Holding On With Love


Changing a king-sized duvet cover is like putting knickers on a hippopotamus.

This vast blue thing with the lemon stripes gets washed and dried every week along with the lemon sheets. There is another duvet cover in the linen cupboard, but it doesn’t match the curtains. However, I don’t think it matters much at the moment when the bucket, placed conveniently at the side of the bed, would lower the tone of the most elegant bedroom. “The bedding looks rather crumpled,” I recently said, “But life’s too short to iron duvet covers.” My tongue works independently from my brain sometimes.

While the overfilled washing machine shudders and groans in protest, I’ll prepare your bath. For the last few weeks, this has been one of the few highlights of the day, so I’ll make it special. Then I’ll say, “Come, my lady Jennifer, your bath awaits you,” and I’ll light the candles left over from Christmas, warm the bath towel, and you can soak your poor sweaty body in rose-scented suds. That’s the easy bit. This week of the fifth chemotherapy treatment has been the most difficult yet. Putting on your jeans and a pretty sweater instead of going back to bed is an effort, but you admit that it makes you feel better. The Macmillan nurse is willing to help, although you always say to her, “Kate and I will manage, won’t we Kate?”

I’ve been managing for two months now, at first reluctantly. When David asked me to care for you during this awful illness, I didn’t hesitate. I couldn’t, could I? There was no one else. So I agreed to give up my real life for as long as I was needed. But it wasn’t for you, not at first. I was doing it for my handsome, gifted golden boy whose heart was breaking. Nothing in life hurts so much as the hurt to your child . . . even if he is forty and heads a workforce of eight hundred.

In twelve years I had never really got to know you. When we met, which wasn’t very often, we were always polite to each other, but we had little in common. You weren’t an ordinary girl with an ordinary profession like teaching or nursing. You were a chartered civil engineer. Just imagine it, a slim, blonde beauty in the macho world of the construction industry. David enjoys telling the story of how you and he met on a building site in a thunderstorm. You were wearing a yellow hard hat and a mud-splattered florescent jacket and trousers several sizes too big, and he thought you were the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

Certainly we were never going to be a cosy pair, shopping together and swapping recipes. And I had given up any hope of becoming a grandmother. You and David didn’t seem to need anyone else in your busy lives . . . which just goes to show how wrong I was. You were having infertility tests when the cancer was first discovered.

But I don’t think I was wrong about your mother. The only time I met Rosalind was at your wedding. Her deep tan, expensive clothes, and jingling gold bracelets showed me that life in America with her new husband suited her very well. She said to me, “Kate, I rather like your little frock. Wherever did you get it?” That said it all.

However, I’m sure Rosalind would be on the first plane home if she knew just how ill you are. I can’t be a substitute for her, but you and I are becoming good friends. This week you can’t even concentrate on books or magazines, so sometimes I’ve been reading to you, mostly the old well-loved poems from my schooldays, like “The Lady of Shallot”, “The Listeners”, and of course “The Song of Hiawatha.” Often you close your eyes and I stop reading. But you say, “Go on, Kate,” and I continue until you fall asleep.

Angie has phoned to say that she will be late because her car has broken down. You shake your head in mock exasperation. Angie is an expert in three things, whizzing round the house with a vacuum cleaner, dusting record-breaking slaloms round the ornaments with only the occasional breakage, and finding excuses not to come at all.

For a healthy girl, Angie has a worrying number of twenty-four-hour flu bugs and emergency dental appointments, and we wonder what she will think up next. You said you were tempted to ask for a sick note from her mother and I made you laugh at some of the old chestnuts from my teaching days. “Dear Teacher, Angie has been under the doctor with her leg,” and “Dear Teacher, Angie vomited up the High Street so I kept her in bed.” I have discovered that laughter is a medicine you like to take often.

In between the first three chemotherapy treatments, you still had your good days. Your last one was on the twelfth of February, an amazing day. You didn’t once throw up into the bucket and the awful lethargy had gone. I thought I had wakened from a nightmare and everything was going to be fine, after all. The snow was on the ground, but the sky was clear blue. You said, “Let’s go out for lunch,” and we did! You put your long camel coat on top of your jeans and your Bob-the-Builder pyjama top, and we sneaked out to the car like a pair of schoolgirls skipping a maths lesson.

“May I take your coat?” said the head waiter at Mortimer’s and you replied sweetly, “Not just now, thank you, perhaps later.”

“Don’t you dare!” I warned as we were led to a table. Your mischievous smile didn’t reassure me and I repeated, “Don’t even think about it!” and we were laughing as we settled ourselves, putting the bucket, tastefully wrapped in a silver and black bag, under the table just in case Surrounded by ladies who lunch on cottage cheese and cucumber sandwiches, I ordered an omelette and you asked for a plate of chips.

“All our main course lunch dishes are served with boiled potatoes,” the haughty waitress said.

“Chips, please,” you insisted, “with vinegar and tomato sauce. And two glasses of red wine, please.”

You smiled in triumph as she appeared ten minutes later with the chips in a silver salver and the ketchup in a silver sauce boat rather than a vulgar sticky bottle. You took only a sip of your wine, but for someone who has the appetite of an anorexic stick insect, you ate with gusto. Then, arm-in-arm and carrying the bucket, thankfully not required, we paid the bill and fled out to the car park. All the way home, we sang loudly, but off key, to my favourite ABBA CD and arrived at the door in giggling hysterics.

Since then, I think you’ve deteriorated as each successive chemotherapy session has taken its toll and your laughter tonics are fewer. But we’re holding on. We take each day as it comes and try to make the best of it. Yesterday you cried “Kate!” with some urgency, “Quick!” There at the seed feeder was a bird with red cheeks, a black-and-white head and golden wing feathers. I searched through the birdie “Who’s Who” and identified it as a goldfinch. We enjoyed its exotic beauty for fully ten minutes before it flew off.

I had thought long and hard about what to give you for Christmas this year, as I did every year. No matter what I finally chose, La Belle Rosalinda’s present from America was always bigger, better, and more expensive. Ah, but this year, I won! She sent you gold earrings that have never been out of the box. I gave you bird feeders and a book,Garden Birds of Britain, which sits by your chair in the sun lounge. Neither of us could tell a coot from a canary in December, but now we can pick out a dunnock in a flock of sparrows. Aren’t we a smart pair?

You didn’t seem interested in much today. We got stuck with the Scotsmancrossword, which we usually manage to complete between us in half an hour. Actually, I read out the clues and you always get the answers before I do. But, this morning, twelve down, “die of cold” (three, four) had us stumped and you gave up rather quickly, I thought.

The goldfinch appeared again and pecked at the seeds for a minute or so. But Dr. Scott stayed a long time. As he was leaving, he asked me how I was coping and I said that we were holding on meanwhile. But I am now trying to clutch at tiny, wispy straws which, I fear, blew away in a gale force wind a long time ago.

I’ve been buying a lottery ticket every weekend when I go home and I always choose our special numbers. When I win three million pounds, David and I will go on the internet and we’ll scour the world for cancer specialists. Time may be getting short so they’ll all have to come over in private jet planes and fast taxis. One of them will bring a tiny bottle of the juice of a rare plant found only in the Amazon jungle. They’ll combine their knowledge and expertise, add a little of this and that to the juice, and miraculously, after only two teaspoonfuls, your tumour will be gone.

But meantime, I had to try out plan B. When you were dozing on the couch, I went into the garden and had a straight talk with God. “Why our Jenny, God, why Jen? What has she ever done to deserve this?” I asked. “Now if you were to make her well again, I’d know you were a merciful God. And I’ll tell the whole world, God, honest I will. My, how the news will spread. All your empty churches will be full again and it will be standing room only. How’s that for a bargain, God? Do you hear me? Just do it now, God. Make our Jenny’s cancer disappear.”

I returned to the house to find you distressed because you hadn’t quite managed to reach the bucket.

I cried, “I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then, shall I, God?” A great wave of pity for you and for myself swept over me and I sobbed in your arms. You held me until my tears stopped.

“That’s all you were needing, Kate,” you said. “Just a hug.” You are a great believer in the healing properties of a hug. I confessed about my one-sided chat in the garden and you kissed my cheek and said, “I love you, you daft old thing. I thought you’d started talking to the tulips.” So, once again, our tears turned to laughter.

Until the last course of chemo is over in two weeks’ time, Dr. Scott has decided to change your anti-nausea medication. So that’s yet another pill for me to pronounce. David has been away for two days, but he got back this evening. He is now busy working on his laptop and has forgotten the time, so I’ll make a start with the bedtime medication. First the horse pill-sized drops, then the orange-and-yellow plastic torpedoes, the two red Smarties, followed by the boring little white ones, and lastly the dreaded morphine syrup which you hate. I will you to keep it all down. “Deep breaths, Jen,” I urge, “Pretend it’s just sweet sherry and drink some more water. That’s it!”

David comes running with the bucket, but you’re in control now and you relax against the pillow.

“Ice cube, Kate,” you say, rather smugly, “The crossword, ‘die of cold’, it’s ice cube.” I’m suddenly aware that you haven’t given up.

I kiss her. “Sleep well, clever clogs,” I say, and I leave you and David in the bedroom together.

I don’t like to see you lying in a crumpled bed. I’ll ask Angie to iron the duvet cover tomorrow.

Liz Strachan, who lives in Scotland, is a retired teacher of mathematics. Fifteen years ago at a supermarket check-out, she picked up an entry form for "A Letter of Love," sponsored by S. T. Dupont and The European newspaper. She won first prize, a holiday for two in the Danieli, the world-famous hotel in Venice. Since then, writing has become her hobby (along with golf and Scottish country dancing) and she has had over one hundred and forty short stories and articles published.

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