It’s Wednesday 19th December, early afternoon. Somewhere, a radio is playing the usual Yuletide selection. Annie and I are sitting at the kitchen table making a list for the Christmas shopping. We have Annie’s mum coming for a week and Chris (Annie’s eldest) and his wife Emma coming for Christmas dinner. The turkey is ordered, the kitchen, while functional is not quite finished and, as far as we can tell, everything is going to plan.
There’s a call on Annie’s mobile and I can tell from her expression it is not a call wishing us happy Christmas. Her face colours and all I hear is; “do you want me to come?” Her brother Rob has taken a turn for the worse. Over the past few weeks the left side of his face has dropped and he’s not been able to open his left eye. It’s not a stroke and a recent brain scan is clear. Now he can’t grip with his left hand, he’s confused and he’s just had a fall. His wife Lesley could do with some help. Their son James is due to go on Sunday and their daughter Liz will go for New Year. Annie calls her nephew – he can’t get any more time off work to go sooner, so she steps up to the mark.
“Will you be alright?” I don’t really want her to go, but I know she has to. We’re not the first couple to spend Christmas apart and we won’t be the last. “Of course” I say; “there are plenty of little jobs to finish off in the kitchen.” In my head I hear the radio; ‘it’ll be lonely this Christmas….’
Christmas is like a house of cards; so many plans stacked up – just one out of place and the whole thing comes down. “What about mum?” A phone call to one of Annie’s sisters and her mum is taken care of. Someone else’s house of cards is rearranged. “What about the turkey?” Hmm; that will be a challenge even for me. We decide not to cancel – no point in spoiling the turkey’s Christmas.
She books a flight to Poitiers for Thursday 20th. No cheap deals – that’s the price of Christmas – and cancer. I cancel a blood test to get Annie to the airport. The surgery is understanding and fit me in for Christmas Eve. There are no flights back from Poitiers until January. After a bit of searching around we find one from Limoges on Boxing Day; just 1 seat left. We take it. We’ll postpone Christmas rather than cancel it.
Friday 21st 8.30am. I’m in the supermarket and my phone rings. Annie’s in tears; Rob has collapsed and he’s on his way to hospital. The medics don’t know if he’ll make it. Now the reality of living in rural France kicks in. They live between Poitiers and Limoges; two separate health authorities. The ambulance comes from Limoges; his doctor wants him to go to Poitiers. A compromise is reached – an ambulance from Poitiers will meet him half way.
Annie’s on her own when Rob collapses. She has a ‘headless chicken’ moment (her words) – she can’t get hold of Lesley, she doesn’t know the emergency phone number and has no idea what to do. Then a moment of sheer brilliance (my words); she remembers that the last number Rob called on his phone was to the local surgery, the previous evening. She hits ‘last number re-dial’ and finds herself speaking to his doctor. She comes straight away, leaving her surgery full of patients to wait.
There are a couple of remarkable things about this episode; (i) Annie’s inspired use of ‘last number re-dial’ (I don’t think it would have occurred to me), (ii) when she does phone, she speaks to the doctor straight away. Readers in the UK may need to pinch themselves at this revelation – the last time anyone here phoned a surgery and spoke directly to a doctor was probably in a 1930s film. In black and white. Where they all had a ‘nice cup of tea’ afterwards. As for a GP in rural France speaking perfect English – well of course – what do you expect?
The phone rings again around lunchtime. Rob’s unconscious and the prognosis is grim. We need to get James and Liz there as soon as possible. New plans are hatched. They live in Manchester and if they can they come to me on Friday evening, I’ll drive them to France on Saturday.
I phone the surgery to change my blood test again. The practice secretary is great – I explain what’s going on and she talks to my GP. He reckons I can manage until the 3rd January without a blood test. The secretary organises additional drugs to see me through the intervening period. In the meantime Emma arranges travel documents for the car (and reminds me about the other stuff; triangles, breathalysers and so on).
I check the Eurotunnel website for Saturday; no morning trains available. I phone and explain, my voice cracking with emotion and although they’re sympathetic, the best they can suggest is to buy a flexible (priority) ticket, turn up, bump someone else out of the queue and hope for the best. I explain all this to James. He’s not keen. He’s found a flight from Liverpool for Sunday. Even if we could get a place on the Shuttle, it’s about a 2-hour drive to Folkestone from MK and then a 10-hour drive from Calais to the Limousin. It’s not going to save a great deal of time. So, a rethink.
Friday 21st 2.00pm. Rob regains consciousness for a little while and asks for a glass of water. This respite doesn’t last long, but he drops in and out of consciousness for the rest of the day. In the meantime his children manage to book flights from Stansted for Saturday morning; so they’ll come down to me on Friday night and I’ll take them to the airport.
Friday 21st 8.00pm. A new scan shows that the cancer has spread to Rob’s brain; I ask why this didn’t show up two weeks ago. The original scans are clear; it seems this awful disease can move fast when it wants to. And now it plays games. The doctors are surprised that Rob seems so lively and aware of his surroundings; he’s looking forward to his children coming. Annie worries that this will give his family false hope; the doctors are still adamant that the prognosis is not good. They think he has hours, perhaps days at best.
It’s about midnight by the time James and Liz arrive; there are now four of them – they’ve each brought their respective girlfriend/boyfriend for support. They’re in remarkably good spirits and holding up well, all things being considered.
Saturday 22nd 8.30am. We set out early for Stansted. No calls during the night so we assume all is quiet. Despite the weather and the traffic we make good time, and then as suddenly as they appeared, they’re gone. I drive a couple of miles to a service station, get a coffee and call Annie. She’s been at the hospital since she arrived; she smells (she says) and her hair is a mess. Lesley has been home to get food and check on the dogs. It’s about an hour’s drive each way. When the children arrive Annie will go to the house for a shower and sleep. And do her hair.
Saturday 22nd 7.00pm. The Gods of Arrhythmia are jealous and demand some attention. My heart rate gets stuck at around 115bpm for about 5 hours. I wish I knew why it did this. The pill-in-the-pocket seems slow to take effect and it’s still about 90bpm when I wake next morning. I put it down to stress and resolve not to tell Annie.
Sunday 23rd 9.00am. An update from Annie; a trip to the hospital in the middle of the night to calm Rob down – he was trying to get out of bed. I saw a lot of this when I had the bowel operation; older men usually, in great distress trying to find their way home, dragging their drains and catheters like Marley’s Ghost. Whatever else is going on in Rob’s head, the homing instinct is strong.
Further messages throughout Sunday suggest Rob is having a good day. I’m pleased that James and Liz are there to see their old Dad – the joker, the funny man – rather than the sick Dad. Long may it continue. I have a good day too. A bit of bike fettling, some painting in the kitchen and then supper with Chris and Emma.
Monday 24th 7.00am. The phone wakes me. I know it’s all over before she speaks – we’ve adopted a code without even thinking about it – a text message means everything is fine, a phone call means it’s not.
“He’s gone”. Rob passed away about three in the morning. Annie wants to come home now, but she’ll have to wait for her Boxing Day flight. She’s concerned about me. And I’m concerned about her. I reassure her that I’m fine.
Survivor guilt kicks in. It seems wrong – although Rob would never say it – to make, only a few days ago, a big song and dance about being a cancer survivor. And I know that Annie feels this too.
A few hours later I’m in a queue waiting to collect the turkey. It’s busy and buzzing with excitement – people wishing each other a happy Christmas. At first I don’t want to join in; it’s not a particularly happy Christmas for our family as the news spreads out from France to the UK, to Australia and relatives sit down and digest the news.
But I relent – it seems churlish to visit my gloom on others. Life goes on. I think about Annie and it’s as if we’re stuck in two different worlds – I’m here where everything seems ‘normal’ and Annie’s in CancerWorld. My world is full of colour and sparkle and noise – I imagine hers to be sombre tones, perhaps even monochrome. And quiet.
I listen to the Christmas Eve Carol service from Kings College while I think about supper. I’m not a religious person – I just like the music. And it’s become a sort of tradition; it always takes me back to singing carols in the school choir. The music washes over me – it demands very little – and I think about Rob.
I wrote about his approach to his cancer, back in April¹ and in September 2011². I won’t say he fought a hard battle against the disease because I don’t like that analogy. Talk of ‘battles’ or ‘fights’ implies winners and losers – the strong against the weak – and anyone who finally succumbs to this disease is not a loser. Nor are they weak. Rob never gave up. It’s as simple as that. He was an engineer and would pour over scans and printouts and charts as if trying to trace a fault in a system – to understand how his body worked so he could find the best way to deal with the disease.
I can’t help wondering if living in France made Rob’s situation more difficult. He would probably say not – they gave him drugs he could not get in the UK. And they gave him Hope. When his oncologist in Manchester asked him why he was moving, Rob said; “if I’m going to die, I’d rather die in the sun than in the rain and gloom of Manchester”. He loved living in the sun. He was proud of his house and his small field across the road where he could let his dogs run. But what he, or rather Lesley, has missed, is family and friends close by to share the load, cook meals, walk the dogs, fetch and carry – and probably most important of all – give a hug every now and again. No health service can do that.
Tuesday December 25th. So this is Christmas. A strange day; phone calls, text messages and emails keep the family in touch and although we’re on our own, we’re not really – if that makes sense. Rob links us all together.
I cook Christmas dinner for Chris and Emma. While the turkey is in the oven, I just chill out and watch a couple of ancient episodes of Cheers that I keep for emergencies. A sad day and I’m roaring with laughter.
Chris and Emma arrive around midday. We save the exchange of presents for another day. I don’t do the festive table decorations or the crackers; that’s Annie’s area of expertise. We play a couple of games, eat more than we intend and pass the time in better spirits than might otherwise be expected.
Rob is not left out; Annie and the family spend some time with him at the hospital before settling down to their own Christmas meal.
After Chris and Emma leave, I watch a bit of TV, read and then, when the realisation dawns that Annie’s coming home tomorrow, a late night dash round with the vacuum cleaner in an attempt to make the house resemble in some small way, the state in which she left it.
And that was Christmas.
RIP Rob. You had a good life and by all accounts, a good death. You were not in pain or discomfort and your family were there. You spent your last day laughing and telling jokes and conspiring with your sister; “Ann – you’ve got to get me out of here….” So – very much a normal day for you. And then you left.
The night-duty nurses looked after your family well; when they couldn’t find the right words in English they used Google translate to print out messages – they wished they could have done more; but you did not suffer. You were at peace. I guess that’s the best any of us can hope for.
Rob and Annie, August 2011
This is how I remember you; we’re on the VeloRail – 2 bikes and 2 passenger seats attached to a railway cart – and we’re cycling about 20km along a railway line (disused…). It’s hard going and I have to give up – I just don’t have the strength to turn the pedals. But you do – you take my turn, as well as your own. Because that’s the kind of man you are. Big, strong and generous.
I’m pleased that I got to know you, although saddened that the thing we really shared – that we spent most of our time together talking about – was this awful disease. Rest in Peace my friend.
¹ See Brother-in-Arms April 10th 2012
² See An accident of life September 2nd 2011