I received a text message from my old uni flatmate this morning.
“Sad news. Call me. x”
I thought – this is it. She’s gone into a hospice. Our other uni flatmate M, and her best friend – has had lung cancer. (Did you know lung cancer is the #1 killer cancer? And yet it’s unfairly stigmatised because sufferers are thought to have brought it on themselves.)
The thing is – M never smoked. She was a clean living freak. Not in the yoga way, but in the hale and hearty British gal way – she cycled everywhere, and only ever drank in moderation, and ate healthily. I remember back when we were at uni – she and I were both cycling devotees. She would be on her grown up bike and I’d be on my BMX, which was useless for the city’s hills – and we lived at the top of a hill – but I was proud then, and trying to convey something with my quirky persona. M was always M. And whereas I gave up the ridiculous BMX biking (I couldn’t do any stunts; it was literally for show), she carried on cycling into her forties. (We made it to our fortieths, M.)
Back when she was first diagnosed, M went to the doctor with a persistent cough she couldn’t shake off. Not one of us would have ever foreseen that it could be The Big C. They told her it was terminal. Imagine! A wife and mother of two young children, ages 5 and 2. How? Why? Cancer is so bloody unfair. I mean, even if you smoked forty a day you don’t deserve cancer – but a mother in her prime – a mother with two little children who need her – how can that happen?
Back then, she rallied. She set up a funding page because she wanted to feel she could do something, anything to provide for her family when she’d gone. She always was a provider. A nurturer. She underwent chemo, and she took a cocktail of drugs. Because her lung cancer wasn’t just lung cancer, but a rare form of lung cancer and They didn’t know exactly what it would do – only that it would kill her eventually.
But kill her it didn’t. Her page racked up the funds and she announced that she’d be donating it to lung cancer charities. Because she didn’t feel right taking it. Take it, we urged. Even if you’re fighting cancer and not dead from it – you deserve to have a buffer. You should give up work, have some fun. And yet she didn’t, because M was proud of her work, because she didn’t want to sit around at home feeling sorry for herself. We all wanted to go and visit her but she didn’t want that because it would be like saying there was a reason for saying goodbye, and she didn’t want to say goodbye.
We spoke on the phone. I didn’t know what to say when I found out, and I blethered on too much via SMS probably, and she said why don’t we have a chat on the phone. So we did. It was way back, pre-B, and we talked about everything, and it was probably over two hours or something whilst we poured our hearts out. She told me all about her husband (who I’d met once when he was her boyfriend – but they live a while away in a different country) and her two kids, and how she felt when she first found out about the cancer (suicidal – why don’t they tell people in a better way?) and how the cancer had responded to the drugs and somehow, miraculously, the cancer they’d said was terminal in a few months receded. In turn I poured out my heart about infertility and loss and she urged me to keep on trying and sympathised with me about the unfairness of it all. (The unfairness of which pales in comparison with a healthy young person struck down in their prime. I even knew that then.)
In the last three years she led an almost normal life, sandwiched around bouts of chemo. They holidayed. The kids got older, and she saw their milestones – the little one graduating from kindergarten, refusing to wear the gown and sulking; riding bikes… the school plays… The children making a video to raise money for lung cancer – heartbreaking; her daughter looking just like I remember M, earnest and passionate. Just a few weeks ago she went on a painting retreat and just like everything else she excelled at it and made a wonderful painting. She looked the picture of health. It was hard to believe she had lung cancer. And yet.
It only receded. Borrowed time. We’re all on borrowed time, in our own ways, but somehow – unjustly – some of us have borrowed less than others.
I called back our friend this morning, after I’d finished feeding B, and she broke it to me, her voice breaking:
“She passed away last night.”
I knew this day was coming. I knew she had terminal lung cancer. But if anyone was giving the middle finger to cancer, it was M. She was feisty and jolly and wouldn’t bloody give up. She still cycled everywhere, and was still going to work until last week when she had to be admitted to hospital, and finally a hospice. The end was quick, apparently, and she didn’t want everyone knowing, didn’t want them traipsing in to say goodbye. She left this life as she lived it – fighting, hoping. Hoping to see her darling children grow up. Fighting to stay with the love of her life.
Hold your loved ones a little closer today. Tell someone you love that you love them. And raise a glass (or a mug of strong British tea) to M, our brave, funny, wonderful friend who’s gone too soon.
To M. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Crazy cycling lady. Fighter. Horse lover. Artist. Whisky connoisseur. Red clothing wearer. All these things, and too many others. A lifetime of things. Too short a lifetime, but an amazing, full one. With love.
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If you are able, please donate here to help fund lung cancer research, in honour of a wonderful woman who’s gone too soon. https://www.roycastle.org/donate