The first lockdown was a whirlwind of emotions for me. Whilst yes, I got a break from work and college, I got the worst news of my life on March 31st. My Mum was diagnosed with cancer. Two days later, she was in hospital having an operation.
This had been building up for a few weeks before the lockdown had come about with her going for tests at the hospital, but we never expected it to be that serious. The day we found out, my dad said to me he was going to pick my mum up from work and then go shopping so I had to babysit my brother. This was a lie. They had gone to the hospital to get the results. As time went on and I was just sat at home waiting for their return, in my gut I could feel that something wasn’t right. My suspicions were confirmed when my parents returned home without any shopping bags.
I can remember it clearer than most other moments in my life. I put my phone down as soon as my Dad walked in and we just made eye contact.
“You weren’t shopping were you?” were the exact words I said. He just shook his head and sat down before telling me that they had been to the hospital. Mum had liver, lung and bowel cancer and on April 2nd she would have to go into hospital to have an operation to have a colostomy bag sorted. I just didn’t know how to react to this. We weren’t expecting this news at all. Not to this level anyway.
When people mention the word cancer, there’s always a sensation of dread and tension in the air. That was the atmosphere in the house. I just felt numb. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, what to think or feel. Just numbness. I just remember crying because I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, it’s one of those situations you can’t imagine yourself in unless you’re physically in it yourself. I can’t even describe it honestly. It felt like physical pain as automatically your mind just goes to the worst-case scenario. But my biggest concern was my brother. I was just so worried for him as he was only seven. What would he do? How would he cope?
It took a while to sink in honestly, and, even now, it still hasn’t entirely hit. It just felt like a numbness. Like a pit at the bottom of my stomach. Even the day she went into hospital for the operation, I gave her a hug goodbye and it still just felt… confusing. I think there were so many emotions going on that I couldn’t pick out each individual one. My dad and I just hugged then I went to see my mum upstairs. She was clearly trying to remain strong without showing any fear or pain. She wanted to remain strong and told me she would be okay.
Two days later, she was in hospital having her operation. The house just felt eerily silent without her being there, just like a missing puzzle piece. To keep my brother distracted from what was going on, I ordered us pizza from Domino’s and we watched a film. For some reason, that night I didn’t want to sleep upstairs in my room, so I slept on the sofa with the dogs. Well, sleep is the wrong word. I spent most the night watching films because I couldn’t get my brain to shut off. For the two nights she was away, this was the routine.
The day she came back, she looked exhausted. She used to be so independent and hated accepting help but now… she had no choice. Especially when she started her chemotherapy. It tired her out and she was in pain at points, and physically sick. We noticed that she was losing weight and her appetite. But the chemo was helping. The cancer was being controlled.
For a while throughout the summer, I debated if going to university in 2020 would be a good idea. Whether it would be selfish of me to go ahead and try and get on with my life, to leave my family in this time. When I spoke to my parents about it, they told me not to put my life on hold. They made it clear that they wanted me to go to university, to get on with my life. My mum told me to get on with life, don’t put it on hold and go ahead and live it whilst I can, and she would be proud if I did. That’s what made me go.
Surprisingly, the day I left wasn’t too difficult. I found myself just looking forward to the next steps in my life, to keep going and make mum proud like she wanted. I was trying new things, showing her that I was having fun, enjoying myself, surrounding myself by people who make me happy. Even though I was distracting myself, it remained at the back of my mind on a daily basis. I would find myself pushing people away in fear of losing them, hiding away in my room for a few days at a time, just not having the energy to spend time with people.
It only got worse with the second lockdown when my flat got COVID-19 and we had to go into isolation. The feeling of loneliness just expanded and took over. I would just be spending every day in bed since I had no motivation to do anything. The lack of ability to go outside really got to me. And there was the fear of not being able to go home if anything happened. It was almost suffocating. Facetime and texting wasn’t the same. I still hadn’t been home yet because I couldn’t risk taking any illnesses back home to my family. Everyone around me had been home at least once already, whilst I still hadn’t.
Then came Christmas. My dad face-timed me a couple of weeks before to pass on the news that mum had been given 8 months left. Again, that’s a day I remember vividly. When the call ended, I just curled up in bed sobbing. This was the thing I feared. I didn’t want to lose her. It was just… terrifying. Once I calmed down, I tried to give myself a sense of normality by going into the kitchen to make dinner. My flatmate was in there and just asked me if I was okay, a general conversation starter. And I just started crying all over again.
The day I went home was shocking for me. It was a few days before Christmas and I walked from the train station to my house. Mum was asleep when I went in. Dad warned me that she would look different when I got back. But I still wasn’t prepared. She used to be someone who was slightly overweight, but now, her face was so sallow, and she just looked so much weaker. Her arms were about the same size as mine. It was a shock. But in my mind, she would always be the strong woman that I had always seen her.
But Christmas was nice. It was like a little break from Uni and it put my mind at ease to actually see how she was in person. Whilst points were upsetting, like us knowing it was her last Christmas, it was painful because we just knew we had to make the most of it. We just had to. We couldn’t sit there and wallow in pity on what was going to happen. We just had to smile and get through it.
Then I went back to Uni for the new year. Weeks went by and I just got the news that she was doing okay overall, trying to remain positive. Then March 9th, I got the call. Dad rang me when I got back inside after my first face to face lecture. Mum was in hospital. She had been having difficulty breathing and they were taking her in for tests. This time I didn’t cry. I just had a sense of numbness coming over me all over again. I went home the next day in preparation for anything that might happen. I couldn’t miss the chance to say goodbye if it got to that point.
We couldn’t visit her in hospital. But, in some ways, this was almost a relief because it was only people who were on their deathbeds really or were in serious conditions that could have visitors, so we knew she wasn’t too bad. Or, at least, she was doing okay. She came home two days later.
Seeing her this time was just as much of a shock; she had lost even more weight and her hair had come out due to her chemo treatment and her head had a lump on it from the spreading of the cancer. We had the news that it had spread in her lungs and now had reached her kidneys. Two months was the estimate we now had. April, maybe May. This news just won’t hit me. I just can’t come to terms with it honestly. Even now, a couple of weeks later, it doesn’t make sense in my head how this can be happening to me. Seeing her was both a relief and painful at the same time. It was like almost seeing the shadow of a person. All she did when I was home was sleep or make cards. She couldn’t leave her room because her legs can’t manage it, she can’t manage it. Even walking down the hallway is painful for her. She can’t lift her legs up on the bed; she needed me or dad to help her.
“I will fight,” she promised me. And it’s clear that she’s keeping her promise. She told me to go back to university so that I can focus on my studies and face to face lessons as well as go to work. So, I did what she wanted because, if it makes her happy to see me living my life, that’s what I will do and she knows I will be home at any moment.
Each day is terrifying. Worrying constantly about whether that call will come, when that call will come. But I know she is strong and will keep pushing through. Every day may be difficult for all of us but that’s why we need to stay together as a family and keep connected with those around us.
So the message I got was to live my life to the best that I can because we never know when it can be taken away. Take the chances whilst we can, take life as it comes and embrace the moments that we can. Lockdown was painful, along with the circumstances surrounding it, but it meant I got time to spend with my family. Spend time together whilst you can.
Written in memory and with love to Tracey Hall 21st May 1973 – 31st March 2021