Ten years ago my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Three weeks ago my mum was diagnosed with cancer. This blog post isn’t actually about how my dad’s cancer was untreatable or how my mums definitely is. It’s about how, at some point over the last ten years, I’ve started to understand that you really do get what you give, so give your kindest self.
It was February 2006 and after graduating from University the previous July I had happily lived at home in Leicester for six months before moving to London to work for a political think tank. I’d been there a month when my dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and after six weeks of commuting to work from Leicester so I could visit him in hospital every day I gave up my job and came home. But I came home to no one. My childhood friends had moved away, my university friends were far away but, most importantly, I wasn’t close to a lot of my family and I didn’t reach out to the friends I had made playing rugby for a few months at the end of 2015. I started working part-time in a bar and was kept sane by three incredible people that I met there – the late, great Andy T, Wangela and Vix. They were the only three people I opened up to about how lonely it was being an only child when your parent(s) is ill, about how the responsibility of making every medical decision on my dad’s care was crushing me, about how I was almost certain the world would end when my dad died because he was the centre of my world and it would surely implode without him in it.
When he did die I did what I always do in time of crisis: I got drunk and went back to university. Back to London in fact – a promise I’d made to my dad that probably wasn’t my brightest idea (ironically). I came back to Leicester all the time and without actually reaching out to my new friends I was pulled in by them. My friends at the bar and from rugby took in mum and I and gave us a new family – a new safe spot to hide or smile or laugh or get too drunk to stand after work and wake up on a sofa in the bar with cleaners bleaching around you.
Six months after my dad died my grandma (his mother) also passed away. She was my last grandparent and suddenly my immediate family unit had been halved. My dads oldest sister, reacted just like my friends and made it her mission to ensure mum and I were ok, despite the fact she herself had just lost her brother and mother. My cousin moved in with my mum for a few months, as did my best friends mum, so that she wasn’t on her own whilst I was away during the week. This outpouring of kindness seemed completely unprovoked – I knew people thought I was ok but I had no idea how much of a shit they actually gave about me when I really hadn’t done anything to prove I was worthy of their compassion.
Fast forward ten years and I can honestly say that I am far, far from alone in getting my head round my mum’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. I took the kindness showed to me and I fucking ran with it and somewhere along the line I think I must have become kinder myself (not to be confused with kinder TO myself – that is a work in progress). Because people really do still care and I’ve got the hang much more of getting what you give. I’m probably only good at it about 50% of the time but I REALLY REALLY try to be that person that you can call on to go to your grandparents dogs funeral/wedding/ordination because you don’t want to go and you need a friendly face in the crowd. I try to be the person that will play in the front row when no one else wants to (I secretly love it), or the person who you ask to feed you baby because it’s been screaming for 2,084,796 hours and you are on the verge of trying to drown it in pureed sweet potato. I will always take you to the pub when you’ve been on a shit date/interview/bus journey and the only life choices I really judge are wearing Crocs and supporting Arsenal. I have the same friends I had back then, plus some new, really awesome additions and I made it my mission to get to know my family better – turns out they’re really nice, if a little bonkers (aren’t all the best people?).
It’s been a weird ten years – traumatic and euphoric and complicated. I’ve been an absolute dick to people in that time – most of them I’ve apologised to (although not my ex’s because they started it) – but overall I’m definitely a bit better at being nice. I think I’ve learnt the actual value of the things I was taught as a child – that if people are kind to you then you should be kind back and, even if people aren’t kind to you then you should be kind to them anyway. Because then, when you need them – there they are – with compassion and words and hugs and (very, very importantly) gin. And even if they aren’t there when you expect them to be, it doesn’t matter because being kind to someone is just the right thing to be or do 99% of the time. The 1% is for the time you meet Myra Hindley at the bus stop or something. It makes your world nicer, even when the outside world appears to have pushed the self destruct button.
This might not sound like the biggest revelation but it’s actually pretty massive to me and whilst I’ve only really thought about it because something horrible is happening it actually makes me feel pretty good about the future. So, thank you friends, thank you family and sorry for what I said when I was hungry…. I’m still a work in progress.
“I know that I’ve been messed up
You never let me give up
All the nights and the fights
And the blood and the breakups
You’re always there to call up
I’m a pain, I’m a child, I’m afraid
But yet you understand
Yeah like no one can
Know that we don’t look like much
But no one fucks it up like us
When I’m with you
When I’m with you
I’m standing with an army
Standing with an army.”
~ Ellie Goulding, Army