The gift of time

The day my mum was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was the most frightening of my life. I sit here today, more than seven years later, and still, I can feel my heart racing when I remember. 

The quiver in my voice as I asked what the hell it all meant. 

My dad staying ever so strong for his baby girls. 

My mum defiant – we will beat this. 

We didn’t know then what we know now… 

Being told it was operable. That mum would be ok. And sitting down at the kitchen table being told that yes, the cancer will be cut out but we’ll still have to live with it hanging over our heads for years to come – fear of it returning. 

And then being told surgery was no longer an option. That doctors would do the best they could to keep my mum alive for as long as possible. But being told that it was a fine balance between quality of life and quantity.

Some days I forget what it was like. 

And some days, it’s clear as day. Racing to find mum’s gloves because she was cold from the chemo. Holding mum’s chemo bag just outside the shower door so it wouldn’t get wet. Sitting in recovery, alone, while I waited for her to come out of surgery to insert a stent. Shopping for wigs. 

Shopping for wedding dresses… 

The chemo days were hard. The days going back and forth to the hospital for radiation were hard. The days spent in the hospital to drain the build up of excess fluid were hard. 

But those days gave us more days.

They gave us days to shop for bridesmaids dresses and mother-of-the-bride dresses. I’ll never forget when my mum called my dad who was overseas at the time and told him she was buying two dresses for my wedding – one for the ceremony and one for the reception. My dad, only wanting to see his wife happy, simply said ‘whatever you want dear’. The smile on her face that day lit up the room. And then she turned to me and said ‘if I knew I was going to be this skinny, I would have chosen a more fitted dress’. She only ended up with one by the way. And she was absolutely radiant! 

Those days gave us more days.

They gave us holidays. They gave us family dinners. They gave us birthday parties. They gave us snuggles in bed. 

They gave me a walk down the aisle, with my dad and my mum.

They gave me her hand to hold, one last time. 

Those days were hard. But they gave us time. 

This year, World Pancreatic Cancer Day is about time. It’s about time that everyone knows the symptoms. It’s about time that everyone knows the horribly low survival rate. It’s about time that funding is directed to pancreatic cancer research and clinical trials. 

But for me, personally, it’s about the time I was given with my beautiful mum because the cancer was found relatively early. It was found early enough for longer treatment options. 

Imagine what would have happened if it was found earlier…

The manifestation of grief

Grief manifests in very strange ways. And you never know when it’s going to hit.

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster of a month for me.

I’ve been working very hard on our pancreatic cancer awareness initiative #PurpleOurWorld and that always stirs up some feelings. I spoke to a lot of my mum’s students in the week leading up to World Pancreatic Cancer Day and it was a very difficult presentation to give. These were students who have been impacted heavily by my mum, she cared for them, educated them; for the eight hours that they were at school, she treated them as her own. The outpouring of love the school demonstrated was exceptional. Her ex-students went to great lengths to honour her memory, as did the staff she worked with.

Last week, I learnt something new. That for the rest of my life, grief can creep up on you, no matter what day or time. Something as small as the realisation that you won’t have access to a car for a weekend, while hours away from home, can send you into a tailspin.

Halfway through my panic attack, as I slowly understood why the tears were falling, I realised that no matter how old I get, there will always be a first time that I experience something that mum will miss. There will always be something that will make you remember, that will made you sad. Something you had no idea would affect you. There will always be some sort of reminder. And you never know how it is going to hit you. It could be the scorching heat that suddenly makes you anxious – all because she loved to swim. The shortness of breath could start just because you hear a song on the radio. Every time I hear Moondance on the radio, a flurry of emotions follows. It can all go downhill very rapidly, because you visit a place you last visited with her.

The day before mum’s birthday, I was watching our favourite show, Gilmore Girls (side note: why I’ve chosen to start re-watching every episode of a show dedicated to a mother-daughter duo, and a show my mum and I adored, is beyond me). I was already starting to tear up at random things, knowing the next day was going to be exceptionally hard and sad. And without so much of a warning, Thank Heavens For Little Girls blasts out through my television speakers. When I was little, my mum would sing this to me. Until she passed away, the song served as my ringtone whenever she was on the other end of the phone. The tears welled. Yet at the same time, a smile formed on my lips. Ever so slight, but it was there. I didn’t actually know what I was feeling but in hindsight, I guess it was a mixture of incredible sadness that I’ll never hear her off-tune voice sing out to me (never thought I’d say that), and a tinge of joy.

Because, when you lose someone, I think the scariest thing of all is to forget.

I’m petrified I’ll forget her voice, forget her touch, forget her smell. I’m so scared that I’ll forget the little things we used to share.

I think even though it may hit me at the most random times, without me even suspecting it, for me, the tears and heartache are a blessing in disguise. When I cry, and hopefully my tears will continue to be accompanied by the sliver of a smile, it’s only because I’m remembering her.

I don’t know why I worry though, my mum truly is unforgettable.