by Helen Victoria Anderson

What A Girl Wants

This time last year, we had no inkling. This time last year, you had the beginnings of ‘indigestion’ and I packed you off to school with antacids and a grudgingly written ‘Get Out Of P.E. Free’ card.  Stress, probably. You’d been mulling over your exam subject options and we’d sketched out a rough map for the next few years: School – a legal requirement and excellent place for socialising. Music – singing, guitar, more busking and gigs. Probably college, if you buckled down. London, joining your big brother, who didn’t yet know of your plans to move in.   Music.  Always music. If not for a living, then still for passion. Maybe a vintage clothes shop, to fall back on.

This time last year, we didn’t exactly take things for granted, but we were moving forward, after a tricky spell. Your lovely Grandma had just died. It was sad-but-not-unexpected and you went to your room and composed songs about her. We found them, later. Her funeral was your first. You wore a plain black jersey dress with a golden swallow pendant. You toned down your make-up and circulated among elderly relatives without being asked. I had a glimpse of the beautiful grown woman I thought you were about to become. When people said “You must be so proud”, I answered in my gruff, Northern way

“Well, she’s turning out alright.”

This time last year, you had boy-trouble and hair-trouble, and trouble memorising French phrases because of your dyslexia. We disagreed about orangey fake tans and too-short school skirts. We agreed about standing up against prejudice and injustice. We spent hours learning your set French phrases to tunes, like lyrics, even though you were intent on dropping the subject and your teacher and I agreed that was probably sensible. You wanted to do your best and, to your amazement, even French words – when attached to a rhythm and a melody - stuck.  You passed. You sang your way through it all.

Yes, you were turning out alright.

The indigestion failed to go away. You rang me from school to say that your belly hurt, and I took you to the doctors and delivered you back to class, reassured. We kept on spooning in the medicine and you kept on going to school.  One night, we took you to A & E, doubled over. They thought “maybe gallstones” and we shuddered at the possibility of them slicing into you. When the nurse said you should be a model, I agreed, in silence, and thought it couldn’t be anything serious, when you looked so vibrant. We waited for an appointment for a scan and carried on with plans to take your best friend away with us on holiday. We negotiated with her Mum about the degree of freedom we’d give you, in France. We were preparing to let you go, but slowly.

We went clothes shopping. You suited everything but eventually I had to say “no”, so you’d grow up appreciating the value of money. An old lady stopped us in the shopping mall cafe and asked if you were my daughter. She said you were beautiful, and this time I forgot to be modest and almost shouted

 “YES. YES, I AM SO PROUD OF HER”.

Your Dad pushed for an urgent ultrasound, to see if the travel insurance would cover our trip.  There was a ‘swelling’ on your liver. This became a ‘mass’, then a ‘tumour’, then a ‘malignancy’. ‘Primaries’ and ‘secondaries’. ‘Metastases’.  We familiarised ourselves with another vocabulary. There were tears from you, that day. There were tears from your father and me. There were tears of disbelief and shock at being led onto a ward of hairless children. You were afraid of how you’d cope with losing your long hair. You were afraid of being sick. You were afraid of operations. You were afraid of dying. I soothed you, but I had no real comfort to offer. Things were going to be very different. I was afraid of all of the above and more.

This time ten months ago, you started the treatment. You posted on Twitter that you’d had enough of feeling sorry for yourself, and warned the cancer that you were coming to get it. Watch out. You had chemo. You saw it as taking painful fairy-steps to getting better. Ticking off the time until you would be back to your old self.  You got very, very sick and we swabbed your mouth with water-soaked cotton wool ‘lollipops’. Your hairline receded until your pony tail was barely clinging on. One day, I arrived home to the sound of you and your friend giggling in your bedroom and your announcement that I could find your hair in the bath. You experimented with headscarves and beanies. Practised styling a wig for special occasions.  You laughed your way through it, with ditties about your baldy bits and being a ‘cancer dancer’.

Your main worry – or, at least, the only one you owned up to - was how worried you were making us all. You had to wear baggy t-shirts to accommodate your stretching abdomen and the central line snaking into your heart. Your feeding tube made your throat croaky. You couldn’t sing your way through it, but you plumped for laughing, instead. We took our lead from you and joked and acted ‘normally’. We were getting through it, somehow.

At first, it seemed like you had a chance. The main tumour had been suitably scared, and had shrunk back a bit. There was a way to go, but we had set off in the right direction. We spent days and weeks, mostly in that ward, keeping up with the Kardashians. We watched chick-flicks and your Dad declared his favourite was ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. You were still fourteen. You wanted your independence, but you had never needed us so much. There was sometimes tension and tetchiness – mostly mine- but you whispered “I love you” in the middle of the night, as we unplugged that drip and went to the loo for the tenth time, to wait for your system to get rid of the brightly coloured poisons we’d just pumped into you. I said it back – soft, but plain.

When you couldn’t sleep, I squished myself into bed with you and pulled up the metal sides, trying not to spill out. We talked about nothing and we talked about everything. I said sorry I hadn’t always been the world’s best Mum to you and your brother. I knew I hadn’t been there for you as much as I would have liked, because of my own protracted tussles with a very stubborn ‘black dog’. I wasn’t fishing for compliments and you didn’t patronise me with false protests.

“None of that matters, now”.

 The relief.

“We love each other, don’t we?”

You frowned at my unnecessary question. Then, the freeing power of a hand-squeeze.

As the news became less cheerful, you ‘bantered’ about preparing a slideshow for your funeral. You made pointed comments about liking pink roses, when the funky-moon pigeon-pig adverts came on. You repeated them, because you thought I hadn’t registered, but I was just searching for something to say back. Something honest, but kind. We still hoped for the best, but it began to look unlikely, except to your poor Dad, who was still searching the internet for trials with the same determination that he’d shown when that wasp stung baby-you in your pram. Chasing it for miles. Swatting at it with his paper until he was sure it would never sting again.

You wondered out loud whether the new crematorium being built near the bypass might come in handy. You oh-so-casually commented that you were pleased that Grandma hadn’t been buried, because graves tied people down in the past. I put it to you that visiting your Grandad in the cemetery was a comfort to me, but you stood firm. No graves. No shrines. The people who are left need to look forward, not back. Although we still hung on to hope, you were preparing us for the great, unmentionable worst –case- scenario.

The news grew worse still - sometimes with an almost imperceptible shift in the expression on the nurses’ faces, and sometimes with a shattering slap-in-the-face meeting. You asked for the latest truth to be fed back to you at your own pace, with strict stipulations: you would discuss each development with your favourite doctor, who would then relay your reaction back to us, down the corridor. It was important for you to have time to compose yourself before we were let back into your room. No sad faces. You would discuss every issue that arose, but only once. You did not want to know precise timescales – even if the medical staff themselves had been able to make a better guess – but you knew that time was short and you didn’t intend squandering it by chewing over and over all the ifs and buts.

A fictional character, Hayley Cropper, got pretend-cancer on Coronation Street, at the same time as you copped a dose of the real stuff. This made me and your Dad shuffle uncomfortably, but you didn’t want the TV switched off. You used the storyline to broach difficult death-topics: You wanted to donate any organs they could make use of (this turned out to be your corneas) Everything as pink and sparkly as possible, including your male friends' outfits. Smile and be happy. Act normally. Be kind to each other. Don’t waste time worrying about little things. You declined more rapidly than your television counterpart. As the final efforts were made to save you, my Northern ‘unfussiness’ about expressing feelings seemed ridiculous, and we voiced our appreciation of each other. Love you. So, so proud.

Three months after your diagnosis, you turned fifteen. I left your bedside to buy you a designer handbag I knew would thrill you, without fear of ‘spoiling’ you. I would have bought the whole of Harrods, if it would have saved you. You nibbled two dolly mixtures from the top of your last ever birthday cake and we put up banners in the hospital. Pink and sparkly. Then came more, unequivocal pictures of your choked insides. We discussed where you wanted to ‘be’ now. Home. Definitely, home, if we could manage it.

 The transport was booked and your Dad went ahead to re-arrange the house. We bumped home in an ambulance. On Bonfire Night, we watched the fireworks through the skylight in the extension which we had hastily made into a new, ground-floor bedroom, with your own bits and bobs around you, to distract you from the machines and the borrowed bed. Your friends came to visit and sat with you and you went on your phones and gossiped about school. There was a lot of laughter. We had to arrange visits in shifts, to fit everyone in. Still, no sad faces allowed. You were training them up, ready for them to go on when you couldn’t any more.

You were asked if you had a special wish. Since visiting Disneyland or even the Coronation Street studios was no more an option than waking up cancer-free or climbing the stairs, you asked only for your music to be heard.  We were helped to release ‘Two Thirds of A Piece’ – a beautiful, acoustic, boy-trouble song you’d written and recorded before your vocal chords were scratched. You were a smash-hit on YouTube and thousands have a piece of you on their i-Pods. They have been playing your song in the shopping mall. The publicity surrounding your fund-raising has been difficult for a camera-shy, anxious mother, but I went with it, because you were adamant that that was what you wanted. I am glad.

For two weeks, you allowed people in to say hello. Not to say goodbye, except maybe in the heads of those who let themselves admit to your fading. Nursing you was a twenty-four hour job for us but we wanted you to be able to be as ‘you’ as possible. More mind-numbingly unrealistic reality shows.  More cuddles and dozing and massages and manicures. The chemo which had pushed out your hair had caused your nails to sprout, long and strong. A much-needed bright side. Mostly, we used the two weeks to say what we meant. Mainly,” I am so lucky to have you”.  I love you. We will be okay. We will look after each other. You can go, now, if the pain is too great.

You went, under that same skylight, held in our arms, as your Dad and I nudged you to your special places in your dreams - swooping around Piccadilly Circus and Times Square until you fell still. Peace after pain.

When it came to arranging your funeral, we knew the key things. Your music, entering and leaving. Pink coffin. Sparkly bows on the pews. Roses. Candles. Happy songs and readings. Bunting and balloons at your wake. For many of your friends, your funeral was their first, and you hadn’t wanted them to feel scared. You had the funeral we had ‘joked’ about. It felt so important to get this ending right for you – this start of a strange, new life for all of us who cared about you. Critically -although the new crematorium still wasn’t finished – we plumped for cremation. Your Dad and I would have had one of our little disputes about this, if you hadn’t specified, but it was not about what your Dad or your brother or I preferred– it was about you having what you wanted. Although all you really ever wanted was to get well – to have your normal teenage troubles and a future again.

When it came to scattering your ashes on the beach near our house, where the young people of our village have gathered forever, I found it hard to take the top off the tube. I was enjoying the weight of you in my arms, and I didn’t want to let you be snatched from me by the wind. But I knew that this was your choice, so I let you fall to the soft sand. I watched you mingle with the minute grains, and it felt as right as it possibly could to let you drift away.

Seven months on, I am sad, but I am getting through by trying to keep my promises to you. Your Dad and your brother and your amazingly strong young friends are doing the same.  Looking out for one another. Mentioning you often. I am trying to write my way through it all. Your voice is still with us.  We have book after book of your songs. I am sad but so, so proud of you. You turned out exactly right. Most of all, I am glad that I told you that. Loud and clear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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