If anyone’s wondering why an idiot like me is part of a nationwide lung cancer awareness campaign with Ricky Gervais, I lost my mum to it in 2010. And I’m a token ethnic. Here’s a thing I wrote for Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation:
Nothing prepares you for that moment when the doctor delivers those words. Absolutely nothing. You can see in their downturned reassuring smile that much as they’ve delivered this news their entire career, they’re not immune to its power. And if you’re from a big Indian family like I am, chances are you’re going to be in the room when the patient is told, ‘It’s cancer.’
I was there.
A month later I’d lost my mum and had my first novel out in the same two days. It was strange trying to come to terms with your biggest dream and worst nightmare going hand in hand. Mum wasn’t there to live it with me. Because she just wasn’t there anymore.
In a way, that it happened so quickly meant that my memories of her are more of when she was at her best. As time goes on, these memories make it easier. Those fragments of feeding her as her head lolled about, helping her go to the toilet, picking her up when she couldn’t stand, they’re blurs. The overriding memory is of pre-cancer smiling mum sat around with our family, its epicentre, its nucleus and its tie. My mum made everything in our family happen. She cooked for us (even when I no longer lived there, she ensured I was well fed), she made sure we knew each other’s news, she picked us up, dropped us off. What do you do when the instrumental part of your life isn’t there. How do you even begin to compute a new status quo?
That month we lived with mum’s cancer, our overriding question, both internal and external, was ‘why?’ She wasn’t a smoker, she hadn’t worked in asbestos removal, she didn’t live near a toxic waste factory – how could she possibly get lung cancer? Lung cancer?! WTF? It should have been me. I partook in social smoking at university, I didn’t exercise as much as I should – why wasn’t it me, not mum? But it was. And we rallied round her. The blessing and curse of a large family is that everyone knows your business instantly and is desperate to help. We drew up a rota of care, cooking and ensuring dad was sent off to work every day and as soon as it was bedding in, she was gone.
Still, the overriding question is ‘why?’
But as time goes on, the memories get stronger as you work harder to remember everything you possibly can. And that’s the most you can do. It could be any of us. It could be your mum who still had half a lifetime in her. It could be you. It could be. That’s the scary thing. And your first question will be… ‘why?’