People often tell me I’m inspirational and, because I’m such a fraud, I often let them. Sometimes, I protest and they think I’m being modest when I’m just being honest. More often, I accept their compliments about my stoicism and my cheery attitude, when in reality I have been up until 2 a.m. throwing myself a major pity-party, nursing a bottle of Blossom Hill and harmonising with Leanne Rimes on repeat. Recently, I even had the audacity to accept a local award for Inspirational Women, accepting a trophy and a voucher for a spa session (well, it would have been rude not to). And what have I done, to deserve such praise and recognition? I have survived a terrible loss. Just about. So far (I have a history of severe depression, so I don’t count my chickens).
Almost three years ago, my fourteen year old daughter Georgina was diagnosed with Stage Four liver cancer. Metastases in her lungs. At the outset, they thought it reasonable to attempt to treat her tumours. Four months later, I found myself making surreal decisions about pink coffins and outfits to cremate her in. Georgina was undoubtedly very brave, notwithstanding her initial – entirely understandable – wobble about losing her prized long hair. Then, preparing us for the increasingly likely negative outcome of her ‘battle’ (God, how I hate that terminology, because it implies that she was a ‘loser’), she commanded “No sad faces.”
The little minx: that’s a tricky trick to pull off. But I have mostly complied, so now I’ve got this stupid grin stuck to my phizog even when I want to kick the budgie and scream “No, I am really NOT okay.” I don’t know why I don’t, apart from the fact I don’t have a budgie.
There’s a tendency in books and films to romanticise terminal illness: I’m thinking Beaches and My Sister’s Keeper. Very sick people are supposed to be serene and sage, and Georgina did demonstrate a calmness and wisdom beyond her years. But although my daughter was beautiful, the cancer that stole her from us was an ugly, mean beast, gifting her with vomiting and baldness and unresponsive feet. And pain. They never show the pain properly, in films.
Similarly, the bereaved people left behind are supposed to wipe away their tears and get on with things because “it’s what X (the dead person) would have wanted”. It’s true that Georgina faced her illness and death with directness and an arrestingly dark sense of humour. She joked about being a ‘cancer dancer’ and not having to shave her armpits any more. That was her way of coping and helping her young friends and us to be less scared. I have largely followed her example, because she was formidable, and I’ve yet to come up with any better tactics. But it’s hard to keep smiling, when, all this time later, there’s a great big gap in our lives where she’s supposed to be.
When I decided to publish the diaries I have kept since Georgina’s cancer was diagnosed, I was determined to tell my story as her mother honestly. There is no sugar-coating of the brutal reality of child-loss in ‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’. Where things have been hideous, I have not dressed them up, because it’s important to me to tell the truth. I have transcribed my journals in all their stinging rawness. The last thing I aspired to create was a sanitised – or, heaven forbid, glamorised – version of events to add to the existing heap of misrepresentations and misconceptions about this horrendous experience.
So, why do I find myself grinning like the cat that’s caught the budgie, and reassuring complete strangers that I’m doing just fine, even on very crappy days? Bereaved parents make people especially nervous, I think: our children aren’t supposed to die before us, and nobody likes to think about such a tragedy befalling their family.
I don’t want to cast a shadow on people’s lives. I don’t want to poop on their party or rain on their parade. I certainly don’t want them to cross the road when they see me, out of fear of being forced to face mortality and the randomness of such lightning strikes. People often say to me “I don’t know how you do it” and “If that happened to me, I couldn’t go on.” I reply “Well, I don’t have much choice”, even though I suppose I do have the choice of taking to my bed and awaiting rescue (or my own end – whichever might come first). I have taken to my bed over less serious happenings, in the past. However, my daughter’s death has taught me that life is fragile and short enough, without deliberately taking an axe to it. It would be churlish of me not to seize this chance I’ve been given to continue to exist. Somehow, amongst this sense that nothing really matters, there is also an acute awareness that everything matters so much more.
It’s confusing. So, I just keep on putting one foot after the other and when I dare look back, I find I’ve moved forward. Hopefully. That’s the strategy – if that’s not too big a word for it. Nothing big or clever. Just plain old, uninspirational plodding from A to B to C, powered by the occasional indulgence in tongue-curling beverages and eye-watering tunes.
Helen Victoria Anderson is a writer based in the North East of England. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Teesside University. Helen’s fiction and poetry have been published in a number of literary magazines and anthologies and she won First Prize in the InkTears Flash Fiction Contest 2015.
‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’ (Slipway Press, 5 December 2015) is Helen’s story as a member of the new ‘club’ no parent ever wants to join. It is available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback