Ah, no rain today and outside in the yard the pigs are being cleaned out. A large sow lies with a big belly. Any time now she'll farrow; life goes on at speed for pigs. Last years babies are probably well on their way to dinner tables now. Meanwhile,
listening to Bradley Wiggins on Desert Island Discs talking about his family traumas, I decide on some blog housekeeping; namely moving a large chunk of the last post - all too much for one episode - to a new page; here.
As a child I knew none of the
family history; I can just remember the aged aunt,but she died, old people did; of how we were not told . But my mother knew everything and though genetic transmission then could not be proven, was duly terrified of it all turning up in her. Always an edgy
woman - having lost her mother at the age of three - not from cancer in this case -and having been shunted round from aunt to aunt thereafter, it was not surprising. My father, though more hidden due to upper lip stiffening imposed on him by his upbringing,
was a not much sounder case; born to parents old enough to be his grandparents he suffered a very lonely - and, given his exposure to a prep school at an early age and a sadistic headmaster - oh the unthinking brutality of the English upper-classes - sometimes
brutalised childhood. In the patronising way of children towards their parents I thought of them from at least my twenties as babes in the wood, clinging together, covering themselves with leaves for protection. The arrival of my mother's cancer constituted
the expected arrival of evil robbers. Against whom they submitted themselves - or rather submitted my mother - to an ever more drastic series of remedies, in the attempts to preserve her life and their adoration for each other.
The first remedies were
normal enough at the time; a radical mastectomy, a horrible business which involves removing not only all the breast and all the underarm lymph nodes but all the pectoral muscles as well. No surgeon since the 70's would consider doing such a thing; apart from
anything else it is no guarantee of anything. This was followed by radiotherapy, normal enough to this day, though then much less accurately targeted. I was in my last term at Oxford, rejoicing in the end of finals, celebrating everywhere, beginning to think
almost nostalgically of what was about to be the past. When I took the telephone call, on a sunny morning in June standing in the hallway of the convent in whose hostel I lived, I did not know what to think. I was shocked obviously. But assured that all was
well, would be well, I was only too willing to believe it: I did believe it - other people's mothers died but our mother wouldn't. No, you needn't come home till term finishes they assured me, so I retired happily to my adolescent solipsism - twenty-one almost,
going on twelve - cosseted girls like me grew up very slowly then - and to our end of term parties, to the prospect of my first book coming out, within the next few weeks and the resultant publicity for the infant prodigy. (An interview in the Evening Standard;
a double spread in that long-defunct comic 'Girl'. The odd review talking about a 'young magician.') How could my mother's ailment compete against that? And anyway my mother seemed back to normal very soon: joking about her 'falsie' replacing the absent breast,
in what I suspect were pretty brittle tones, but this was not something I'd have noticed then.
My younger sister tells a different story; only thirteen at the time, she claims she ceased to be mothered at all seriously from that time on. That my mother
did withdrew into herself, I only observed myself, in a much more extreme way, when the illness recurred in late September two years later, only a month or so after my marriage; a day on which in my memory, I saw the mother I'd grown up with for the last time.
All through that autumn she went through various ordeals, the nature of which I still don't know; but just how far she'd retreated into depression I only realised, when I went down to spend the day with her in the middle of the Cuba crisis. Shocked out of
my post-marital bliss I could think of nothing at the time but the possibility that all of us were about to meet our ends; not just my mother. But my mother sat, solid as a block of wood, staring at the wall, acknowledging nothing. It was as if the world and
us did not exist - for my mother, for whom family had been everything. Now I can feel and weep for her unutterable aloneness, despite my Dad. And again, seeing her like that, weep for him, how unutterably alone he must have felt, in the face of her depression.
But at the time the biggest shock was that he, and with him, us, were no longer the centre of her world. Even if I no longer wanted to be at the centre of her world, too busy setting up my own, I still expected it of her, I think, such was the solipsism of
us all, then, apart from my poor abandoned little sister: she was already by far the canniest, for the saddest of reasons. By Christmas we were assuming it was our mother's last. At the new year snow fell and did not stop falling on and off till April. In
the middle of the freeze my parents made their last desperate lunge at life, accepting the offer of an untried operation, which involved taking out her pituitary gland, an operation so dubious that a senior houseman at the Maudsley where this operation was
performed who happened to be a friend of my husband, muttered his own doubts to us both. But thus it was my mother spent her last two months of life with a bandaged head and fearsome headaches, lying in a gloomy private room, its walls green, its floors wooden,
looking out on snow-covered shrubs in the Maudsley's back or front - I don't remember which - while the rest of us slithered most days up and down from Denmark Hill Station, past the tall black tower of the Salvation Army College, past the sweet pairs of Salvation
Army students, in full uniform - including bonnets for the women - walking hand in hand along the street, black against white, a vision which even now reminds me of my parents' devotion for each other and what it led to. That was not an operation that should
ever have happened.
One day I remember feeding my mother a mushed-up peach from a bowl, holding her head and thinking; I am the mother now; this is the wrong way round. Another day I came in to find her in remission, sitting up, sounding and looking
like herself and feeling a wild swing of hope - this is it - everything will go back to normal. But that wretched procedure gave her what two? - three days? of such normality. Not much more. Next time I saw her I'd bought snowdrops from outside the station;
winter was beginning to retreat at last. But she was in a coma. A few days after that she died. I look back on all this with disbelief and sadness. But it taught me something - forgive me if I patronise my parentage again in the way of grown-up children -
about how not to respond to the dread disease; how to look, or try to, beyond the fear. (I cannot blame them for it of course - what help was out there then; sympathetic doctors yes - especially for a private patient - but what the doctors said went and that
was the end of it; and even the nicest doctor was in no way concerned with what went on inside a patient's head, unless it related to physical systems such as brain tissue or neural pathways. Not that my parents would have expected anything better. They were
innocents of their own time, calling on birds for help, pulling the leaves over, crying out with terror as they clung to each other unto death.)
I was not expecting to have to put this experience into practice of course. I did not suffer my mother's
terror of our genes. Maybe approaching fifty I might have reflected on it, but at the age of forty it never occurred to me that I might be in any kind of danger. I inspected my breasts, as we were all urged to, and as I admitted, reluctantly, was probably
a good idea. And so it was I did examine myself in the small hours of one morning, if in a desultory way, lying awake besides my teenage daughter, who was suffering from such bad menstrual pains it seemed easier to keep her in my bed than run endlessly up
and down stairs to tend her. And so I found it; a palpably large lump in my right breast - a discovery I greeted with as much as terror as my mother would have greeted hers, I am certain. But then? The story continues from here.