it, it seems so pointless-‘Merry Christmas Happy New Year’- fat fucking chance of that.

It’s like everything I know, everything I have and love and believe in is slowly being sponged away before my eyes, and I can’t do a damn thing to stop it. I’m powerless, trying to hold on to the handful of cold water that represents the life I know and it’s trickling out between my fingers no matter how hard I press them together.

I can’t lose Elaine, I just can’t.

 Please God, let me wake up.

How long ago it all seems since that operation at the Harbour 24 years back. So much of our happiness depended on its success and what we made of life, and each other, afterwards.

We’ve done a bloody site better than many would, in the same circumstances, but thinking of what we have lived alongside all these years, the enormity of it can easily overwhelm.

As I finish my drink the thought strikes me, it’s a quarter of a century since our honeymoon. We took the blue pick-up, it was the best vehicle we had at the time, we owned it for years. It’s long since been scraped but the memories remain intact.

They’ll live-on as long as one of us does- one of us.

Memory lane is too costly an excursion right now, so I head for the door. I remember the credit card bill that needs paying at the last minute, but decide to leave it for now-a decision I’ll come to regret later- I just want to get out of here and back to Elaine.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up in a hospice, on New Year’s Eve.

The honeymoon is over.

To be continued…..

ANNIVERSARIES.

Not so many people know that Elaine and I married each other twice.

The first time was December 29th 1995. The second time was July 18th 20??-  we could always remember the day but later were never sure of the year.

Our original wedding came shortly after Elaine’s divorce from her first husband was finalised. We hadn’t been living together for very long but I loved her fiercely, and over an evening meal of cod and chips at the kitchen table, I knelt and asked her to marry me.

She responded with a big YES, and then insisted we drive over to tell her parents, a phone call just wouldn’t do- but we did finish the chips first.

We were not exactly very flush for money at the time, so a budget was set of £500 for our wedding and the reception which was to be held at home.

I think about sixty people were invited. This being quite a tight fit as the Lodge isn’t all that big but Elaine reckoned on some being in the garden, for a smoke, while at least two people would be in the toilets at any one time.

We married at Blandford register office, 3pm on a freezing cold day. My wife to be looked stunning, and I fell in love all over again.

The reception went really well, but the cloud over it, that not many knew, was that the previous evening we had learned that Elaine had an aggressive form of cancer, and after our short honeymoon in Devon she would be coming back to surgery and chemotherapy.

I can only imagine how this must have played on the mind of a newly- wed woman. She must have worried so much. How was I going to view her after surgery then chemo’, bald as well as scarred.

Elaine didn’t do self- pity, at least not outwardly, and whatever her fears she kept them well hidden.

She hated the chemo’ as much as the surgery. When it was over she threw out or burnt the clothes she’d worn to the sessions and even chucked the earrings she had worn as the association was too much to bear.

“Never again Mark, not even for you.”

How those words were to come back to us in the coming years.

This was why she wanted a second wedding that would be happy, joyful and just for us. Cancer not invited.

We decided on July as both sets of parents had married then and the weather, hopefully, would be warmer.

Kingston Lacy Church- St Stephens- lies a short walk to the back of the Lodge. Elaine went to see the vicar in charge at home. I don’t recall his name but he was rumoured locally to be somewhat unconventional and mad as a box of frogs.

He didn’t disappoint. When she arrived at the arranged time, Elaine found him sat at the kitchen table with most of his breakfast down the front of his cassock, paperwork piled on every surface and much of the floor, and too many cats and kittens running wild to count.

The stumbling block was that Elaine was Jewish, the church is C of E, as am I- if you want to put a handle on me- and she did not want some, rather difficult to exclude, parts of the Christian service to be included for us.

The vicar dug his heels in, so did Elaine, but after much ‘consultation’ and a little giving of ground, on both sides, the arrangements were settled.

Thus on a beautiful summers afternoon, in July, we found ourselves walking up through the woods behind our home with Champagne and glasses in hand.

Elaine looked as though she had stepped from a Jane Austen novel.

She wore a gorgeous light summer dress and carried a posy of summer flowers, with her hair cut short she looked stunning. If she hadn’t been my wife, I would have married her again anyway (work that one out).

The vicar locked the three of us in the church and the ceremony went through beautifully, he even did part of it in Hebrew as a surprise for her.

We all drank Champagne then we covered a glass and broke it underfoot at the altar (it’s buried in our garden). The vicar took a couple of pictures and then we walked back home, for scones, jam and tea, and a one night honeymoon.

Out of our two weddings Elaine much preferred to remember the last one. I’m just happy that she wanted to marry me at least once.

26th December 2020-Boxing Day.

I don’t fear nightmares when I go to bed. I welcome the oblivion sleep defers on me. The nightmare begins when I wake from that mini-death into a new day.

It takes a split second for me to realise that I’m alone that she isn’t beside me, reality floods in, my heart is made of lead and the weight drags at my spirit.

Elaine’s not here at home, she’s at the hospice, not dead still living, but I know she will not return. She is still alive though, is there not hope if life is present?

Fate is teasing me. Dangling useless threads of possibilities that can never be, but wanting me to grab at them none the less, to make my suffering more and laugh at my impotent anger and tears.

Even though I know it’s hopeless, I don’t want to believe that this loneliness is to be my future, my waking reality.

I arrive at Forest Holme about 12.30 pm.

Elaine is sat up in bed, eyes closed. She still has her Christmas antlers on from yesterday. The batteries are nearly flat so I guess they’ve been on all night. I never do find out for certain.

Her LED ‘candle’ is glowing on the end- of -bed chest, and I turn it out (the nurses switch it on at night for her until I take over. It is on every night for the rest of her life).

Elaine soon wakes and we have hugs, and kiss hello.

“How are you feeling darling?” I ask her.

“Got very tired from yesterday so I slept well.”

“Any pain?”

“A bit uncomfortable earlier on. They altered the syringe driver, I’m ok now.”

I glance down at the little machine in its ‘sock’ beside her. The people who invent these things are the ones who deserve the medals.

We chat for a while about the previous day. Her eyes close frequently and she ‘drifts’ but isn’t actually falling into deep sleep at present.

Lunch soon arrives, and Elaine has some soup but only nibbles at the solid food. She sips at some fruit juice and the hiccups start again, later she tries a few spoons of pudding but really eats very little.

I’m silently willing her to eat more but my silence is not very effective.

Elaine dozes gently afterwards and I sit in the recliner by her side trying to read and holding her hand at the same time. Nurses pop in every so often to check all is ok with the driver and its patient.

The sounds of the hospice filter through to me.

That Christmas Spirit is still walking the corridors, and not far away some of the staff are singing Happy Birthday for one of the other patients.

Later Elaine wakes and gives me a big smile.

 “Are you alright Mark?”

“Yes I’m fine” I lie.

She then continues; “You know it’s good to have nice things in your life, our home, cars, all the material stuff that comes along. But at the end of the day none of it really matters that much. We own things for a while, then they just move on to someone else. All that really matters is what we are to each other, that’s what counts the most.”

I don’t know if she’s just thought of this now, or even if she’s asking or telling me, but it did make me realise how deep her thoughts were running.

She interrupts my thinking;” I suppose, at the end it just boils down to love. How much you love and have been loved by others.”

“Thank you for loving me Mark” she says quietly, looking straight into my eyes.

“You don’t have to thank me darling. I love you and you love me, that’s all there is to it.”

“You won’t forget me, will you Mark?”

“That’s not possible love. Even if I get old and senile I won’t be forgetting you. I don’t ever want to. You are my wife and always will be as far as I’m concerned. So don’t you go wandering off too far my girl. I’m not wanting to spend half of eternity trying to find you cos’ you’ve gone and gotten yourself lost somewhere.”

“I’ll be there for you darling, I promise.”

She closes her eyes and lies back against the pillows still holding on to my hand.

That short conversation seemed so bizarre, and still does even now.

The scaffold for the words was her impending death, what we both knew to be coming soon, yet we could just have easily been two people discussing a shopping list. There were tears playing close to the surface of my eyes but Elaine remained unemotional.

The medication was taking more than just the pain away from her I’m sure. Yet the more I think about it the more I believe that she had come to terms with death a long time since, and had filed those terms away so she could bring them out now when needed, to ease the journey, the transition, from here to……

The next couple of days follow the same pattern.

I go to the hospice early afternoon and stay four to five hours. I read and Elaine sleeps mostly, we never really do have any long conversations again.

Tuesday 29th December.

I leave home in the morning today because it’s a special day.

When I arrive at Forest Holme I’m greeted by everyone with, “Happy Anniversary Mark.”

Elaine has proudly told them all it is our 25th today. I wasn’t even sure she would be able to remember but she has told everyone who will listen.

I’ve brought a card for her and help her to open it as her co-ordination is not good and she isn’t very strong. I notice a second syringe driver has now joined the first.

She bought a card for me but it got left at home unwritten. It’s on the mantelpiece anyway.

We agreed from the first never to do anniversary presents. At least that makes things easier.

I get a big smile with my kiss hello and my wife holds my hand tightly.

“Happy anniversary darling.”

I wish her the same and we kiss once more.

Looking into her eyes I see such love coming from them it is almost like a physical presence. I see them now as I write this, I don’t think time will ever efface that memory from my heart or mind.

The impression I get now is that she has been holding on especially hard to get here.

It has been a personal challenge, a defiance against her illness to get to this date, twenty five years together, nothing not even cancer, was going to get in her way to be alive for this day.

“Hello Elaine.”

A petite woman with short blond hair and wearing protective clothing, is framed in the doorway.

“Kathy it’s you!”

The pleasure in my wife’s voice is evident.

Kathy has been Elaine’s councillor, on and off, for many years. She is based at the hospice but has been on leave over Christmas.

It’s her first day back and she was shocked to see Elaine’s name on the list of patients. Ironically Elaine has a virtual appointment with her arranged for tomorrow morning ( it’s the last entry in her diary).

Kathy stays a short while and suggests having a face to face meeting in Elaine’s room tomorrow, at the arranged time of 10am, I’m invited to attend as well.

Kathy leaves and shortly afterwards nurses arrive with a bottle of Bucks Fizz and two glasses for my wife and I. After merrily wishing us “Happy Anniversary” they leave us alone and I open the bottle and pour two half glasses.

We enjoy a short toast- “To Us” and Elaine manages one tiny sip and to be honest I don’t want much more.

I know this is our ultimate ‘fizz’ together, there have been lots before, I can’t even remember the first, what’s the betting I never forget the last.

To be continued….

Second Wedding
First Wedding

ALTERNATIVE CHRISTMAS.

One year, 2006 I think, Elaine and myself had an alternative Christmas Day – on January 19th.

It came about because of Elaine’s nearly step- dad Leslie. I say nearly because Elaine’s mum sadly died just before they were due to marry, but Les remained close, especially to Elaine.

He was a nice man but difficult to get to know. The phrase ‘solitary as an oyster’ could have been written for him.

After mum’s death he liked, on occasions, to take Elaine out for lunches, though she dreaded his driving. So as we had no idea what to get him at Christmas we decided to take him out for Christmas dinner on the day itself.

First time was a place near Salisbury.

Oh dear. They were grossly understaffed and over booked. The dining room was uncomfortably packed. No music at all, so we were all listening to each other talk. A strange burning smell announced the early demise of the Christmas puddings.

Service was sloooow, then seemed to stop altogether. The food, when it came being fair, wasn’t too bad, except for the charred puds. We were trapped in there for six hours plus, Les seemed ok with it all but Elaine and I hated every minute.

The following year we tried again at a place near Poole.

Oh dear (again). They had jammed tables in wherever they could, it was heaving and hot as a Turkish bathhouse. Music was too loud and not even Christmassy, and people were talking too loud because of it. Kids, who obviously did not want to be there, were moving around, playing electronic games or jabbering on their bloody phones- as were many adults. Worst of all the food was unremarkable and easily forgotten.

All of this passed over Leslie’s head completely. For a thin guy he shifted a lot of rations, then afterwards he wanted to walk it off, so we headed for Sandbanks and a walk along the shoreline.

It was evilly cold, and walking back the wind bit right through us. Les didn’t seem to notice.

By the time Elaine and I got home my nose was streaming, my throat was akin to a piece of raw meat and I couldn’t stop shivering. Elaine was frozen to the bone.

Over whisky with honey and hot water, we decided that we deserved another Christmas, an alternative day to make amends.

January 19th was settled on to avoid our wedding anniversary (29th Dec’). Elaine’s birthday (7th Jan’) and the dates of my immediate families’ deaths ( Jan’ 21-22 & 24). With the advent of what has since happened its plain to see why I’m not a January person.

We had a tiny fir tree that I had rescued, which stood 15 inches high in its pot, so that became our Christmas tree for the day. We put some small baubles on it and tinsel too, but no lights as it wasn’t man enough, but it served very well.

There was a small chicken with all the trimmings for the Christmas meal plus a saved pud, and a budget was set for presents at ten pounds each (though we did both cheat a little here). Christmas Carols came via CD.

Little presents stuffed in ankle socks were there to wake up to, then later we opened the ‘bigger’ presents over tea, coffee croissants and fizz. Due to our budget they were mostly crap from cheap or charity shops though Elaine was quite taken with her coloured wooden set of clothes pegs.

The rest of the day we fooled around, read books, watched TV and then prepared the meal together for early evening. It was all great fun, and we always did agree it was one of our best Christmas’s ever.

December 25th Christmas Day 2020.

I was dreading waking up alone this morning and it is no better than expected.

In these later years we always tried to spend Christmas day alone together. We’d do Christmas stockings for each other to open, in bed first thing, with tea and coffee.

Afterwards Elaine would go off to sort out Bruce while I would make a start on preparing the veg’ etc for dinner later on. Then, when Elaine returned things would go much as I have just described above as the alternative Christmas Day.

It was never any use trying to get her to wait and open some presents later on in the day. As I stated in an earlier blog, she was like a big kid at Christmas and couldn’t contain herself where presents were concerned, whether giving or receiving.

We speak briefly on the phone, Elaine sounds sleepy but is cheerful and I tell her I’ll be there around 1 o’clock.

 Quite honestly it’s bloody miserable at home without her. I can’t bear to listen to the carols on the radio, though I’ve always loved them in the past. So I tidy up the house and prepare Christmas stockings to open with Elaine later. She has already told me where my stocking presents are, so I sort out his n’ hers and am ready to leave home by 12.30.

At the last minute I remember a box that arrived a while ago from Elaine’s friend Kimberly, who lives in the USA/Canada, and I take it with me as well.

When I arrive at Forest Holme I find a genuine Christmas spirit is abroad at the hospice.

The staff have given presents to all the patients and Elaine has got a lovely deep green bed cover with a gold pattern on it and the Charlie Mackesy book, The Boy, The Mole The Fox and the Horse, and though she already has a copy it is a wonderful gesture from them.

Elaine cannot concentrate too long on any one thing. Her co-ordination is becoming slightly clumsy and her eyes close frequently. I figure the drugs are on the increase.

She wants to open Kim’s box first and my pocket knife makes short work of the packaging. It is full of fun and delights. It is as though Kim somehow knew there would not be another chance, another Christmas. There are cosmetics and perfume for Elaine and quirky toys etc for us both plus four sets of toy antlers to wear on your head. Typical of my wife she loves these the best and with a little help pops on a set with small flashing lights, which she keeps on all day.

Her lunch arrives and she picks at bits and pieces of the meal-I help out a bit, but she does make a better job of the ice cream that follows.

We then have our stockings to open, though it’s me doing most of the opening. It’s fun, but bittersweet, isn’t strong enough to describe it all for me.

One silly item Elaine loves is a LED battery powered ‘church candle’ about four inches high. When switched on it has a soothing deep orange glow and it’s placed on the chest at the end of her bed, where it stays.

 The hospice has become quite noisy. Christmas seems to have cheered everyone. We keep the doors open so as not to be shut off from everything.

There are visitors in relays for the other patients, and the old boy, Bill I think, whose room is further up the corridor has his TV on too loud, but no one seems to care.

The hospice staff constantly check-up on Elaine to make sure all is ok, I cannot praise them enough. They do their work without any real intrusion on our time together and all seem so pleased to be there.

Elaine’s best pal Julie arrives to visit mid-afternoon, which gives me a chance to get out for a walk around and phone Colin, Elaine’s brother, and others. Due to the lockdown visitors are not encouraged generally, and as Colin lives outside the area he cannot visit at all.

I walk around for an hour or so. The air is crisp and refreshing but it’s all so surreal, like I’m playing out a part in a script and because I know the final act is imminent I want to hit pause and hold it there forever.

Back at the hospice Elaine is nodding off then waking, then nodding again. Julie and I talk awhile then struggle to hold back the tears as we hug our goodbyes. I will see her shortly as she and husband John have invited me to dinner at 5.30’ish.

Elaine still has her antlers on though they keep slipping as she falls asleep. She is obviously tired so I sit quietly beside her holding her hand and trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of this day. Later I hug and kiss my darling goodbye and reluctantly leave around 5.30.

It is only a short drive to Julie and John’s home, and I’m grateful for the company the wine (one glass) and the meal, in that order.

Thank God for this couple, their kindness and friendship knows no boundaries.

I’m home by about 8pm. I was tempted to call in at Forest Holme on my way back, but Elaine would most likely be settled for the night and not wanting to disturb her I decide to call it a day for Christmas with my wife.

The Lodge is dark and cold, everything just as I left it hours ago. The Christmas tree looks forlorn, forgotten and embarrassed in its traditional corner.

As I sit on the settee and memories of so many warm and joyous Christmas times in the past, in this very room, come flooding back to me I am simply overwhelmed.

I know this has been the last Christmas together for Elaine and I. I also know that it’s this bastard I’ll remember down through the years without her.

Without Her.

How the hell will Christmas ever be without Elaine.

The idea of a Merry Christmas without her infectious joy and happiness for it all is to me right now, utterly impossible to imagine.

It’s such a cruelty that this should all happen at this time of the year. The memories will flood back as constant as the season, and just as bitter.

Tears trickle down my cheeks and though I fight it, I can’t stop the flood and weep uncontrollably.

How can such utter misery exist now, where such happiness lived before?

I cannot help but wonder where I’ll be this time next year, what pain will I be feeling?

Starring at the blank TV screen I find no answer, a voice inside says, “Ask yourself next Christmas Eve.”

To be continued…

Teardrops

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.

DOWN TO EARTH …AGAIN

Elaine had always wanted to fly in a hot air balloon. One year as a surprise I booked us a flight that hopefully would take us over our home and locality, which is what she particularly wanted to do.

These flights are very weather sensitive and after many cancellations we reluctantly took a trip from Fordingbridge ( some miles from home) which took us over Salisbury, one beautiful summers morning.

It was all very pleasant, I can recommend floating 1200 feet over Salisbury Cathedral in a wicker basket as a grand cure for constipation and any desire on my part to do it again. But Elaine really wanted to fly over home so she ‘blagged’ a reduced cost flight to try again.

After the usual false starts, we walked from home one evening, the mile or so to the local school playing fields for our next adventure.

It was a lovely summer evening, but take-off was considerably delayed due, I believe, to concerns over the wind. However we were eventually up and away and heading for home when the wind started to gust and took us over meadows and towards the river.

I gather the pilots sometimes like to show off a bit by skimming down to the water then shooting upwards just in the nick of time. This duly happened, and as she could no more swim than fly, Elaine’s face was a picture.

So must mine have been, when with a large oath ending in ‘er’, the pilot hit the gas as another huge gust took us towards a big sod of an oak tree on the opposite bank. He wasn’t quick enough.

The basket crashed into the tree top then we shot upwards taking plenty of ‘oaky’ camouflage with us. We then levelled out across meadows and road but were heading straight for the only house on the hillside in front of us.

People were having a barbeque when we all but dropped-in, our pilot was struggling a bit. They weren’t best pleased and much swearing followed us as we only just made it over their roofline.

We floated around a while longer but it had all gone a bit quiet in the basket by now and we were pleased to hear we would be landing soon.

This took place in a field the other side of town. But as we touched down another big gust caught us. The balloon went sideways, tipping the basket on its side, and dragging it along the ground.

We were stacked and helpless like wine bottles in a wicker rack.

When we eventually stopped Elaine crawled out from under me, looked around then gasped and pointed.

Running across the field towards us was a small figure all in pink, with wings, and a wand in one hand.

Turned out to be a little girl just a few years old. She’d been to a party and had just got home when she saw the balloon and unable to contain herself had rushed out to see it, hotly pursued by her mum.

“Christ” said Elaine “I thought she was an angel and we were all dead.”

“Hope I feel better than this when I’m dead.” Said a guy behind us, and we all managed a laugh or two.

On the way home I asked Elaine if she wanted to try for,’ Third Time Lucky’, and fly over home.

Her reply of “Bugger That” sealed the end of our ballooning days.

Wednesday 23rd December.

I arrive at Forest Holme just before midday.

Though it is less than 48 hours since I left Elaine here, it seems like half a lifetime has elapsed.

After last night’s conversation with Doctor Kevin and then a later short chat with Elaine, I’m left in little doubt as to the misery of our situation.

My hollow prayers all the way here have been said knowing there is now no chance of my darling ever leaving this place, alive that is.

The staff who greet me as I am let in all act with the obvious knowledge that they are expecting me and why. After temperature checks for Covid 19, and a fresh face mask, I’m led around the outside of the hospice, through a side gate and along the path that leads to the outside entrance of Elaine’s room. As I pass the window she sees’ me, and I’m rewarded with a big smile and a little wave.

She is sitting in the gaudy recliner alongside the bed, and speaks first as I shut the door.

“Hello darling how are you?”

“Fine sweetheart, now I’m with you again. You ok?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

We as humans always do this don’t we; “ How are you?”

“Great, and yourself?”

“Fine thank you.”

Why can’t we just be honest; “ How are you?”

“Like a flat turd actually, and yourself?”

 “Still fucking dying, far as I know.”

I know this is how she would have preferred the conversation to go but perhaps the gravity of the situation got the better of us just then.

She is smiling still as we kiss our hellos and I perch on the bed beside her.

Elaine continues; “ Well, this is all a bit strange, everything seems to be happening so quickly.”

“Too damn quickly love, but you had a better night I gather.”

“Yes, thanks to this” she reply’s proudly, and pats an object tucked down by her leg in the chair.

It’s a syringe driver. A battery powered machine about the size of a large packet of biscuits, it supplies a constant amount of medication, via a tube and needle.

“It’s even got its own designer bag,” she continues on, pointing out the cover that surrounds it.

I reason this must be a staff/patient in-house joke, as it looks to me more like a large beige sock that doesn’t fit too well, but I keep quiet.

Elaine is surprisingly bright, but she does close her eyes quite frequently and is still prone to sudden bouts of violent hiccups, especially if she sips a drink.

I’ve hardly time to settle in when a gentle knock on the door announces the arrival of Doctor Kevin.

He comes in, wearing the blue attire that doctors seem to favour plus mask and protective apron. He brings a small chair with him.

He introduces himself and I like him straight away. A little above average height, stocky, with short cut ginger hair and the pale complexion that goes with it. There is a benevolent smile in his eyes and his whole manner brings to mind a country curate from a Victorian novel.

Doctor Kevin places his chair opposite Elaine and sits down with his back to the outside door. I sit back on the bed by my wife.

“Well, have you had a chance to talk yet?”

“Not yet Doctor Kevin, Marks only just got here.” Elaine replies.

“OK, will it be easier for me to go through everything we’ve found out and decided?” says Kevin.

I reply that I think I need him to do just that.

Elaine and I are holding hands and she has a gentle contented smile on her face that I find strangely puzzling.

Doctor Kevin continues; “As I mentioned last night Mark, I have been able to give Elaine a thorough examination now that the fluid in her abdomen has gone down somewhat, and I can feel the cancer mass here, around the stomach and also in the middle back area.”

He points this out on himself, Elaine is still smiling.

“It’s not in her stomach Doc’ is it?” I ask.

“No but it is all around and is pushing her stomach to such an extent that it is restricting its capabilities. This is why the oral pain medication was not working. It has to pass through the stomach lining to be effective and was not able to do so. Now that we’ve got Elaine on the syringe driver we can by-pass that particular problem.”

“Has the cancer spread anywhere else Doc’? (Me again).

“It’s travelled extensively throughout the lymph system, which is now severely compromised and I see from her last scan that the liver is effected also. As I said Mark she is now far too weak for any more anti- cancer treatments, it is only a matter of time, I am so very sorry to say.”

I look at my love. She has her eyes shut and still the smile is present. There is an expression of gracious acceptance in that smile. It is the look of someone who understands that they are exactly where they are meant to be at this moment in time, and have made their peace with it.

It’s as though this conversation was nothing to do with her whatsoever.

I just feel a deep rooted sadness. Even though I know this is real there’s a part of me that still can’t, or won’t, believe it.

I suppose I didn’t want to believe it. The idea of living without Elaine was, I think, just too big a thing to grasp…it still is!

“How much time Doc’?”

It’s me that’s spoken, but it wasn’t a conscious effort.

“That’s difficult to say, Mark.” He replies.

“Everybody is different but my opinion is that it’ll be more than a week, but not much more than two, if that.”

How many times has this man been asked that question, I think to myself. It’s a stupid one really. He hasn’t got a crystal ball, for God’s sake. There’s nothing definite about any of this now, except the end result. He can only guess, but then he must have had a lot of practise, mustn’t he.

By now I’m inclined to think that Doctor Kevin would have made a bloody good diplomat.

He continues; “Elaine and I have had a long talk about all of this, haven’t we Elaine?”

Elaine opens her eyes. Even though they’ve been closed it’s obvious that she has not missed any of the conversation.

“Yes Doctor Kevin we have. I understand it all ok.”

“Doctor Kevin” she continues. “What’ll happen at the end, will I just explode inside?”

There is a ripple of the giggles between the three of us.

“No Elaine, you aren’t going to explode I assure you.” Says Doctor Kevin.

Then he continues; “As the pain and discomfort get worse we will up the dose of pain killing medicine and introduce another syringe driver. The medicine works with a sedative to relax the body into accepting it. This will make you sleepy, and with your low sodium levels you will begin to loose concentration. As you become more uncomfortable we will increase the doses of everything. This will in turn, make you sleep more, then at some point you will start to get quite agitated in your sleep. We will then introduce more drugs to settle you down and you will fall into an even deeper sleep, then deeper still, until you are at the point where we will no longer be able to wake you up, and then……”

There is a momentary silence before Elaine pipe’s up quite cheerfully. “Oh that all sounds pretty good.”

She looks at me “Doesn’t it darling? So I’ll be asleep most of the time, better than I’d thought.”

I can hardly believe her. Here we are discussing the imminent end of her life, her death. Yet her only question is an almost comical one as to how it will take place. There is no concern, absolutely no fear at all, and I know it’s not the drugs, she’s been like this all along.

My sadness is now bolstered up by the immense pride I feel in this incredible woman who is still, for the moment at least, my wife.

To be con’t …..

NEVER GIVE UP

Kempton Park Racecourse hold their antique fairs on the second and last Tuesdays of the month.

Out of all the ones Elaine and I did in the 90’s and early 2000’s they consistently proved to be the most lucrative.

They start at 6am so we had to sort and load-up on the Monday beforehand, then travel overnight- a ninety mile trip- to get a good pitch, then try to catch a few hours’ sleep in the truck before kick- off.

The buyers who turned-up were serious spenders. They didn’t just look and poke and make comments like “Oh we found one of those in grannies loft, but we chucked it out Ha- Ha.”

(If I only had a pound for every time!)

We always did well but, being outside had to be wary of the weather.

One Tuesday small, fluttery flakes of snow started to fall out of a slate grey sky at about 5.30am.It got harder and harder.

Some sellers didn’t even bother to unload. A few die hard buyers came out early, but soon retreated against the white onslaught.

We unloaded everything, but after some early sales to regulars it all just died off. The blanket of snow made our gear look as good as everyone else’s but Elaine’s face just shouted of disappointment. She always put such effort into it all, as indeed she did with everything she turned her hand or mind to.

Elaine would simply never admit defeat so even though many around us packed-up and left, we remained, determined to stick it out.

By 11am though it seemed hopeless. The weather had eased off but there was hardly anyone left around so we started brushing off the snowy foe in preparation to packing up ourselves.

We were always near the top end, close to a separate parking area where large vehicles could drive in, via an alternative gate, for loading purposes.

The sound of heavy diesel motors made us look up, as into this area drove three huge coaches followed by a large panel van and then a 7.5 ton truck.

The coaches proceeded to disgorge hoards of foreign passengers on an antiques buying tour-the van was for any items too large for the coaches. The truck was with film prop buyers, who were regulars, but all had been stuck the other side of London due to the snow.

They descended on the few of us left like a plague of starving locusts. The snow didn’t seem to bother them at all. Pleased to be out of the confines of the coaches, they laughed, took photos, and bought and bought and bought.

It turned out they all feared everything would be over by the time they reached Kempton, so they were overjoyed to find some of us still there. Elaine, of course, was in her element.

We were on our way home before 1pm. There were only a few odd bits to load back up.

It proved to be one of our best days anywhere ever.

Elaine’s beaming smile all the way home, could have melted what was left of the snow.

Monday 21st December, evening.

I’m at home when the phone rings just after 6pm.

“Hello is that Mark?”

“Yes”

“It’s Doctor Kevin here, I’m Elaine’s doctor at Forest Holme.”

“Hi Doctor Kevin, everything alright?”

“Yes fine, no cause to worry, just a courtesy call really, to introduce myself.”

“OK, thank you.”

 “Elaine has settled-in, we’ve taken blood for testing, should have some results in the morning. Our main concern is getting her pain under control.”

“It’s been pretty bad doc, for her to complain it has to be.”

“Yes so I understand, she told me about last night. We can’t allow a repeat of that.”

He continues, “Mark, please understand Elaine is with us for assessment purposes only, at present. She is not a palliative care patient at the moment. Is there anything you wish to ask me?”

“I can’t think of anything.”

“OK fine. If I call at the same time tomorrow I may have more news for you, would that be alright?”

“I’ll be here.”

“Till tomorrow then, goodnight.”

He sounds like a nice guy, but there was no real news there. I always suspect that they know far more than they wish to tell.

Elaine calls about 9pm to say she’s been asleep, that they’ve taken blood, and is on her oral pain medication, so fingers crossed for a better night.

She sounds pretty sleepy as we say our goodnights.

It’s a strange night for me home alone. There have been so many others in the past when Elaine has been in hospital. But this one has the element of a countdown beginning about it and I am feeling very uneasy.

Could this now be the bullet we can’t dodge, we’ve got away with it so many times before, but what if?

Neither Elaine nor I are quitters, we simply could not afford to be. We’ve never given up to the cancer, just once would be all it needed. Our life together depends on our refusal to change our position or compromise.

We’ve both been born with an obstinate streak.

With Elaine it’s pure determination, whatever.

In me it’s unwavering stubbornness, and most likely a refusal to see what others take as common sense.

The two of us together make a formidable crew and I’m damned now if I’m going to let the creeping doubts get the better of me.

I stay up as late as possible, hopefully to gain sleep quickly, and not have to lie there trying to best guess scenario the future.

I hate going to bed alone. There is a coldness about it that always feels slightly too familiar.

Elaine calls just after 7am on Tuesday morning. She sounds groggy and says she did not have too good a night’” Couldn’t get comfortable, pain kept me awake.”

She’s ‘tried’ some toast and porridge for breakfast. But I know ‘tried’ means she ate very little.

We agree to speak later that night.

For the life of me I can’t remember how I passed the day but the phone rings again dead on 6pm.

“Hello Mark”-its Doctor Kevin as promised.

“Hi doc.”

“How are you Mark?”

“That depends on what you have to say.”

“Well we’ve run quite a few tests, some of the results are a bit bizarre.”

“That figures.”

“One thing we have learned, Elaine’s sodium level is low. In fact it’s very low, which would account for the confusion that she’s experiencing. It’s a known symptom.”

“Any idea of the cause doc?”

“Not at present, we’re running more tests.”

I think back to my conversation with Elaine this morning and mention that she said about not having too good a night.

“Yes I know Mark. We’ve now changed tack on the pain medication and have put her on a syringe driver so as to by-pass the digestive process, this should work a lot better for her from now on.”

He continues very quickly, “Mark, would you like to come and see Elaine tomorrow?”

“Yes of course I would but what about the Covid restrictions? I thought Christmas Day was the only chance to visit.”

“Well, I don’t see why we can’t make an exception in this case. Perhaps I could come and meet you then to?”

All of a sudden alarm bells are ringing inside me- I may have been born in the morning but it wasn’t yesterday morning.

“Doctor Kevin.”

“Yes?”

“I’ve got the feeling you’re trying awfully bloody hard not to tell me something.”

There’s a few seconds of silence before he takes up again.

“ Ok Mark she said you both always wanted the truth, however hard.”

I remain silent so he continues.

“I gave Elaine a complete examination this morning, and afterwards we had a long talk together. You want me to be honest Mark, the fact is Elaine is now far too weak for any more anti-cancer treatments, chemotherapy now would just result in killing her outright. The cancer has spread quickly and she hasn’t got anything left to fight it.”

No more chemo’ means there’s absolutely no chance of halting the cancer. It means my wife is going to die.

As Doctor Kevin continues he seems to confirm my voiceless thoughts.

“Mark, in light of this our view on treating Elaine has changed- she is now under palliative care.”

I don’t speak.

Diplomatically he carries on “ What time do you think you’ll be here tomorrow?”

I gulp down the fear, “How about midday?”

“That’s fine Mark, I’ll come and find you after then, goodnight.”

“Ok doc – and thank you.”

My mind was struggling to grasp the enormity of what he had just said. How the hell had it got to this stage so quickly?

Just a few months ago Elaine was still on Targeted Therapy and all was going ok. But was it?

That treatment was causing the internal inflammation she was experiencing. Were they so concerned with that, that they took their eye off the cancer, long enough for it to gain a stronger hold?

All these treatments are wonderful in so much that they prolong and save lives. But there is a price to pay, the side effects. The other conditions they can, and do cause, can be as dangerous as the cancer itself.

These latest developments for Elaine are the only real time that the cancer has made her ill, all the others have been caused by the treatments. But without those treatments she would have been dead long ago.

I realise I’m sat staring at the phone as it makes a funny noise to tell me the call has ended.

I can’t help but feel that it’s calling time on my wife and marriage too.

To be con’t…