It comes at you sideways, when you least expect it. Someone who hasn’t heard asks “How are the boys?” Or I see pictures on Facebook of graduations, 21st birthday parties, students coming home from abroad. I have to sign cards from three of us, not four. Somehow it’s easier to deal with the things that I know are going to happen such as ordering a gravestone or closing bank accounts, although these things certainly have their moments. Chris came with me to the Bank of Scotland last week. The youngish chap who was dealing with us tapped away on his computer, then paused, and looked at us. “It’s hard, isn’t it? I do know a bit of what you’re going through.” Yeah, right, I thought. “I lost two brothers – my parents had to do this for two sons.” I was only just holding it together, so couldn’t reply, but with hindsight you have to laugh. Top trumps.
I heard a discussion on the radio recently, one of the Listening Project conversations Radio 4 has been broadcasting. Rachel, whose daughter Alice died a few years ago aged 18, after an infection, was talking to her friend Mandy. Many of the things she said resonated very clearly with me. She described so vividly the total disbelief that this awful thing had happened. She said that they found as a family that they couldn’t implode – it wouldn’t be fair to themselves, to their other children, to Rosie. They discussed the irrational sense of failure that, as a mother, she couldn’t keep her daughter alive and they talk about how she would give anything just to see Rosie again, even for a few minutes. And, of course, how she is always happy to talk about Rosie. I can tick every one of those boxes.
Meeting people for the first time for a while can be tricky, because no one knows what to say. Mostly people say “I really don’t know what to say, but I’m very sorry” and that’s just fine. They give me a hug – that’s just fine. We move on. Completely ignoring it is pretty tricky because then I think they can’t deal with it and I don’t know what to say. The problem is that there is not much time during the day when I’m not thinking about Tim. It still hurts like a physical pain in the pit of my stomach. He is the last thing I think about at night and the first thing in the morning. So talking about him is perfectly natural, because he occupies most of my brain most of the time. At home we talk about him at least some of the time as though he’s just nipped out. His stuff is still all around us, although I confess that almost the first thing I did, in a fit of anger, when we got the news was to throw out his toothbrush. I couldn’t look at it in the bathroom.
The disbelief is immense, overwhelming. I find myself thinking a million times a day that this awful thing hasn’t happened, can’t have happened, and then I get very angry because I know it has and I have to accept it. Tim has died. His life has ended but we still have to get on with ours. We have to get out from under the duvet every morning and get on with living. I remember very well one half term, the morning after a chemo session, Tim dragging me out of bed so that we could go out and start his Geography field work. He did acknowledge that he’d left me as long as he could but still, it had to be done and we needed to get out. So we did and we had a lovely day together on the East Lothian sand dunes. People have expressed surprise that, for instance, Iain went back to work so soon. They’ve said to us “I’m sure you won’t want to do this, or that” but we do. Having a reason to get on with each day and keeping life as normal as possible have been really important when dealing with cancer, and these things are even more important now. There is only so much time you can sit and stare at the floor.
And there is the guilt, that sense of failure, irrational as it may be. Diabetic ketoacidosis was the eventual verdict. How quickly did it come on and had he had signs of developing diabetes? He’d been fine at Christmas but should I have known he wasn’t feeling well? We skyped weekly -why didn’t he tell me? Was he worrying that I had been struggling with that brutal chemotherapy over the winter? Senseless questions because I can’t put the clock back and put it right. And I know if he’d told me that evening that he was feeling ill I’d have said to go to the doctor in the morning, and that would have been too late. After all, this was a boy who hadn’t needed a doctor since he caught his thumb in a door when he was about five. Apart of course from the time he fell off his sledge in very thin snow and we ended up at Sick Kids. And he did go down with flu once in his early teens, but somehow soldiered on for a trip to Old Trafford. You see, I can count the times he was ill on one hand, so why would he or I or any of his friends think there was anything seriously wrong?
We all carry on, keeping busy, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with things as they crop up but not knowing how we will cope next week, next month, next year. What we haven’t done is bounced back. So, if you see one of us, do say “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m very sorry” or offer a hug. Please, don’t say, as a few people have (and of course I don’t hold it against them because I know no one, certainly not me, knows how to deal with this) “I’m amazed how well you’ve bounced back”. We haven’t, we won’t, but we will still talk and laugh and joke, remember Tim, live our lives and find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.