Theoretically, I’m on the home-straight with the big memoir project, but rather than gather speed towards the end, I’ve been grinding to a near halt, struggling with exactly what that ending is. In fact Never Ending Story might be a good book title if it weren’t already a German Fantasy turned film or another blast from my 80’s past.
For me, the ending is something about what survivorship looks like in its imperfect and propped up form. Others, often in their haste, imagine life might now be one long party. Those close to you and those who really knew you before, understand the tree is clipped and distorted like a bonsai, unable to bend in the wind for fear of breaking or that the spirit is now a Halloween-ready often limping, drooling frankenstein creation of what others think a person should be like after surviving their something terrible.
And so the writing of my memoir comes almost to the present in an exploration of what survivorship means. There are some tangible elements to it, time being one of them and along with it, reaching certain milestones that might measure success.
Funnily enough, my measures of success are not always about the extra time achieved. More what’s achieved with the extra time. Whilst the 13 plus years is very tangible, it’s a bit like money: More of it, surprisingly, doesn’t necessarily make you happier. But you can’t say that to people who haven’t got that thing you might have because they think you’re only saying it. It’s alright for you – you have time / money / whatever thing it is they think will bring them more happiness.
But I acknowledge time at least gives you a bit of head room – more chance to find that happiness, success or in my case, a real sense of being a survivor.
We recently celebrated Max’s 16th birthday. As I hadn’t expected to see him reach his 3rd, his birthday has become one of my milestones. It’s a marker of success. And I make a cake.
There’s a bit of a tradition of handmade birthday cakes in my family and for that second birthday, I laboured over Thomas the Tank Engine between rounds of chemotherapy. I had decided that cake, would be future evidence of having had a proper mother! As ‘proper’ mothers don’t give up, there’s been a special cake every year since. And every year there’s an appropriate theme.
I have deliberated for days over whether to post about this and what is an intensely personal time. I didn’t want to be apparently focusing on the negative, harping back in time. Many of my thoughts are not shared with anyone – largely because there aren’t words for what it feels like to celebrate a 2 years old’s birthday feeling sick and wretched, sweating in an itchy wig only so you look good for him in photos; looking into the camera knowing that’s who you’re smiling for and looking at – a future boy who you won’t ever know; knowing at the same time you’ll be a person he’ll never know either, someone somewhere in his past and wig or no wig, he won’t recognise any of it as a measure of the person you once were. So, on balance I had decided NOT to.
However, I’m crafting my next Bite Size prompt around the little things that make my day. It started out as a would-be, fool-proof 100% positive prompt no-one could possibly associate with a bad time. But the incident I wanted to write gets all tangled up with survivorship and what that might look like. And that implies a before, a bad time.
I’m increasingly wondering what makes others feel like they have survived? And what is successful survivorship? For me I realise it’s in the little details a bit like happiness is. It’s partly about progress and about being able to laugh at yourself or the situation that suggests you’ve managed to untangle yourself a bit from the experience. I think Charli Mills expressed this same sense of survival in her Bite Size response to Crazy. It’s about accepting the damage that remains but being able to stop it spoiling everything else. And in the end, in part, for me it boils down to making a birthday cake!
This year’s cake was a ridiculously ambitious Royal Albert Hall – singing there in the summer for the BBC Warhorse Prom was one of the highlights of Max’s year. I groaned inwardly when he suggested it, as I’m not exactly a certified cake maker but nor am I able to accept defeat without a go! I ordered coloured icing and baked and burnt around 8 separate sponges. I worked and cursed for about 15 hours and still managed to laugh at myself for getting myself into such a ridiculous commitment.
This year I enjoyed making a cake a lot more than not.
This year I didn’t cry. The early years were food for flashbacks and fear.
This year Simon felt able to take the mick out of me and my perfectionism – “Where’s the audience?!”
This year I remembered Val with peace rather than horror. Val talked me through making Max’s 5th birthday cake over the phone when I could taste chemo in the icing.. She only had weeks to live and she wanted me to celebrate life not mourn.
This year I could get out these photos of that second birthday and I didn’t cry.
This year I could cope with Simon crying without wanting to shut myself away.
This year felt like some of the other years were behind me.
This year I recognise this is survival. I did all of this and this is progress, even though I still bled to death in my dreams and left them both alone, again..