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From unnerving normality to toilet humour: the stages of my mum’s cancer diagnosis

So I guess we’re that sort of cancer family.

“I think she should kill Trump,” I say.

“You what?” for a moment, my dad stops squeezing my hand, but I think I can see a smile lurking in the corners of his eyes.  

“Well, yeah,” I say, the absolute arbitrary, damn-it-to-fucking-Hell, unfairness of the situation inflating to full realisation. “She gets cancer. He doesn’t. What kind of a world is that? She should kill him.”

My mum – a lifelong non-smoker – has lung cancer. I haven’t got used to those words yet. Did I really just type that? About my mum? The woman who, on Christmas eve, intervened when she saw – through the glass doors to the lobby of a block of flats – a man screaming right up in the face of a scared looking woman in her twenties. My mum, who thumped on the glass, and bellowed orders, and ultimately scared the scummy guy shitless. And scared me shitless. Right then, while she was busy not being afraid of anything, she had cancer. We just didn’t know yet.

A few weeks ago, when we found out it was “probably” cancer, my mind put me knee-deep in icy water. I cried. And then I didn’t. Because, however cold the water, you always seem to get used to it, even if your feet are numb. Nothing, after all, is ever as bad or as good as you think it’s going to be. It just is. No one ever seems to rend their garments, or spontaneously combust.

Whenever I’ve pictured things going horribly, horribly wrong, it’s always been operatic. There’s definitely your own personal orchestra playing you into whatever upside-down world you’re heading for. Until the thing actually happens. And what you really get is a bum-out version of the A Place in the Sun incidental music, lulling you off somewhere unnervingly normal.

Just now, sitting in the busy hospital canteen, having just been debriefed of the real-life gravity of the situation, I wade in waist-deep. The midriff stage. The worst bit – the one that feels mean. While my mum sits opposite me, saying things like, “chemo”, “inoperable” and “maximum three years”, the English language abandons me in one long exhale.

Why is my mum comforting me? I’m wrapped in one of her boa constrictor hugs, inhaling her smell: moisturiser and the world’s cleanest clothes.

“I’m still here,” she says.

Now she’s wandered off to phone a friend. My dad has taken her seat across from me, and we’re talking about how Mum can Break Bad. Because, between lucid and panic-stricken moments, her cancer just is. Like browning Christmas trees on the pavement, way too late in the year.

A few days later, I’m on the phone to my mum.

“I had a thought today,” she says.

I don’t like where this is going.

“I bought a new tube of toothpaste and wondered if I’d live to finish it.”

And there she is: Gallows Mum.

“MUM,” I say.

Later, I phone my sister and ask if she’s heard the toothpaste bit.

“Yeah,” she says. “I told her to squeeze the whole tube down the toilet.”

Meanwhile, my brother has bought my mum a badge that says, “Cancer is a cunt”. So I guess we’re that sort of cancer family. Which is probably for the best, seeing as Mum told us that if we stop making jokes she’ll kill us. Speaking of which, we’re still on “hypothetical Heisenberg Mum”. Which – grotesque as it may seem – is just where our collective mind has taken us, so we’re going with it.

“I’d have to get Pence too,” she says, taking a swig of Scotch.

The water is warming. It always does.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.