The human mind has a very sensible ejector seat when things get too tough – it simply stops remembering. The horror show you are watching stops being printed onto your cognition or perhaps more accurately, it’s always there and stored but your conscious whistles a jaunty tune whilst turning away as if it never happened. Those traumas are still there and if you don’t look at them, they will plant roots and grow inside you until their twisted tentacles are so robust, they will break the windows of your mind with their determination to reach the light of day. I have kept a lot of traumas deep inside me, partly because I have not had the time or space to process them and partly because I hoped they may wither and die if I didn’t feed them.
Undoubtedly, I went through the most traumatic events of my life for a solid two weeks in November 2016. There was no let up at all; in fact, the nightmare kept ramping up. Bad news was followed by worse news. Greg is in hospital. Greg has cancer. He has stage 4 inoperable cancer. For so long, I had forgotten that time as if I had amnesia but now I can remember surreal flashes of memory, like a car crash in slow motion.
Greg was taken to A&E by ambulance with crippling stomach pains and uncontrollable vomiting. Dali had to watch him unable to speak as paramedics carried him out of our house. When the vomiting had started in the night, I had lay next to him and was secretly pleased it wasn’t me; if there is a stomach bug going round, I’m always the one to get it and spend 48 hours on the bathroom floor. We travelled to the hospital where myself and his parents spent the whole night watching Greg start political debates with nurses while on morphine (“Trump will never, ever get in”) and I became so deliriously tired and stressed, I start making up dance routines to entertain everyone on the ward.
An X-ray was taken and the season of the worried faces began; they are yet to stop. Greg wasn’t worried due to inordinate amount of morphine coursing round his veins but despite my exhaustion, I recognised barely concealed concern from everyone we came into contact with. I decided to ignore this. I went home at dawn in a maniacal state, happy because after five years of symptoms, something is finally being done. ‘It’s all going to be ok’ I shout hysterically at my parents as I fall up the stairs, past the girls having breakfast and into bed.
It’s not ok though. Greg isn’t allowed to leave hospital the next day. I see from his notes that he has malnutrition and hasn’t eaten for five days. He is 8 stone. We are waiting for scan results. I spend 12 hours a day at the hospital, every day for two weeks. I get to know the hospital like when you first arrive at your holiday destination; quickly unpack then out to discover where the best places to eat are, the cheapest drinks, the areas to avoid. Every night, I drive back to my parent’s house where Bay, who I haven’t seen for days, will be asleep but Dali is awake and crying. She has stopped sleeping, surely knowing deep in her tiny body that her role has been cast in this horror film. She screams and screams and no one can make her stops. She cries for me but pushes me away when I go to her. This goes on until 1am every night, after which I down several sleeping pills with beer and curl up next to my mum in a foetal position because I can’t sleep alone. She tells me I cry in my sleep.
Illustration by my very lovely ex-student Kirsty, arriving in the post a few days after diagnosis
The bad news comes. It’s cancer. There will be an operation. I send some text messages because I can’t say the words. I drive home and whisper the news to my family, as if speaking in a normal tone will make it real. Every morning when I wake up, the words ‘GREG HAS CANCER’ scream through my head on repeat. The very worst news comes a few days later. It’s stage 4, the cancer is in Greg’s bloodstream and tumours have grown across both lungs. The operation planned is now cancelled as there is no point. Chemotherapy will begin on Greg’s 40th birthday to try to extend his life. I make phone calls to cancel his surprise party and to tell my parents Greg is dying. I can’t remember talking, just the sound of my dad crying, my mum’s wails and my brothers disbelief. I am stood outside sobbing, surrounded by nurses eating sandwiches on their lunch break. A stranger comes over to give me some tissues and a kiss on my head. Later that day, I try to eat some mushroom soup in the café but I vomit it back up into the bowl, much to the disgust of the doctors next to me.
Everyone tells me to go to the Macmillan centre; I find it in the bowels of the hospital next to catering where the smell of pre-packaged lunches is making my constant nausea even worse. I walk in and burst into tears. They are very lovely and motherly and give me a tissue and sugary tea and a hug from a woman in a big cardigan. She asks me if I had thought about making a memory box for the girls. Fuck you, woman in your 60’s who has survived cancer. I want to scream in her face but instead I hug her woollen body even harder.
The girls are obsessed with Frozen. Every morning, it wakes me up with ‘do you want to build a snowman?’ being bellowed at 6am. We never get past the first 20 minutes because they are one and two, their attention spans are short and love repetition. Every morning, I have to watch Elsa and Anna lose their parents again and again on a loop. One morning, I am watching this scene in a daze and it suddenly dawns on me – Greg is going to die. I am going to have to watch him die. This realisation is the difference between one life to the next, moving from child to adult. Accepting the unacceptable. I cannot unsee this fact. I am crying like an injured animal under a duvet with my dad and I want to wake up because this just can’t be real.
Another day, Frozen again. I haven’t eaten for a week. My clothes are starting to feel big. Every day is the same. I wear the same clothes, I don’t eat breakfast, I cry in the bathroom. I drive to the hospital in a daze. I smile and tell Greg everything will be ok, that I will find an answer. I don’t eat lunch or dinner. Dali screams. I take an overdose of sleeping tablets every night with a glass of wine and my mum strokes my hair as I black out.
After two weeks, Greg was released and we started the strange transition back into our old life that just wasn’t ours anymore. I recognised the artwork on the walls of our house, the blackboard in the kitchen with reminders for dentist appointments, photos of us smiling but this now felt like a sound stage for a film. The home and life we had did not exist anymore.
I blacked out those memories as happily as I poured the sleeping pills down my throat with abandon. I didn’t want to live through those events, much less relive them. In the past year, there have been triggers that have bought memories and feelings back at breakneck speed. The smell of saline, the road by the hospital where I would park my car every day on double yellow lines, dark mornings and dark evenings. My childhood bed. The memories of this same day repeated over and over are frozen in my mind forever.