Category Archives: My Mum’s Cancer and Me

Alcoholics

I’ve known so many alcoholics.

I’ve loved all of them, and wanted them to get well.

Who are these people?

Intelligent, funny, beautiful, charming; the life and soul of the party.

Why do they drink until they can’t stand up?

Why do they drink until they abuse their partners?

Why do they hit their kids so hard?

Why do they drink until they touch their kids?

Why did life break my mother?

Will it break me?

Why wasn’t she able to ask for and receive help?

What was she so afraid of that hadn’t already happened?

Why are some born to live full and happy lives and others to suffer?

Why me?

Why not me.

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Moving to and from “Spain”

I haven’t lived in the UK in almost 8 years. I left in 2011, scared that the economic crisis left me minimal job options. I watched the people on my course moan about going home to parents, or listened to their plans to study a masters, do law conversion, or a teaching post grad, and I knew that I wasn’t ready to get another loan, a “real” bank loan, to stumble into a profession that I hadn’t a clue whether I’d like or not. My degree had been more of a way to get a loan to move cities, rather than about studying; in the end, against my parents’ wishes, I had chosen my favourite subject, and studied English Literature. It was an expensive way to heal, to escape my own destructive patterns and being mired in the world of drugs, but I think it was all I could handle mentally at the time and something more practical, more maths based, might have frustrated me too much and caused me to quit mid year again, as I did with the Engineering course.

Time flies. I worked in one school for two years. It took me a long time to realise that the teachers were fascist. I should have twigged when one of my pupils had a family member who was a judge and had been targeted by ETA. I joked that the school had been built on an indian burial ground; I see now I was right in a way. The unresolved conflicts of the violence of the civil war and the retribution doled out by the victors flows beneath the modern façade throughout “Spain”.

My third year, I was going to go freelance, but my mother became seriously ill so I took a job where I could take time off and get paid if I needed to. By the time she was stabilised, I had saved money and went travelling (something she always told me was a waste of time and never to do), helping a friend with a documentary project, seeing the world, and feeling the freedom and loneliness of the open road. Although I went to so-called “dangerous” countries, people were kind and helpful, and apart from my camera breaking or its own accord, getting lost in a dodgy part of town, and unwanted advances from men who “just wanted to share their bed with me”, none of the things they tell you to be afraid of as a lone female traveller came to pass. Thank god.

I moved to Bilbao, and my world was soon on fire, and not in a good way. My mother’s cancer came back and I spent months living two weeks with my partner in Bilbao, two weeks “taking care” of her. I put that in quotes as “taking care” of a woman as independent, strong, and proud as my mother was kind of like trying to take care of a wolf, lion, or other large animal that doesn’t need or want your help at all. I cooked her eggs, as they were the only things she could eat. I watched TV with her. I chatted to her.

Her death is an event that destroyed my life as I knew it, and that marks a before and an after. We had a very, very difficult relationship. When she became seriously ill I had been in therapy for 5 years, when she was dying, 6 years. I’m very grateful for the work that I did that meant that I could forgive her and spend time with her before she died, and show her completely unconditional love, despite a violent argument we had.

I thought that, once she was dead, I would be free, but I felt like I had been literally shot in the head. I had lost everything. My mother, who although for many years had been my nemesis, was someone who had been a constant every year of my life. My home, that I had always run from. My country, the place where I had grown up. My family (as people go absolutely chicken oriental after a death and have stupid arguments that seem very important at the time. This is called “secondary losses” in grief books).

I did a masters, all in Spanish, in Feminism and Gender. It was amazing, and it was terrible. It was like putting your whole life experience into a framework, both historical, sociological, legal, political, with a bunch of dates and stats. I learnt that violence against women goes on a scale, and the more points you have (being poor, black, lesbian, trans…) then the more of a target you are by violent bullies.

It opened my eyes to a million things, and once I had taken a bite of that apple, I couldn’t go back to the garden. It was too much for my then boyfriend. We broke up. I moved out.

I wrote my dissertation. I defended it. And all the while, the people from my uni course who weren’t from the Basque Country left, one by one, even those whose parents were paying for their rent, their uni fees, their food, AND BASQUE CLASS ON TOP (I have a big chip on my shoulder about this. Can you tell? :P). They went home to work as journalists, or social workers; they went back to their parental home to regroup and look for other opportunities in a place where they had the language, the contacts, and certificates.

It took me around 6 months of therapy to realise that, although I love the Basque Country, I had grown all I could grow there. I had done my best to put down roots, but they had encountered rocks, and could only be shallow. The Basque language must be protected, but seeing as I’d worked my arse off to learn Spanish for 8 years and still had to think quite a lot about it before I opened my big gob, I thought that my chances of being able to invest thousands of hours in a language, day after day of being the “lemon” at the party who no one wants to speak to, and not becoming even more insane than I already am, were quite low. Having a foreign accent and making small errors in Spanish makes me basically kind of linguistically disabled in Spanish, and Spain isn’t an economy like the UK that relies on the brain drain of other countries to feed it with bargain skilled labour. Also the güiri stereotype was really getting me down, as my butt had been fondled non-consensually by one to many an old sleaze bag.

It was time to sell, give away, throw away, and generally let go of all my possessions, in order to take the leap of faith back to the UK.

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.

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.