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

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

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“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.

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