On the way home from New Jersey I find myself in a window seat next to two British women on the plane. They were sitting in front of me on the way over and I remember them, they are happy, laughing, enjoying themselves. The inevitable ‘what did you do?’ conversation ensues. They’ve done ‘everything’ in New York, having travelled over to see Barry Manilow in concert (does he still play I wonder to myself, although the women tell me he wasn’t well and the concert was cancelled.) So when it’s my turn I just say I went to a funeral. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘My friend died,’ I say. ‘Of breast cancer,’ I say. They look at me. ‘How old was she?’ they ask. ‘Forty-one,’ I say. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘It fucking pisses me off good style,’ I say. I don’t mean to swear but I’m so angry. And all this last week I’ve been having very short conversations which punctuate very long silences which consist of few words, ‘This fucking sucks.’ Because it does.
I look out the window. The runway, we’re moving out now. ‘American?’ they ask. ‘No,’ I say, ‘Australian British.’ ‘How old?’ they say, again. ‘Forty-one,’ I say. ‘Yes, we know a girl‘, they say, ’27,’ they say, ‘with a daughter. Yes, she left a daughter behind.’
Oh, I think, so that’s worse than Rach is it? Younger. With children. It’s a competition for pathos is it? So a 41 year old women dying of breast cancer is somehow acceptable? Or not sensational enough. I don’t say any of this, I just haven’t got the energy to start a discussion right now.
The conversation limps on and the two women mention seeing something about the Avon walks in New York. Hanging in the air is the message that it’s all being sorted out. That these deaths won’t happen again. That the charity walks will change all this. I don’t have the energy to challenge these women, to spoil their holiday. But how does Rach dying fit in with ‘surviving breast cancer’, the culture that doesn’t have space for the dead?
Selfishly I don’t want to find myself 36,000 ft above the Atlantic sobbing into my pillow. I don’t want to hold the mothers of my friends and comfort them. I don’t want to witness a family torn by grief, a husband blown apart by the death of his beloved wife, far too young. I don’t want to be writing tributes for my friends in their 40s and attending services for them. I don’t want to lose my friend. Of course, all of these things have just happened, and all that I’ve done to help the people directly affected by Rachel’s death has been done lovingly and willingly. But I still wish none of it had had to be done. Selfish me. I can hear Rach saying to me, ‘We’re all too young for this cancer crap.’ Yes, cancer crap it is.
I think back to last Monday, the day Rach died, the day I found out. That feeling of receiving news that’s like 100,000 watts of electricity shot directly into my heart. That I reeled backwards on the cathedral steps and was forced into sitting down on the cold step, unable to move even when I could feel the damp on my skirt. I couldn’t breathe. It can’t be happening. It can’t be true. That the day that started so normally with me taking the last pair of knickers off the drying rack and going to my piano lesson. Later that day I wrote in my journal, ‘Rach died last night.’
But there we have the reality of breast cancer. Death. Progression of disease that sneaks its way around every drug we have. Disease that behaves aggressively, silently, creating havoc. Stealing my friend. I always knew I would lose Rach to breast cancer. That’s the reality of making friends with someone who has Stage IV disease. We both knew that. We both knew we’d have to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ together – that was her expression. I just never thought beyond the point where she didn’t come out. But I do get to come out. Blinking into the sunlight.
Here’s my life back in Liverpool. The card she sent me on my desk still, which says ‘Not long now dear one, love Rachel xx’ – for our planned weekend with our ‘sisters’. Her handwriting done with her right hand (she was left-handed) as she’s lost the use of her left hand, always made me smile, appreciating the effort she’d made to write even a short message and my address on the envelope. Now my desk is full of paper from Rach’s service, the scripts I am compiling to create a document with all the words for Rach, and the film I have started editing. Now the weekend with our ‘sisters’, my cyber sisters who were going to get together, will not happen in March. The Seville oranges and limes are in the shed, ready to make marmalade, suspended from where they were in the kitchen over a week ago. When life was still ‘normal’. When this month I would make marmalade, when next month I would travel to New Jersey to meet with my cyber sisters and have fun together. With Rach.
This is so not right. I am so angry.
Rach was my dear friend and fellow blogger over at The Cancer Culture Chronicles. She died on 6 February 2012 of metastatic breast cancer. She was 41.