Category Archives: My Mum’s Cancer and Me

The second mother

“She’s like my second mom” Jenny said (not her real name). We were talking about me doing a substitution for her, a private class teaching English at the family’s home.

My number was given to the mother of the family. Suddenly, twelve messages arrive on my phone. “Can you come on Mondays? We live really near you. We’re so excited to meet you. Is 30 ok for the two hours?”.

“Wow, that’s low” I thought. Maybe Jenny had a special agreement with the family for some reason? Who knows. I decided not to make waves. It was her class. “Stop judging”, I told myself.

I went to their house. Everything went smoothly. The next week, I received several messages from a family member of the family. Could I come on Tuesdays? Please please please. They needed someone. Could I recommend someone?

I didn’t reply.

I’ve taught English for 6 years. I. am. tired. I’m tired of people from the country where I live expecting me to solve their problems, expecting me to speak English with them, expecting me to make an effort to understand that they mean this Thursday, not next Thursday. I’m tired of the backhanded comments about how I “speak my language too much”, “don’t make enough effort to integrate”, but could I please please get them another English teacher thanks?

I am not the solution to your problem. Even though I speak Spanish with a very strong accent, I’ve worked really hard to get to it where I am today, so fuck you and your judgements of my life. Fuck you in the fucking face.

Eventually I did reply. “No”.

The mother of the family didn’t ask permission to give my phone number to someone else. They never do. They never think “maybe lots of people message this person asking for help, so I won’t give out their number without their permission”. No, it’s all “Ah, you’re a güiri. You must want a babysitting job”. I do not want a baby sitting job. I want to get a dog and a car and a mortgage like everyone else because I’m almost 30. I want to pay my state pension, not receive cash for going an hour to your house and be told I should be “grateful” when you don’t pay me the same every month (like Christmas etc), like you would any other service.

The mother of the family asks me to bring a list of irregular verbs the day I’m supposed to go to their house. “I have all that stuff in work” I say. She pays me 15e an hour and she wants me to prepare as well. Jesus. Poor Jenny, I thought.

Every day I go, the mother tries to squeeze as many minutes of free English practice out of me for her as she can at the end. We talk about Jenny on trip, how sad it is that she’s leaving (maybe because people only pay her 15e an hour? I think). But I keep that thought to myself as it’s “not my place to say”.

The last day, the mother offers my Jenny’s job. “You know, Jenny, won’t be here the whole school year, if you wanted…” I’m too busy with uni, I say. Stab my good friend in the back for 15 euros an hour? Lord.

I tell this to my friend over a drink a few weeks later. “Oh.” she says. “They were paying me 20”.

The next day I knew I had to say something for my self-respect. This is what went down:

-Hi. I was speaking to Jenny last night. I assumed you were paying me the same as her. I thought it was very low but as a favour to her I accepted. Apparently you pay her 40 for two hours?
-Yes, but i told you 30 because i didn’t know you well at the beginnig
-So you continued to underpay me?
-Aprovechaste de la buena fe de las 2.
-Si quieres ser honesta y pagar a la gente que empleas un salario digno, aquí tienes mis detalles para hacer cuentas
[detalles bancarias]
-Para que sepas, tengo un grado de filología inglesa. Tengo 20.000 libras de deuda estudiantil x ello xk soy de una familia humilde. Tengo 6 años de experiencia. Y normalmente cobro 25 la hora.
-Esa es la última vez que hago un favor para una amiga. Lauren te estima tanto entonces no pensaba en eso.
-Sarah, t he llamado para hablar contigo, si es posible
-En ningun momento, nuestra intencion ha sido aprovecharnos d ti y no me conoces para poner en duda mi honestidad, yo hable un precio contigo al principio… Lo dicho, el wasp no m parece la via para comunicar y tratar de solucionar un enfado como este
-We can talk about it whenenever you want
-Si tu intención no era así haz cuentas ahora.
-Me deberías haber pagado lo mismo que Lauren. Por eso no me dijo ella xk confiaba en ti.
-i me pagas lo que falta hablamos de cuando Lauren se va en la primavera.
-Please, calculate how many weeks have you been at home and i will make a trasference
– Sept
12
19
26
October
3
10
24
(31 puente)
Nov
7
14

8. 80e
-Done, please let me know you have already get the money in your account

I did not feel good about this conversation. I felt drained and dead tired. I promised myself that I would be straight about money from the start of any future deal, knowing that I probably wouldn’t because:

a) I’m British and we find it culturally difficult to talk about money

b) It’s frowned upon for women to ask for money

c) jobs in caring professions often try to manipulate you emotionally (they need you etc)

A day or two later, I receive a message from my friend. She called Jenny crying. The mother of the family called Jenny crying.

I’m now going to write something that only my really close friends know about me. I cry every. single. dayMy mother, someone I had a very complicated relationship with, died of cancer two years ago. I went home (not having been home for more than a weekend for the past 10 years) to “take care of her”, which mainly involved cooking eggs (that was the only thing her stomach could tolerate due to the cancer treatment) and watching her try to hide how much pain she was in from the cancer, from the digestive problems, and from the osteoporosis due to how the chemo had destroyed her body. I was completely and utterly devastated.  Even now, I can’t look at white flowers without thinking about the lillies at her funeral, I think about her every time I drink freshly squeezed orange juice as it’s the last thing she drank. I couldn’t bear to speak to anyone for a year. I couldn’t work (my job is basically speaking to people). I was completely destroyed. Despite crying at least once a day for the past two and a half years, I’ve never called someone up crying. I do not use my tears to make others feel bad to manipulate them into doing what I want.

Calling up someone crying is a distinct tactic in my book. The mother of the family thought “Oh shit. I’m going to loose the native teacher for my kids. Shit shit shit shit shit”, so she called my friend, had a cry at her to make sure she wouldn’t stop working with her family, and then my friend was annoyed with me.

So, from this situation I’ve learned that I need to be up front about money, because if I’m not, then I seem like even more of a bitch.

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Saint Tomas’ Day, 2014

It was two weeks after my mother’s funeral, and the first time I had gone out. Saint Tomas’ day is a day on the Basque Catholic calendar in which people go out for all day drinking with their friends. The bars are packed, the people are happy. Everyone’s out with their cuadrilla, their tight knit group of friends that they’ve known each other for so long, their other family. Basque’s seem to love deep, long term friendships, and not meeting new people, and never mixing their groups of friends together.

I was so mentally broken at this point I struggled to put a sentence together in Spanish. I felt like someone had hit me in the head with an axe and it was still there.

My boyfriend went inside, leaving me to chat to two of his friends. One of them started to interrogate me about why I wasn’t learning Basque. I was shocked. I could barely form a response. How could I think about learning Basque when my short term memory was fucked, I didn’t have a job, I was in debt because I hadn’t been working while I’d been caring for my mum?

Later, much later, I realised that this guy is so petrified of being called Spanish, so sad that he can’t speak Basque properly, that he likes to verbally attack immigrants whose mother’s have just died to make himself look good in front of his Euskaldun friends. Machismo en el matriarcado.

I didn’t know this group of people well. Some knew my mother had died, like the guy who interrogated me as to why I don’t spend thousand of euros trying to learn a very difficult language at the worst point in my life when I was in complete agony, others didn’t.

“How are you?” said one girl. For a Basque person, this was massively friendly. They don’t usually talk to new people, that’s a bit like being someone slightly unhinged who tries to start a conversation with you on the tube in London.

“Not very good. My mum just died.”

She let out a nervous snort. I knew she didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to lie but I also didn’t like to make people feel uncomfortable with the smouldering ruins of my life. I hadn’t just lost my mother, I had lost other family members too (we were not on speaking terms), as well as the place where I grew up. I had lost my country. I had lost the force that I had rebelled against for the past 26 years of my life. I had also lost that safety net that is one’s parents house. That place you dread moving back to, but if it’s that or the street, you would take it and be grateful.

Beliefs

I have a curious feeling that “modern” psychology is not really new, but old wisdom (previously found in religion) polished and presented as new.

Losing my mum has been the spiritual/psychological equivalent of being run over by a bus. I admire the religious types I’ve come across, who tell me that death is like “going home” and how we’ll see each other again, or how she’s “still with me” or helping “from the other side”. Those are all comforting concepts and I can see how they help people get through tough times.

Although I was raised as a Christian, I don’t currently share those beliefs. I (metaphorically) feel like Eve. I have eaten the apple. I now know (that religion is a scam to control the population), and I can’t “unknow”.

I think it’s (obviously) better to be a happy fool than a miserable know it all, yet I can’t help but open the door to knowledge. I read study after study about happiness, and believers tend to be happy. Why do I rebel against common sense?

I suppose I’m like those kids in primary school who whisper so loudly to you (an adult) “I KNOOOOOW” at Christmas, desperate for you to become aware that *they* are no longer taken in anymore by the old Santa Clause ruse.

Why is that? People who believe irrational things, like that the world is basically a good place, or that things are going to improve, are generally happy and productive. Faith can, and does, move mountains.

My mother was basically agnostic, having rebelled against her strict Catholic schooling. Towards the end of her life, she loved to watch programs related to the afterlife, where mediums seemingly give audience members messages from dead loved ones, or film crews spend the night in “haunted” buildings. I suppose that was her brain’s way of coping with the fear of death.

Religion, from an evolutionary perspective, allows us to live in groups. All of the rules basically boil down to “thou shall not impregnate thy neighbour’s wife”, so we can form societies and successfully pass on our genes to the next generation. But I still wish I believed in it.

One More Fight and Learning to Make Decisions

Something I didn’t expect about losing my mother is a feeling of wanting “just one more fight”.

We spent much of my adult life arguing. Mum wanted what she thought was best for me. I wanted to do things differently. “Play it safe” she advised me. “Marry an accountant”.

I’ve come to realise that many decisions I’ve made in my life I’ve made exactly because they are the exact diametric opposite of what she would have chosen for me, such as: piercings, tattoos, studying an arts subject at university, travelling around the world alone, self-funding being a volunteer, adopting a cat.

I won’t be studying this masters (Feminismo y género) because it’s something she would have disapproved of, but that’s a definite bonus. I think about dedicating my dissertation to her:

For Mum.
I know you’re probably right, but I have to try anyway.

Now that she’s gone, do I need to find a new way of making decisions? Firstly, I don’t know if she is “gone”. My religious/spiritual friends tell me that people they’ve lost continue with them in a certain way, which seems like what grief therapists refer to when they talk about “relationships continuing”. I find it comforting to think that the essencial *essence* of Mum, the kind and humourous part, will stay with me.

But as part of being an adult, I feel it’s important to make decisions based on your own internal compass, not to (dis)please others. Not sure how one learns to do that, but I have an inkling. Here’s my thought process about choosing my masters:
1) I want to do a masters.
2) a) Should I study something related to my current carreer (which I don’t really like) or branch out into a different subject?
Branch out.
b) Should I study in the US, the UK, or Spain?
Spain (cheapest)
c) Should I study in English or in Spanish?
Study what you love, in Spanish.

All of those questions I weighed up, mulled over, and researched, for probably about 5 years, although not consecutively. My final year of uni, I felt like I wanted to continue studying but I didn’t know what. I looked in to a few masters (like teaching, or law) but decided against them because I didn’t want to be tied to living in one country/region or saddled with  a bank loan. Then I forgot about studying as I grappled with learning Spanish.

So, deciding to do this masters is probably the first adult decision I’ve made in my life, instead of things just happening to/around me. I’m excited, but also nervous. Will I be able to cope being in Spanish all day? Will I run out of money? Will my classmates like me? Will people try to practise English on me all the time? It’s out of my hands. But I’ve made the decision.

Don’t give up giving up

I bought my first pack of cigarrettes when I was 13, when I bought my first bag of weed. “If I feel myself getting addicted, I’ll stop”, I said, with the hubris of youth. 12 years later, and I was still chained to nicotine, trapped in the idea that it was easier to continue smoking than to stop.

Out of 3 siblings, I am the only smoker. My father and his sister were chain smokers, and Dad always said: “Never ever start smoking”. When he realised I smoked, he tried to give me money to stop, but ofcourse that enabled my partying, and I continued smoking like a chimney.

The day my mother told me her cancer had come back(May 9th, 2014), I immediately started smoking again, trying desperately to handle the stress. I smoked more than ever, until I felt physical nausea, which made me lie down, until I felt better, so I could have another cigarrette.

My Mum always said “five a day”. Five cigarrettes a day won’t do you any harm. You have to die of something, don’t you?

She smoked until the final weeks of her life. “I feel so stupid now”, she told me, bedbound and morphined up. “I’ve brought all this on myself. I wish I had never smoked”. I tried to comfort her. I told her how addictive nicotine is, and how it wasn’t her fault. How no one blamed her.

I will never forget my mother’s black eyes twisting in pain in the last months of her life, and how she never, ever complained. Despite the pain, despite the degradation of her symptoms, all she wanted was one day more, one minute more, one breath more.

I would give anything to have one more argument with her. If she hadn’t smoked, would we have had another precious day together?

Mum,

I love you and I miss you and I think about you every day. It’s been 12 months since my last cigarrette, 8 months since your death, and I wish that it would bring you back to me.

Deciding not to have children

I’m 27 years old, and it started recently. People keep on speaking as if I’m going to have children.

I adopt a cat. There’s a phone interview. It is impressed upon me that cats are not a danger to babies.

I go to the doctor with a cold. He suggests I change my pill to a “softer” one “just in case” I decide to have a baby.

I have a hangover. My housemate suggests that I might be pregnant.

My cousins had their children (one each) when they were over 35. “Just hurry up and do it” they tell me and my sisters. “There’s nothing that compares to it. And if you have one late (like us) then you will only be able to have one. Do it young and you’ll have more energy.”

All very sensible.

At the moment, I just don’t want to have children. Money, time, energy, and (most importantly) selfishness.
Here’s a list of specific reasons why I don’t want to have children:
>I want to be a writer, which means…
>I need/want to get a PhD
I would love to get a PhD and work as a professor at a university (in person or online)
>I want to travel
I’d love to live in a mobile home and travel the world, working online, proofreading, editing, teaching.
>I don’t live near my relatives
If something bad happens, like a death, divorce, or illness, I don’t have anyone to help me with childcare
>My partner hates children
>My mother told me (before she died) that “children aren’t everything”. She sacrificed everything for us. I’m not capable of that.
>I don’t want to be incontinent after childbirth
>I despise going to the gynaecologist
>Patriarchy
In our society, child rearing is pushed on to women. That’s why women are almost automatically awarded custody of children in divorces, and why women are passed over for promotions and high powered/paying jobs.

Music, Death, Life, and Lindy

A few months before my Mum died, I put some music on Spotify, and my mum said: “Ah great, I love jazz”. She told me about how as a student in Belfast, she used to go to jazz events in a hotel in the city by herself because her friends weren’t into the music but she was. I’d known her my whole life, lived with her for 18 years, and I never knew that she liked that type of music. I suppose that she was a private person, and I was a difficult teenager (which she always refuted, but I know I was a complete twat), but still. I felt grateful then that she was dying of cancer, and that we still had a few precious moments left together when she was (relatively) well.

In the last few weeks of her life, when she was bed bound, we put on playlist after playlist of jazz music (she also loved Abba and the Bee Gees, but those didn’t really seem appropriate). “Which music shall we ruin now?” we joked, knowing that this music would be forever linked in our minds to watching our mother get weaker and weaker, eyes glassy with morphine, smiling when she heard our voices.

She’s been gone two months now, and I miss her like crazy. I’m incapable of going to weddings (I’ve declined 3 invitations thus far, and will probably not be going to another two) because I just can’t bear the thought of her not being there to watch me tie the knot, disapproving of everything  but also quietly, fiercely proud of the woman I’ve become.

My boyfriend and I enrolled in a Lindy Hop class in January. We dance to the swing music, which we both love, and I think about my mum. I feel close to her then, and I know that I’m doing something that she never did but would have enjoyed before she got sick. I don’t dance perfectly, but I dance for her.