They’ve found a growth, she says, slipping the third cigarette in a row from the packet and lighting it without thought. They’re not sure what it is, she pauses and inhales, relishing the feeling of calm that pervades throughout her body, but they’re going to do some tests and then we’ll know a little bit more.
Your chest begins to tighten. You try to tell yourself that it’s just a growth at the moment, a small one at that, and that nothing else has been said. You tell yourself that everything is going to be okay, and that in just a few months, you’ll all sit around together and talk about how lucky you were – how it was a close shave, but that they caught it early, and there was nothing to worry about.
You nod, you tell her that you’re sure everything will be okay, and not to worry. You tell her that it’s early, they’ve caught it early, and that’s important – that’s great news. It’s good, a good prognosis, it’ll be fine, everything is fine. You find yourself repeating the same words and sentiments over and over again, anything more encouraging slipping from your grasp.
The next few weeks you try not to dwell on it. Dad grows increasingly quiet, he wanders around the house trying to find things to do. He cleans, he does the dishes, he cuts the grass – he doesn’t stop. Your brother retreats to his room, he busies himself with his work, with studying, with trying to see his partner. You sit in your room. You think more than you should. You throw yourself into work. You spend every waking minute between one of your two jobs, you try not to be at home as much as you can, but when you are, you study. You study the way the paint spills between the wall and the roof in your bedroom. You study the way the shadows cast between your bedside lamp and the television. You examine every inch of the ceiling, the most comfortable points on your bed, you study. You study the way that no-one in the house is talking to each other. You study the kitchen cabinets as you stand trying to decide what to make for dinner, and all you can see is a row of can after can, label after label, and none of them mean anything. You think about how lately, your thoughts have no structure. No purpose. No reasoning. This takes over your time for the next few weeks. Your life runs on autopilot, you don’t think about your job when you’re at work – you’re too distracted.
You spend the day at work a few weeks later, completely lost in thought. She’s at the hospital today getting her results, seeing what they found in the scan. You’ll go for lunch with them after, you’ve said. You’ll see them when you get home, you’ve said. You get home and the house is quiet. You don’t know whether they’re not back yet or if they’ve already gone out. You notice a card and a piece of paper on the table beside the living room door with a doctors name. Lung cancer specialist. Your heart sinks, you get changed and go and shower, standing in the jets for longer that you need to. You sit, wrapped in a towel on the edge of your bed, thinking how you should get dressed but not knowing what to wear for a lung cancer diagnosis.
You meet them for lunch, and drink a bottle of wine. You remember very little.
It takes a few weeks before you hear anything else – before anything else is scheduled. Everyone tells you how quickly things seem to be moving. Things are not moving quickly. It seems slow, painfully slow as you wait to see what happens. You realise that you’re the only one that talks to her, that asks her how she feels about everything. You realise that you’re the one – for the first time in your life – who is holding it together. You see that your dad and brother are distraught, terrified, and you feel the same but want to be the one to keep it together. They can’t afford for you to break down about now.
There are more scans. The cancer is contained. You think that this is positive. There’s a simple operation – they can cut it out. Any question of radio or chemo has been relegated to later. Just now, they can operate. You wait to hear about a date. You should find out in the next few weeks.
You find it harder to keep it together at work. The façade slips, people realise that there is something going on, but you have to be strong, so you try to keep it quiet. You mention it in passing, telling everyone that it’ll be fine – it’s all fine, not to worry because it’s early, they caught it early and that’s fine, no good, it’s good that they caught it early. You don’t want many people to know what’s happening in your life.
The date for the operation comes around. You get a text saying there’s a bed, so she’s going in. She sends you a couple of closed brackets. You realise it’s meant to be a hug – she’s never been good at text language- and it makes you smile, makes you think that maybe everything will be alright. The next day they tell you that the operation has been successful, that they’ve managed to get it out, but she’s still tired and sore from the anaesthetic. You visit in hospital. You see her, and she looks tired, but she tells you that she’s going to get through this – cause we’re made of tougher stuff in this family, she says. You smile. You tell her that you love her. You visit a few days later, and she’s still worn out. She can’t get comfortable in the hospital beds, and there are tubes going in and coming out of everywhere. You try to read the labels on the tubes, but they mean very little. You can’t remember the names of the drugs. You tell her to try to relax.
A few days pass before they tell you that they’ve found an infection, that it’s in the lung and they’re looking at the best way to treat it. You understand the implications, you know this makes things worse, but you try and remain calm. Your brother and dad grow even quieter, you barely talk in the car on the way home. You get a phone call at 10 that night, just before your dad is going to bed, telling you that things have got worse. You wake up the next morning in fear. Your dad hasn’t slept, you can see the exhaustion in his face. He’s not going in to work, you don’t want to go to work but feel like you should. You need to keep busy.
He tells you that’s she’s still with us, that he’ll let you know more later on. You try to hold it together, at least until you get to the bus. You don’t want to break down. You keep your phone on you at work. You wait for a text or a phone call from your Dad. It never comes. You worry and stand through in the back room trying not to cry. You get him when you’re on your break. Things are at the stage where she can’t fight this infection. She’s too tired – too exhausted from the operation, from the infection, from trying to breathe when her lung has been partially removed. Her body isn’t clearing the infection, the antibiotics aren’t working as well as they should on this cocktail of illness that’s holding her hostage. It’s deep in the lung, and it’s not clearing. They decide to sedate her for 24 hours and put her on machines to try to clear the infection for her. You nearly break down. For the first time in your life, you realise how fragile your parents are, how they won’t always be around. You start to fear what will happen if anything happens to your mum. You start to think of all the things that you still need to do – you need to take her to see The Lion King on stage which she’s been looking forward to for months, she needs to see you get married, she needs to meet your children. You go back into the back room, the sound of the steam wands and grinder from the coffee machines masking as you cry. You think about how many things you need her for, and how you don’t know how you can live your life without her. You’ve gone from a small growth, to the possible worst in the space of 4 months. If there is a hell, then this must be it.
She gets moved between wards to the point that you don’t know where she is. One day she was on a ward, then HDU, back to a ward, HDU, Intensive Care. You feel like you’ve seen an unremitting example of suffering as you travel between wards. You see people waiting in private rooms, standing in the hallway looking down through the windows deep in thought. You want to comfort them, but you realise that they feel just as lost as you do. You wait in the visiting room and it’s eerily quiet. Not as though there is nothing to make a sound, but as if all sound has been removed from this room artificially. It’s a void, vacuous and haunting. You start to realise why people say that they reach a point where they feel numb. You start to feel this numbness, it pervades every inch of your being. You realise it’s not a numbness you feel, it’s a void. It’s a complete absence of anything. Numbness would mean that there was something that you’re unable to feel, but you’ve realized that you’re so far beyond this that it’s unbelievable. There is nothing to be felt. It’s as if someone has hollowed you out on the inside and replaced it with emptiness.
She seems to make progress under the sedation – not much, but at least they’ve taken preventative measures. You realise that you were 48-72 hours away from the worst case scenario. You realise that just because it was a small growth, it doesn’t mean that the implications are less far reaching. You get petty messages from friends about things happening in their lives. You choose not to reply. You get berated by random people you’ve barely even met because they think you’re being “off” with them. You tell them to fuck off. You realise who you need in your life and who you don’t need. You see the important people who are reaching out with genuine messages of well being, and the ones who are messaging for the sake of themselves. You see your friend who has just gone through the same thing, but with a more unfortunate ending. You want to tell her that you’re thinking of her, you want to meet her, but you’re worried that it’ll be too difficult on both of you.
And as you walk into the hospital, knowing that at the end of the route lies someone who you’ve seen since you were born, who has smiled and cuddled you, who comforted you through all your break-ups and make-ups, who told you that she was proud of you no matter what you chose to do in life – so long as that wasn’t a life of meth and prostitution – is just a quiet, and fragile shadow of that person, you want to shout at the people outside. Standing with that cigarette in hand. You want to ask them why it’s worth it. The few seconds of buzz as a trade-off for mechanical breathing and intensive care. The beeping that accompanies a cough, the distress that you can see in your loved ones eyes as they pass a tube through the tracheotomy, and feed it down into the throat. Seeing them choke and gag as they painfully try to cough up the infection that has set in. You want to snatch that cigarette from their hand, and tell them that it’s not about them – it’s about everyone else around them who has no choice in their decision. Who will be the people who deal with the fall out. Who will be the ones who are impacted by a choice that they feel is about them, but really it’s about everyone they know and care about. You want to tell them that no matter how much of a fix they feel they need, it’s not worth it. You want to tell them that when they are sick and suffering, the people around them will be sick and suffering. You want to ask them if they could sit and hold their loved ones hand as they lose weeks of their life to a hospital bed. You want to ask them if they want to resign the people around them to the thought of x-rays and white blood cell counts, of restless nights, of uncertainty. Of fear. Of helplessness. You want to appeal to them to make a better decision, to read the cigarette packet rather than discarding it, to see the warnings as a warning and not an inconvenience, to see the blue plastic covering the cigarette display as a barrier and not a challenge, to rid themselves of that frame of mind that it happens to everyone else but wouldn’t happen to me. That’s a delusion.
You visit when you can, you see her skin so pale with a hint of yellow as she lies strapped to these machines. You hear the steady gasp of the ventilator breathing for her. That suction in and out. She stirs between consciousness and sleep. She bats her eyes a few times but you know she won’t be registering anything. When she does come to, she’s distressed, she’s aching and you can see the fear in her face. She looks so small, not the mother that you’ve always known and loved, but someone else – someone you feel like you don’t recognize. You hear about how the machines are working. How they’re pumping humid air into her lungs to try and loosen up the congealed infection, mixed in with the tar and toxins that have been left as a souvenir by the cigarettes. Things begin to improve over the next few days, but you’re not out of the woods. She perks up, she comes to, she shows happiness in seeing your face, you sit and watch a dvd with her so as not to tire her out and hold her hand. Tom and Jerry, her favourite cartoon. You hear from the nurses about the plans to move her down in support from the ventilator. You feel joy as they move down from 18 to 14, to 11, to 10, to 9, but see the pain in her face and the frustration as she tries to stand and discovers she is too exhausted. That even her lungs trying to support such a small movement is causing her suffering. You’ve avoided the worst, but things are still distressing. You lack the words to explain how awful things are. You try to take things day by day but still keep thinking about tomorrow.
You’ve reached this point, and you think back on those 23 years where you’ve known and loved this person, where they’ve been your world, where they’ve been there for you and supported you. Where they’ve told you that they were proud of you, and you can see them in all those memories, smiling, radiating warmth and pride with that cigarette in hand, and you ask yourself. For those fleeting moments of calm, of relief, for that small buzz.
Was it worth it?