One of the things that 2016 brought me was the chance to attend a 50th birthday party for a woman who was 49.
She was throwing a 50th birthday party because one of the things that 2016 had brought her was a diagnosis of cancer.
It was sort of a joke, because along with the diagnosis was a prognosis that, with the right treatment, she had 3-5 years. Even for a nearly 50 year old that’s a while. It’s enough time to exit things neatly and with dignity, to say your goodbyes, to tick off a few items on the bucket list, to reflect upon your life.
It’s not good, at not-yet 50, to be told that you won’t see 60, but when your peer group are also starting to realise that their eternal youth was a lot shorter than forever, and that the discreet cough of the grim reaper is, suddenly, not that far behind, it’s perhaps just a case of adjusting to the ultimate reality a little ahead of the rush. Five years is still, after all, a decent length of time.
Then, in Christmas week, there was another trip to the hospital for her, and the realisation that cancer is a disease that will shamelessly steal from a dying woman. It has taken her five years and left her with months, perhaps weeks. It’s taken the joke of her 49th birthday party and made it, in all likelihood, her last birthday party, it’s ruined her last Christmas, tonight she’ll see in her last new year, 2017 will be her last year.
We’ve followed the, surprisingly well-defined, social conventions for watching her death on social media. She has been told that she’s brave, she’s been told that, hairless, she’s beautiful, she’s been told that she’s strong and will beat this disease, but we know that – barring a miracle – next birthday, next Christmas, next New Year, we won’t being celebrate with her, but remembering her.
And I don’t know how you tell ageing and infirm parents that they’re going to outlive their only daughter, I don’t know what you say to a husband with long a history of depression when you know that you’re not going to be around to support him much longer, I don’t know how you explain to a severely autistic daughter who, despite her 20-odd years of age, will always believe in a world of Santa Claus and Disney Princesses, that within a very short space of time you’ll be gone from her life forever.
I don’t know these things because I haven’t asked, and I haven’t asked because there are some hells so deep, so terrible, so painful that you don’t even want to know what lies within them.
To be honest I haven’t asked her much, or even said much. Nothing stilts a conversation like two people waiting for the same thing; it turns out that waiting for a malignant disease to crush a life can be as mundane as waiting for a lift to descend or a taxi to arrive. Each tick of the second hand is a tiny hammer-strike, knocking another word that should be said now deeper inside. Only the hugs are honest. Only the hugs convey a genuine goodbye, a true desire not to have to let go. She hugs people a lot these days.
If this was a blog I was going to publicise, or even care if other people read then I’d try to think of a neat way of ending it, but really it’s just a bunch of things I wanted to write down. If there’s a lesson then I suppose that while, like a lot of people, I’ve felt a bit like 2016 has taken a shit on me it hasn’t, not really. I’m ending it warm and safe and healthy, with my family, and I’m not counting the days I have left with them. Maybe tonight’s the time for us to think not of what we want from 2017, but to instead be grateful for what 2016 spared us.