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…

FOREST HOLME HOSPICE

hospice (noun)….”A home providing care for the sick or terminally ill”.

I first set foot here about eight or nine years ago. Elaine had had a terrible reaction to the chemotherapy drugs and steroids she was then taking.

They de-stabilized her mind causing massive anxiety and horrific panic attacks.

As she gradually got over all this she wanted to have counselling and having seen what her illness had put me through insisted that I go too, though separately from her.

I really didn’t feel that it was necessary for me, but Elaine pulled the “Please do it for my sake” card so my fate was sealed, and an appointment was duly made with Linda.

I clearly remember sitting alone in the waiting room thinking “What the fuck am I going to talk with a complete stranger about for the best part of an hour”.

Linda appeared on time. Middle-aged, slim, neatly dressed with short well cut grey hair and kindly inquisitive eyes.

We went through to the counselling room where I had to fill out a questionnaire about myself. I well remember the one asking “Have you had suicidal thoughts?” –might answer that differently today!

When this was all done we sat facing each other and Linda said, ”Well Mark tell me why you’ve come here today.”

I almost replied “Because Elaine told me to” but it was too early in our relationship to be flippant so I began with Elaine’s history of cancer and it was honestly like spitting petrol on a candle flame.

I didn’t stop talking, it just poured forth. Poor Linda hardly got a word in, but she was very patient and we went on to see each other over several years.

It was so easy to give up despair and fear to someone who is at first a stranger and later, not quite a friend, but who you know understands with impartially. I never regret going to this day….reckon I’ll be back again soon.

Monday 21st December pm.

Elaine and I complete our journey to the hospice arriving there about 1:15.

Since we turned onto the main road Elaine has seemed asleep most of the time and we have not spoken. I don’t think she was asleep that much, more pretending so as to avoid conversation which really could have had only one subject matter, ie our destination.

I’ve parked opposite the hospice as the little car park is already full. As I help her out Elaine’s weakness and fatigue is evident and I gather up her bags quickly as she slowly makes her way to the front door.

My phone rings.

“”Hello Mark? It’s Dr Chakrabarti here.” (Elaine’s oncologist in Poole).

“I’ve been informed that Elaine is being admitted to Forest Holme Hospice sometime today.”

“Yes that’s right we’re here now – just about to go in.”

“I see, I think this is the right course for her now, it’s the best place for her to be.”

Oh God, he’d just as well have been stood in front of me and kicked me straight in the balls.

His saying that this is the right place now for Elaine to be, is like an official confirmation of her fate.

A rubber stamp if you like, signed, sealed and delivered to death.

I’m reminded of Pilate, washing his hands as they led Christ away to the cross. It’s unfair I know. If it wasn’t for this man, his team, and their dedication, Elaine and I would never have gotten this far, it’s just the timing that’s at fault.

“OK Doc – thanks” I manage to say, and hang up.

“Who was that?” asks Elaine.

“Doctor Chakrabarti” I reply.

“What did he want?”

“Just to wish you well.”

“That was nice of him.”

“Yeah.. it was.”

We’re at the door now and I press the buzzer for admission.

Inside we are greeted by Sister Gill and one of the nurses.

After passing our temperature checks for Covid 19 they lead us through a short corridor to what is going to be Elaine’s room-number 9.

We pass through odd sized double doors, one containing a small curtained window, into what is quite a large room.

There’s an easily washable fake wooden floor throughout, and a large window taking up most of the wall opposite the doors. The window blinds are up.

A wet room with shower and loo is to the immediate left, and a basin and bin next to the door leading to it.

The room is dominated by the large hospital bed at its centre. A chest with drawers is off the end of the bed with a flat screen t v on the wall above.

Between the bed and the window is a huge electric reclining chair. Its bizarre colour scheme of bright blue and baby shit brown can only have been decided upon late on a Friday afternoon, when all other options had been dismissed.

I do not realise at the time just how familiar this chair and I are going to become.

Directly in front of the chair there is an outside door, leading to a path which I later discover goes around the building and to the car park.

Outside and opposite this door there is a tiny patio area with an even tinier metal table and a single metal chair.

I assume this set-up was for the smokers, so they could suck cancer into their lungs whilst their loved one in the bed was trying to cough it out of theirs.

I note there is no ashtray now.

I put her bags down on the bed as Elaine sits down in the chair.

“Would you like a few private moments before you go Mark?” asks Gill.

“Please” I reply.

So Gill and her companion retreat and close the door behind them.

I sit down on the bed and take Elaine’s hand, she speaks first. ”Thank you darling.”

“What for?”

“Getting me in here. I feel safe here, they’ll know how to get this pain under control, we couldn’t manage it at home anymore.”

We are sitting looking directly at each other.

Elaine continues, ”I’ll be ok Mark, this is the best place for me to be right now, I know it is.”

(The words of Doctor Chakrabarti from a few minutes ago come back to me ,”It’s the best place for her to be.”)

There wasn’t a hint of self pity in Elaine’s words, no fear either. But it was a bloody hard job for me, fighting to keep back the tears, I just didn’t want to leave her there.

Sensing this she continues” You’d better go now Mark. Have you got something for your tea?”

“Eh…yes, no..I’ll stop in Wimborne on the way back and get something.”

“Make sure you do, don’t just go home and drink a load of Stella’s.”

“I’ll drink the Stella’s anyway but I will get something to eat.”

“OK babe then I’ll call you later.”

“You know I won’t be able to come and see you for a while?”

(No visitors are allowed due to the pandemic situation. There may be some leeway on this for Christmas day only, but that’s four days away.)

“I know Mark, but I’ve got my phone so we can still talk to each other, I’ll be alright. You’d better get going now.”

“I love you darling.”

“And I love you to, and drive careful.”

We kiss, and then again, and I kiss her hands. Then I walk round the end of the bed to the door. Pushing it open I turn back to Elaine and mouth the words I LOVE YOU.

She smiles and waves as I close the door.

Gill and the nurse are waiting there. I don’t know which of them reached me first as my knees just went and I slumped against the wall crying like a child whose toys have all been broken on Christmas day.

The voice was there again, deep inside. ”You know she’ll never leave that room alive.”

And the bastard was right.

To be con’t…

A Drive in the Country

Elaine always did say that the saddest thing when doing a house clearance was coming across the Christmas decorations. “These people never knew when they put them away that it was for the last time ever.”

We had to keep many of them so that they would ‘live-on” somehow, or so she thought. Consequently our own trees used to groan under the combined weight of so many other people’s Christmas pasts.

Eventually she was forced to purchase a seven foot artificial tree with a metal frame and limbs that could handle the annual load. Testament to it’s being one tough son of a bitch, is the fact that when we got Sammy and Rita as kits’-four years back- they lived in it for two weeks, only coming out for food or a crap or when captured at bedtime.

It’s well over twelve years old now and still going strong.

Monday 21st December.

“Do you want to open Christmas presents now in case you’re still in the hospice on Friday?” I ask Elaine.

“Do you think I will be?” Her voice is steady but quiet.

“To be honest yes” I reply.

“OK, just a couple maybe”.

I am looking at my wonderful wife of almost twenty five years. She is pale and fragile and obviously physically weak. We’ve just been through possibly the worst night of our lives together. Her painkilling meds’ aren’t working right and she has suffered so much because of it.

The pain has eased somewhat, but the vacancy is being filled by fatigue and mild confusion. Cancer is on the move now regardless of us believing it or not.

There’s not much time as we’ve got to be at the hospice in less than two hours. But I don’t want to rush these oh so precious moments that are left to us.

Elaine has always been like a big kid at Christmas. She loves everything about it especially the presents and always has to have a present on Christmas Eve to placate her until the big day.

Her ‘big’ present this year is a Samsung Tablet which I bought with the help of our good friend and IT expert Bob. He’s got it all set-up ready to go, we switch it on and she runs her fingers lovingly across the screen.

“I’ve always wanted a tablet. Thank you darling.”

There’s also a couple of items I bought from the other Vintage Barn sellers and a metal watering can shaped like an Elephant that she saw in the Summer and just had to have.

I can never be certain about presents for Elaine. She loves the off- beat and quirkiness in things most of all, (don’t quite know what that says about me!!).

I change clothes and leaving Elaine to get ready, go downstairs. My insides are in complete turmoil. That voice inside me is talking again;

“You’re taking your wife to a hospice. That’s the Last Chance Saloon, isn’t it? People go there to die don’t they.”

This can’t be real can it, CAN IT!

Twenty minutes pass and I go in search of Elaine.

She’s sat on the floor of our spare room, her work room, packing material into a large ‘boot bag’.

“What are you doing love?”

“I want to get this ready for Liz, to go with the rest.”

Liz and husband Jack are fellow Vintage sellers and Fair organisers. Elaine has asked them to come and collect all of her material and costume stock as she knows I won’t know what to do with it if she is not here.

“We’ve got to get going Elaine.”

“It won’t take long.”

“Leave it darling, I can sort it out with Liz when the….if the time comes.”

“It’s just…”

“Now sweetheart.”

“OK help me up.”

I collect her bags and other items, including the Tablet, and go downstairs.

Elaine follows slowly and stops halfway down the stairs to catch her breath. Watching her I feel fear nibbling at the shrinking hope inside me.

She walks straight through the kitchen to the far door and goes outside. I follow and lock up behind us.

I notice she hasn’t said goodbye to the cats. Nor does she look about her outside. She just looks ahead of her and keeps walking, this is totally out of character.

Normally she would make some comment about the trees the garden or the sky. She’d look for birds or gaze across the park. She was always observing life, looking for fuel for her writing and the inspiration of new ideas.

I open the gate and then the car door for her, and help her in.

It’s time to leave, and I’m sure now Elaine knew well enough that for her it was going to be for the last time.

Now there are two routes open for us to get to the hospice.

The most direct is through the park then turn left out of the security gate and drive up to meet the main road. To turn right is to follow the route taken by Elaine every morning and evening to get to Bruce.

It’s a journey she had been doing for several years, until recently.

It follows through a narrow country lane leading to a winding country road for just over two miles.

Not long ago Elaine said she wanted to take the car one morning and drive this way again just to remember Bruce and for the love of the trip itself. His death hit her extremely hard, I don’t think I realized quite how hard at the time.

She has her eyes closed as we pass out of the gate and turning right head downhill.

We finish the narrowest part and turn onto the slightly wider section.

At any time it is a captivating drive.

In Spring Summer or Autumn, the colours smells and sounds vie with each other to dominate the senses. But Winter bleakness gifts it a beauty born of desolation and quiet solitude.

The green of the damp fields shows bright against the grey and muted browns that make up everything else. The air is fresh, but not cold, and the sky white rather than blue, shows a vibrant life of its own to the world below.

A bump in the road, and Elaine opens her eyes and looks around.

“Do you know where we are?” I venture.

“Yes…yes I do.”

She’s looking all around now, like a child seeing Wonderland for the first time.

That fabulous sunshine smile dawns over her face. It can’t mask the truth of her condition but it brings its own light to force reality briefly away into the shadows.

I feel the lump in my throat as if it were real.

We pass hedgerows and fields so familiar. There’s a particular meadow beloved of swans and many other birds and Elaine cranes her neck to see into it as we slowly drive by.

Her blue eyes, wide open now I notice, have a gentle milkiness to them but no sign of tears. The smile shines on. If she is feeling any pain it’s been diluted in a sea of unexpected happiness lapping on the shore of memories.

I thank God or whoever for our coming this way.

We cross the narrow stone bridge over the river and head into the village beyond. Elaine closes her eyes but the smile remains and I know she is ahead of us now and turning into the yard to see Bruce waiting at the stable door.

The voice inside me is saying that she knows this is the last time she’ll pass this way. Deep inside you know it to, that’s why you chose this route.

But I don’t want to believe in voices or intuition or any such bloody thing, they can all go to hell for all I care. We’re a team Elaine and I, and you can’t have a team of one. Who’s Bonnie without Clyde? Butch without Sundance?

I will not believe in her dying, I just can’t. But the voice is persistent and getting louder.

We re-join reality at the main road and turning left, head towards Poole, and the hospice.

To be continued…

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER(?)

 I can’t believe that she’s gone. I was there when she died.

 I’ve seen her dead in her coffin.

We’ve had her funeral, but I still can’t believe that she is not going to burst through the door any moment now saying “YEA! fooled you all. Now which miserable sods didn’t cry or send a card”.

Sunday 20th December. Elaine goes up to bed about 9.30. She’s been on the go all day, as much as depleted energy levels will allow. It looks to me as though she is tying-up loose ends, getting things in order.

She is back downstairs inside an hour.

 I say the stupidest thing possible, “You ok?”

“No, I just can’t get comfortable Mark. I feel bloated and my tummy and back have started to hurt like hell. I’m up to date with the pain killers. Just wish they would bloody well start working”.

She is on slow-release morphine based meds’ plus morphine sulfate liquid as a back- up.

Elaine feels thirsty so I make ginger and lemon in hot water, a favourite, but it is hardly touched. Any attempt to eat or drink and she gets awful acid reflux and violent hiccups.

We sit and watch TV for a while. Christ knows what was on, I don’t remember.

Elaine becomes more and more restless. She tries sitting on the stairs, in the kitchen, lying on the floor and back to the sofa. Nothing seems to help her as the pain level creeps upwards.

“You go to bed Mark, I’ll shout if I need something.”

So I go upstairs but sleep and rest elude me entirely. I hear her moving about and after half an hour or so I go back down.

One look tells me this is getting bad. Elaine has never been a complainer but if ever desperation had a face I’m looking at it now.

I suggest more meds but Elaine tells me none is scheduled for another two hours.

“Bollocks to that you can’t put up with this lot, take another 2.5ml now at least.”

She doesn’t take much persuading, so I prepare the syringe and she swallows the sickly sweet liquid and rinses her mouth with the offered water.

We wait.

We try bed together for a while but the result is the same. Elaine has to keep moving to try and stop the pain from catching up with her.

We’re back downstairs by 1.30.

Time comes round for the slow release meds but over an hour passes with little relief to show for it. Elaine calls the emergency helpline direct to the Hospice and speaks to a nurse who advises another 2.5ml of the liquid. There is concern that Elaine’s medication is not working correctly.

(We find out why later in the week).

It’s difficult for me to express here how utterly helpless I felt. Here was the person who I love more than life itself, yet I could do so little to help her at this wretched hour.

Why do these things always happen in the middle of the fucking night?

When I was in my early teens my mother started to suffer severe asthma attacks. I well remember the look of hopeless desolation on my father’s face as we watched mum fight for breath on so many occasions. We could do little to help and it always seemed to be worse in the early hours.

I knew if I looked in the mirror now I would see my dad.

At 4.30 I ring the Hospice.

“Hello’ yes Mark, my colleague spoke to your wife earlier. She should be having a better response to the pain relief by now. If she were my patient here I would give her another 5ml of the liquid now. It may take up to an hour to kick-in, the only other option is call an ambulance and get her to hospital.”

“Hospital?”

“I’m afraid so. We can’t take her in tonight. I’ll put her down as an emergency case for the Macmillan nurses, they’ll contact you after nine o’clock in the morning.”

I hang-up. Hospital, A&E no bloody way! We’ve been too many times before.

If Elaine ends up in A&E with all the Covid-19 restrictions I can’t stay with her, she’ll think she’s been abandoned, this next dose just has to work.

She’s sat on the edge of the bed when I go up.

“What did they say?”

“Take another 5ml now, another 2.5 in two hours”.

“Are you sure?”

“If you don’t take it I fucking will, it’s that or A&E.”

This is all the coaxing she needs and the sickly liquid is quickly dispatched.

We sit together on the bed, Elaine takes my hand.

“I can’t continue like this darling, I need to be somewhere where this pain can be controlled”

“That means Hospital or the Hospice”.

“It’s got to be the Hospice. If I go to Hospital I might catch Corona Virus and die. Then the cancer would be so pissed off.”

We both giggle, then sit in silence. Later she goes onto the landing and curls into a ball on her side.

I feel so helpless.

Elaine has the other 2.5ml around 6am and settles sitting upright in bed. She now seems sleepy, also slightly confused. I put it down to the medication and am just grateful we seem to have dodged A&E.

Downstairs I make coffee and leaning on the rail of our Rayburn cooker I look into the mirror above it. My hair is now so grey (when did that happen?) and my skin appears to have a misty morning tone to it, but it’s my eyes that hold the attention. They are completely without any light whatsoever, none from within and none reflected back. Just soulless hollows looking back at a lost soul.

I turn away leaving the glass to its own reflections and pour the coffee. I don’t eat, breakfast is the mouthful of fear I’ve been trying to swallow all night.

I’m back upstairs at 8am. Elaine has been quiet for some time and I find her propped up in bed eyes closed. I’m not sure if she is sleeping but deciding not to disturb her I sneak back downstairs.

The phone rings just after 9am.

“Hello Mark? My names Hazel, I’m one of the Macmillan nurses. Sounds like you’ve had a rough night?”

“Bloody awful Hazel, we can’t do another like it Elaine needs help.”

“You both do Mark. Do you think she would be happy to come into the Hospice?”

“Yes she’ll be ok with that.”

Right, I’ll try and make the arrangements this morning, will call you back after 10.”

Upstairs Elaine is awake.

“Who was it?”

“Hazel, the Macmillan nurse, she’s trying to get you into Forest Holme. She’ll call back after 10.”

“Thank you darling.”

Julie, Elaine’s best friend, is coming round at 10.30 for the traditional Christmas present swap. I ask Elaine if I should cancel, but as always she wants to see Julie very much so the arrangement stands.

At 10.15 Hazel calls to say a final decision on Elaine is yet to be made and she will call back after 11.

Julie arrives a bit late due to a fallen tree blocking the local road. Her smiles disappear as I tell her the situation. She fixes them back when she goes upstairs to see Elaine.

I make tea and Elaine tries some, but 2 sips and the acidy hiccups start again and she leaves the rest. She seems very weak. Julie and I communicate with silent looks.

Hazel calls back shortly after 11.

“Hi Mark, all fixed, Elaine can come in today. They want her here by 1.30 at the latest to start some blood tests. She’s only being admitted for assessment at the moment, not palliative care. Shall I arrange an ambulance?”

“No don’t worry about an ambulance Hazel, I can bring her in myself.” (An idea is forming in my mind).

“Ok Mark if you’re happy to do that fine, but please be here by 1.30.”

“We’ll be there, thank you, Hazel”

“It’s why I’m here, good luck.”

My idea is a slight deviation off the direct route between home and Forest Holme.

I go back upstairs to where Elaine and Julie are now opening presents. They look up as I come in.

“Pack a bag, we’re off to the Hospice.”

To be continued…

INTO THE ABYSS

As you will know by now Elaine has gone, but the end of her story has not yet been told. I’m Elaine’s husband Mark, and as I am now the ‘last man standing’ from the Blog title, I guess it’s down to me to complete the journey with you that she began just a short time ago.

There are two reasons for my doing this:

 1. Elaine herself. To leave things just hanging and unfinished was not her style. She loved writing and the interaction with her readers, and I believe telling of her struggle to stay one step ahead of cancer, intermingled with observations on life and her surroundings really did help to make sense of what fate was casting her way. I know she would want to see the final full stop in place.

She asked me on several occasions to contribute to horse husband cancer, “They’ve heard from the horse, the cancer and from me. I want them to hear something from your side, but I can’t say it for you.”

I simply never got round to it, and neither of us would have envisaged these circumstances for me to begin.

2. Myself. You would think after thirty years to practise I would be fully prepared for Elaine to die. But let me tell you that no amount of prep’ can ready you for the total and utter finality that is death. The fact is she isn’t coming home again, but it’s a fact that I just cannot at present grasp or believe in.

Elaine was simply my world, and I’m left feeling like some future space traveller, able to stand on the event horizon of a massive ‘Black Hole’ , I’m staring down into the abyss to where my life, love, hopes and dreams once existed, but there’s fuck-all left, empty, gone stolen away, and I’ve not a clue as to where to begin looking for any of it.

Maybe writing this will bring me some ideas.

Please understand that I am not the eloquent wordsmith that my wife had become. The only way I can do this is to tell it using my own words and language- I won’t praise it by calling it a style! I have help with the more technical side of this but words, expressions and emotion is 100% me. The events are true.

Elaine was quite candid and open about her illness and treatment, so I’ll carry on in the same vein. Her last post was December 10th, so we’ll pick up the reins from there; Elaine had not eaten properly for some time, nor was she drinking a great deal. She had awful acid reflux and recurring hiccups that was getting on her nerves as much as it was getting her down. Her abdomen had become very swollen and painful. There was also pain in her lower and middle back.

She had a high pain threshold so if she said something was hurting, I knew it had to be pretty bad. We assumed the bloated tummy, (“Looks like I’m full term with twins!”) was due to IBS caused by all the steroids she was on, to counter internal inflammation in turn caused by the Targeted Therapy, but this proved not to be the case.

It was one of the Macmillan nurses who first mentioned a condition called Ascites. This is a build- up of fluid in the lining of the abdomen. The cancer stimulates an over production of this fluid and as Elaine’s lymph system was badly compromised by tumour growth it could not rid her body of the excess. It simply stores the fluid where it can, hence the bloating and the pain. An ultrasound scan confirmed all of this. The fluid would have to be drained.

She had an overnight stay in hospital where they drained off 5 litres of fluid. A week later it was all back.

Always before it had been the treatments to halt the spread of cancer which had caused Elaine most of her health problems. What was happening now meant we could no longer keep our heads in the sand, it was apparent the cancer had upped the game and was cruising in overdrive around her body.

An arrangement was made for Elaine to have a semi-permanent drain fitted. She was quite pleased with the idea of this solution saying to me, “Isn’t it strange how things become appealing when the choices are so limited.”

And so the date and time was set,- and then un-set, as corona virus put staff out of action her op’ was cancelled and re-scheduled for Tuesday 22nd of December.

Lack of sleep was now the norm for both of us. Elaine would go to bed around 10pm, and then be back downstairs about an hour later. She then would try to get comfortable on the sofa or maybe sat at the kitchen table. The painkillers she had seemed to be fighting too much of a rear guard action. She was becoming desperate now as the fluid building up was causing the pain and discomfort to increase rapidly.

I came downstairs one night around 1.30 to find her sat at the kitchen table. In front of her was a small jigsaw puzzle of a plate of Brussel sprouts. Trying to get her mind focused on this was her way of distracting herself from the discomfort and reality of the situation that was now unfolding.

I sat beside her and we tried a few pieces of the puzzle together.

She spoke first, “It’s not looking good is it?”

“Sprouts never do, even in a picture”.

“I don’t mean the fucking sprouts, you know what I mean”.

“Yes I know, I just don’t want to believe all this is true. I want to wake up from this shitty dream”.

“So do I babe, so do I”.                                                      

I went back to bed around 3.30. We’d got half of the ‘sprouts’ done by then. Elaine completed the rest on her own.

By Friday 18th the pain had reached new levels as the pressure from the Ascites fluid increased . Elaine was on stronger pain medication but the results were limited so the hospital brought forward her appointment to that afternoon and she was in there by 4pm.

Not allowed to visit, I didn’t see her until I picked her up 24 hours later. When Elaine came  out I was full of hope, but this was dashed when I saw her. She walked very slowly and looked so tired and weak. The drain and a small bag with a tap came with her. Nearly 4 litres of fluid had gone already.

“Don’t expect too much Mark, I’m not so good”.

Her words were flat and toneless and I helped her into the car without comment. She wanted to go home via the Christmas street lights in town, she always loved to see them.

A voice inside me was screaming, “She knows it’s the last time.” Somehow I managed to silence this liar.

Despite more painkilling relief Elaine suffered another bad night being unable to sleep for no more than about 45 minutes at a time. Sunday morning saw some relief, as an early call to Macmillan at the Hospice resulted in permission to increase the morphine dose, she even managed a couple of hours sleep.

Elaine kept herself busy for much of the day, at least as much as the fatigue allowed, even now she refused to give in to a situation which would honestly have floored most mortals. The fluid kept draining.                                   

I wasn’t to know it then but that Sunday night would be our last ever at home together. It was an utter bastard…!”

To be continued…

I would just give my thanks for all of the lovely comments about Elaine after last week’s post. Also a big thank you for all your encouragement to me at this most  difficult time”. -Mark

Carrying-On

Happier times at the Goodwood Revival

Dear Readers,

It is with the deepest sadness that we have to tell you that Elaine Kirsch Edsall passed away peacefully on January 5th at Forest Holme hospice in Poole.  Elaine battled bravely against cancer for 30 years.

Her husband Mark was with her, holding her hand.  Rest in peace darling wife, dearest friend.  You remain forever in our hearts.

Elaine’s funeral was held on January 19th.  The words that follow were shared at that service.


Elaine’s words

“Despite the cancer trying to kill me at annoyingly frequent intervals, I’ve had a lovely life.

I only ever wanted to be with Mark, see my friends, spend time with my horse and do my work…and that’s exactly what I did.

Without the depth and strength of Mark’s love I couldn’t have lived so long; I didn’t know it was possible to love and be loved so much and feel so utterly content in his arms.

My wonderfully loyal inspirational friends who carried me over bad times, rejoiced with me in the good, cried, laughed, giggled, healed, and have always known the best answer to any problem was cake. My life became so much richer because of you, so much better.

Generous horses found me in unexpected ways. They taught me to reach inside myself and find a simpler way of communicating. To listen. To feel. To find my Quiet Place. They showed me joy in small achievements and that no matter how often you start over, it’s where you end that counts.

I nearly became a horsewoman; I ended in exactly the right place to start again next time around.

Work was never really work. I loved the excitement of buying stock, even when doing so meant getting up at some ungodly hour. I loved setting up stalls and selling, but most of all I loved organising the vintage fairs. All the people coming together to create a wonderland, and all the people coming to buy and saying how much they enjoyed it.

I’ve had the pleasure of indulging my passions throughout my life, I’ve made the best of what landed at my feet, and now I fully intend to make the most of dying.                                                    

I’ll leave you to carry on living for me.

Make sure it’s good.”


Mark’s words

“It’s strange how a life changing moment can arrive hidden in a seemingly ordinary day.

Such a moment came to me some 31 years ago, when I went to help paint a cottage, outside of Wimborne.

On the second day, I heard the words “Hi I’m Elaine” and I looked up.  Before me stood a vision in tight blue jeans and a tee shirt, with masses of curly chestnut hair, bright blue eyes and the most amazing sunshine smile that simply lit up my world.

I was lost for words- a rare occurrence- and little did I realise it then- but that smile would be lighting up my world for the next 3 decades.

We bonded over cigarettes and tea, became friends, fell in love and married some 5 years later.

Elaine lived life at full speed; she was always on the go, rarely resting except when she was actually asleep. I was soon roped in to her world of Antique and later Vintage Fairs, Auctions, Boot Sales and later house clearances.

Elaine did the planning- I did the more practical stuff and as we each found our levels, we worked better and better as a team. We must have spent more time with each other than many couples who have been married twice as long as we were.

Elaine’s other great love was her horses. Her last, Bruce, was an injured challenge when she got him but typically, she would not give up on him and he owed his last 11 years of life to her dedication. She was the first to acknowledge what she owed to him. As her health suffered, his needs, both physical and psychological, kept her mind focused on him and away from the darker areas of her own situation.

In her last years, greatly encouraged by horsewoman, author and friend Anna Blake, Elaine turned to writing and discovered a new talent with words and story-telling.

She had work published and also wrote a weekly blog: “A horse, a husband and cancer”, which was full of her wry observations on life, death and all the quirky stuff in between. It was hugely well received. Elaine was working on a book of her life and experiences when she died.

Cancer was ever present in our relationship, but Elaine refused ever to ‘wear it like a badge’. She would say “I want people to see me first and not the cancer”

 Some people would come forward with sympathy when they found out- but Elaine would have none of it. There was no time in her world for lowered voices and hushed tones. She just wanted to get on with life and let the possibility of death stay suspended in the background- almost out of sight.

I have lost count of the number of hospital visits, scans, operations, procedures, radiology and chemo she endured. Yet there was no self- pity or “Why me” from Elaine. I knew that it was for us as a couple that she went through it all and it was for us that I stood by her side.

The only good thing about her illness was that it brought us ever closer together in a bond of love that remained defiant to the end. “I won’t be scared if you are there with me” she once said about dying and I promised her that I would be there.

I stayed with her at the Hospice to make damn sure that I would be there and it was a bittersweet privilege to hold her hand as her life gently faded away.

She wasn’t afraid of dying. She would say; “I’m going off to start a new adventure- it’s just that I’ve got to start this one on my own.”

Life was one long adventure with Elaine. There was laughter and tears, hope and despair, humour- mostly black- and tons of love.

I have been blessed beyond words to have had such a partner to love and be loved by, and with whom to face life’s challenges head on.

Elaine promised me that she will be there when it’s my time to go. Sat in the stillness of the hospice at night, I pondered on how this reunion might take place:

I think I’ll ‘wake up’ by the large copper beech tree in our driveway and I’ll walk down towards The Lodge. The truck will be parked outside and fully loaded- in fact it will be overloaded. Elaine will be sat in the passenger seat. She’ll wind down the window and say:

“Come on Ted, where the Hell have you been, we’ve got a fair to go and do.”

I’ll look at the back of the truck and as always, there’s enough to fill several stall pitches… But I’ll just sigh inwardly and walk round to the driver’s side, all the time hoping that she’s remembered the cold beer and Indian takeaway for later on.

I’ll climb in beside her, start the engine, beep the horn twice, and we’ll say “All aboard the Skylark”- A silly ritual we shared and I will look over towards her. And that sunshine smile will come and light up my world once again.

 Then we will be off and it’s the start of a new adventure together, only this time it’ll last forever. I can honestly say that I can hardly wait for it to begin.

Goodnight my beloved darling- don’t wander far without me.”


Elaine would want to thank you for reading this blog , and for the time being, I am going to keep the blog running, to tell how it was in those last days with her and to try and convey my own personal feelings  and my take on how things are now in my life without Elaine.  -Mark

half empty, half full or need a bigger glass?

Depending on whether you’re a glass half full, or a glass half empty type of person, I’ve either had a very good week or a very bad one. There’s been high drama, hospital procedures, a lot of humour, incredible kindness and emotional turmoil that’s gone beyond visceral and chartered the unknown territory of unbearable. I’ve been the centre of attention and I crave some peace.

I want what I can’t have. I don’t want to deal with what I do have. I yearn for what I had. I’m getting bored with cancer. It’s taking over my life (pun not intended).

A Horse A Husband and Cancer. The horse has gone, the husband is fragile and needs to work things through in his own way, and cancer is boring. So where does that leave us? It’s not the end of the blog by far, but I think it needs a tweak. It needs to find its own words again, because right now I’ve lost mine.

Midwinter melancholy is chipping around the edges, I’m dying on my feet and I need to start living again. If you’ll bear with me while I cast about looking for direction, we can grow together as friendships do when they move side-by-side through new adventures, instead of relying only on past experience. A Horse A Husband Cancer and Us. Its a start.