Many of my readers will know that my dear friend Rachel Cheetham died on the 6th February 2012 of metastatic breast cancer. She was 41. I miss her. That’s an understatement.
Yes – one more spring is what I would have wanted with Rach. A spring shared – in person, by Skype, by email, with photographs and films. But it didn’t happen.
On the 6th February 2012, a Monday, I got up late, as usual, and didn’t do very much until I got the bus, at 12.30pm, into town. To Hope Street. Where I have my piano lesson with Barry. My jazz piano lesson. My notes from that day tell me we were discussing my piece – Duke Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll’ – and minor sevenths and key modes.
At just after 2pm I leave in a bouyant mood. I’ve been telling Barry how excited I am about my trip to New Jersey in a few weeks to stay with my friend Rach. ‘Sounds great,’ says Barry. ‘Fun.’ Yes, that’s what it will be – fun.
After leaving Barry I turn right, instead of left to go back to the bus stop. I cross the road and skip up the steps, all 87 of them, to the cathedral, the Catholic cathedral. We have two cathedrals in Liverpool, either end of Hope Street, and my preferred one is the Anglican one (designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the iconic British red telephone box). However, today I am going to light candles for Rachel, who is in hospital with what she’s told me in a very brief exchange is a severe migraine and nausea; and I also want to light a candle for her beloved husband Anthony, who is Catholic, so it feels right to go to this cathedral.
I even take a photograph of the candles, knowing I’ll probably write about this, when Rach comes out of hospital. Because here’s me worrying about my friend, 3,500 miles away, and I’m sort of unfazed really because that’s just really how it’s been for the last year. For her a series of medical interventions, treatments, some hospital visits, mostly unscheduled; and yet, Rach always comes through, a bit battered, a bit more angry, fed up. But she comes through. So why wouldn’t she come through this time?
I leave the cathedral and head off down the back steps as I’m going to walk across to London Road, to buy a sewing pattern for a cape as I don’t have anything quite right, quite coat-like enough, to wear to go to New Jersey, where it will still be quite cold. As I leave the cathedral doors I do that very 21st century thing (which by the way I said I would never do) of checking Facebook on my iPhone. And that’s when I see the message. My dear friend Gayle Sulik has written, ‘Our friend is gone.’ At this point I am half way down the steps. And I simply freeze. I grab the handrail. It feels like I have been kicked. I can’t breathe. I have to sit down. So I lower myself onto the cold stone step and start crying. I ring Ronnie. He picks up the phone straight away. ‘Rachel’s died,’ I manage to say. He knows already – news travels fast in social media worlds. He asks me where I am and says he’ll pick me up. ‘No,’ I say, ‘I want to walk, come later, I’ll ring you.’ The sun comes out, briefly, and I am crying. It’s such a shock. It’s too soon. I need more time. I can’t believe this. I hear a clock strike once, it must be 2.30pm now. Another five minutes pass and I sit, paralysed.
Finally I stand up, the step is damp and cold and I can feel wet seeping into my skirt. I walk on, slowly, but have to sit on a stone wall. I am nearly at the university campus, young students pass me. Alive. I feel they are so young, so alive, happy, chatting on their phones. Alive, and yet Rach is dead. So I get up, and walk on. I am standing, obviously, putting one foot in front of the other, but it feels like someone is standing on my chest. However hard I try and breathe I can’t get enough air in. I put my hand up to the wall for support as I slowly, painfully slowly walk. And then I realise I am cold and suddenly hungry and I want something comforting. So I buy a cheese and onion pasty and a doughnut (not the sort of food I usually eat). I sit on a bench, alone and eat the pasty. Bits of flaky pastry fall down onto my scarf and tights. I don’t care, I just want that soft, goo-ey, cheesy potato filling in my mouth. It’s burning hot. Ah, that feels better. I can actually feel something. And I remember, this feeling – this feeling of observing the world like I’m looking into a goldfish bowl. I remember this from when my father died back in 1999. I remember the moment of ‘finding out’, of knowing someone you love has died. In my head I hear the sound of all the crockery on a table laid on a tablecloth being pulled onto the floor and smashing, except it is weirdly silent. The ‘not feeling’ and ‘feeling’ at the same time. Now I see the number 17 bus and I wonder where it goes, and yet I feel completely detached. This is all so meaningless. In the face of death, ordinary life seems so trivial, so minor, so inconsequential.
Of course, I know this a temporary state that I am plunged into because I am in shock. I walk on to the fabric shop. I selfishly think that death will not steal my plans from me, this is what I had planned to do today. I am in one of my favourite places, a fabric and yarn shop. Dress patterns, yards and metres, notions, zips, thread, buttons. I can forget here. But I can’t concentrate. Death is no respector of other’s feelings or convenience.
I buy my pattern, ring Ronnie, and then I stand in the doorway of the shop and read the sewing instructions of the pattern and wait for him to come and pick me up. In the car I say to Ronnie, ‘I’m not angry.’ Pause. ‘I’m sad.’
But I am angry. I have anger about this whole shitty disease and culture. But just right now, in these moments after finding out Rach has died, I am sad. I feel defeated. I can’t enter my social media world without crying, without being at a complete lack of words. And I find myself trying to recall what me and Rach talked about the last time we Skyped. (Sorry about verb-ing a noun there). It was slavery, specifically Liverpool’s role in the slaving triangle. And also about my upcoming visit, how excited we both were. About our ‘sistahs’ coming for the weekend too, about who would sleep where in her house, about what we were going to do, where we would go out for meals, about all of that. She was in good spirits.
By 9.30pm that evening on 6 February 2012, the day Rach died, seven very long hours later, I have nearly drowned in my own tears. I am ‘lost’ to myself. I can’t function. I know I will have so much to say about Rach. But at that point I can only feel suspended disbelief, the inability to have said ‘goodbye’ is so painful. The grief is massive and I am feeling it to the core of my being.
So the weeks pass, I’ve written about going to the US, about facilitating Rachel’s service, a celebration of life, about flying home and feeling so angry, of how I turned to gardening in my grief, about how much I miss my dear friend Rach. But, and here’s the thing, I’ve also made her a film. Well, I made a film about her, about me, I mean about us.
During the year I knew Rach from early in 2011 I made her short films – initially about Plot 44 at the allotment. The first film was called ‘A spring day’, filmed on 6 March 2011. Spring. My favourite season, the start of the year, of gardening, of new starts, for gardeners spring has the promise of the coming year. I love spring. I’d love another spring with Rach. And the films about the allotment were just one part of my life, and so I’d film walks with Ronnie (yes the Friday walks, now over on the a sense of place blog). I loved sharing my world with her.
Rach said once, ‘Don’t you mind having me out on your walks with you?’
‘No, never for a minute,’ I said, ‘it’s great having you there, it’s making us see things differently, looking for things to show you, to tell you about.’
It really was like she was there with me, with us. I miss that. Our friendship was so special. Unique maybe. So this is my tribute to our friendship, a compilation of the films made over the year, and the one she never saw, which was called ‘Miss You’. Sigh. And the lovely piano soundtrack to ‘Rach’s film’ called “On The Deck” has been written and performed by Barry Dallman, my piano teacher. Thanks Barry, it’s beautiful, and so fitting. Barry never knew Rach but this piece captures the essence of our friendship perfectly.
So, here’s another thing, when Rach died of breast cancer she didn’t lose a battle. She wasn’t fighting. Neither of us are, or were. She pragmatically made treatment decisions weighted with life and death statistics. Like I did. But I’m lucky. That’s all.
Rach was unlucky.
But I would rather have one year of friendship like this, than a lifetime of casual acquaintances.
Special thanks to Mandy Cheetham, Rachel’s mother, who plays ‘the voice of Rach’ in the film. Mandy watched a preview of the film and said it was ‘very moving but at the same time uplifting,’ and ‘a wonderful tribute to our Rachel’. Don’t think I could do better than that.