Life really does change in an instance. When I wrote last Tuesday things were going really well. The therapy was working, and I was feeling confident, happy and had no signs of anxiety. Wednesday took the wind out of my sails and made me face something that nobody likes to think or talk about. Mortality. Death.
My first encounter with death was when I was 23 and my Grandad passed away. I was devastated. He was my favourite Grandfather, I was his eldest grandchild and the apple of his eye. The day after he passed I found out I was pregnant with my first child. That gave the family something really positive to look forward to and was a huge comfort to me. The next person close to me to pass away was my father-in-law 12 years ago. 8 years ago I received a cancer diagnosis but only thought briefly of my own mortality before going in to fight mode to battle the damn thing. When I was forty I lost my other Grandad. He was 96 and had a great life so whilst I knew I would miss him in my life I couldn't be sad.
2016 is what gave me my fear of death. Not of my own but of losing people I love. In the space of 3 months both my Nans and my husband passed away. It was too much to take onboard and process what was happening, and I became incredibly fearful of losing my children. I wanted to wrap them in cotton wool, not let them out. I knew this was completely irrational and the bereavement counsellor I saw at the time helped me to deal with the pain I was in and let them live their lives. I had a stroke 7 months after my husband passed away and again was not scared about dying. I have a warped sense of humour and can joke about my own death. I talk openly about what I want at my funeral and have even put down what songs I want played to remember me. They are upbeat, and I just want people to have a party when I pop off. What did scare me was the thought of losing another person I love.
Last Wednesday evening I took a call from my mum to say my Aunt was in the intensive care unit in Essex. This was totally unexpected. She had been unwell at the end of last year when she was taken to hospital as having difficulty breathing. During the current pandemic this was a huge worry, but she was informed she had a hernia pressing on her lung and would need an operation but nothing more sinister. She has been awaiting a referral since November. Wednesday night we found out it is not a hernia but one massive tumour and a second smaller one in her lung. As of this morning it has been confirmed it is cancer. My Aunt battled and successfully overcame breast cancer 21 years ago, so this is a huge shock for the whole family.
As my parents were both in the Navy the majority of my family do not live locally, but we are very close-knit. Due to lockdown to make up for the lack of visits last year we had weekly zoom quizzes to keep in touch which were great fun. I have yet to meet my cousin's baby who is now 7 months old. The closeness I have with my family has always been there. When I was younger my brother and I would spend 2 to 3 weeks of our school summer holidays at my grandparents, so it was always a home from home for me. I was always extremely close to my Aunt. She has no children of her own but has been very important and instrumental in my life. She was the one I could talk to when my parents "didn't understand" the hormonal, knew better than everyone teenager. I would often go and stay with her on my own, and we would go out shopping or to concerts, shows or meals, things I never did with my parents. I could also confide in her about anything.
The night my mum called I couldn't sleep. I was in shock. That shock turned to anger on Thursday as we received updates on my aunt's condition. Due to lockdown she can have no visitors. The information we are receiving is minimal and very frustrating. As a family we have really been through it in the past 4 years and this just added to my anger.
I was angry that yet another family member has been misdiagnosed and not given thorough tests when initially presenting with symptoms. I was angry that I can't comfort my daughter who is so distressed as her Grandmother is also currently battling and undergoing treatment for breast cancer. I had no answer for her when she asked me why is this happening to us, why is life so unfair. I was also angry as my mum is so upset she can not be with her sister at the worst possible time. I was angry at everything but didn't know where to direct it.
That night I had to host a zoom meeting for my group therapy session, so I did my usual, buried my feelings and put a smile on. Although the session was really successful I felt exhausted at the end, pretending I was fine and the floodgates opened. My son must have heard me crying, and he came into my room. He asked me what was up and in a snotty teary way I ranted about how crap life is. This was totally unfair of me to put this on a 16-year-old but he astounded me. He gave me a hug and said "yeah we've had some crap mum, but others have it worse". He went on to comfort me and actually spoke more sense than most adults I know.
My son amazes me. At 16, he has been through and lost more than most adults my age but his resilience and matter of fact attitude is really rather humbling. What was I doing ranting and raving about things I have no control of when this kid can take all the awful things he's been through in such a short time, on the chin. I am so proud of how my son reacts in the face of adversity, and he really has inspired me. After his dad passed away I worried he would go off the rails. I need not have. He has more sense and is more level-headed than many I know, and he is the one who keeps me on the rails.
Friday was my aunt's birthday. I felt incredibly sad as she is alone in the ICU, but I knew I couldn't dwell on it. I needed to go to the office to pick some bits up. It is the first time since November I have ventured over there. Fortunately it was a lovely sunny day so the ferry and train journey were actually really enjoyable. A journey I used to hate doing was a welcome break in what has been a stagnant few months. On the way back I took time to appreciate where I live. I spent ages just looking at the water; it really is rather calming. It made me think long and hard. I cannot control when I or the people I love die. It is the one thing in life that is a certainty. What I can control is how I will be remembered. What is the legacy, if you like, that I want to leave behind.
Material possessions matter not. What I achieve in work will not be remembered. What matters, is knowing you were loved and those close to you know you loved them. I have told my children every day of their lives that I love them, although I could not remember when I last told my parents or extended members of my family. I have always said life is short, and we need to make the most of it. This doesn't mean by necessarily going anywhere but making the most of what time we have on this planet and appreciating and making the most of those we love. Tell and show the people close to you how you feel. Resolve differences, hold no grudge and have no regrets. If I can get to the end of my days knowing I did everything I could to ensure my loved ones know what they meant to me then I have lived a full life.
My Aunt is an incredibly strong lady and whilst she has a huge battle to come I know that with the whole family to support her she will give it all she can. I have spent the weekend writing letters for when my time comes. I have also made sure my family knows how I feel about them now. My brother reached out to me before Christmas and after an estranged relationship for many years he is trying to build bridges. I was reluctant to let him back into mine and my children's lives but tomorrow is not promised only today, so we are starting again with baby steps. I can not live in fear of something that will ultimately come to us all. I can live each day as if it's the last. Look forward to the future but live, learn, laugh and love right now.