Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2015

Darling Lucy,

I don’t have very long. But I can’t go without trying to explain to you. There’s so much you still don’t know. I can see you rolling your eyes at me when I write that: you think you know everything. You do when you’re 17. Believe it or not, I remember how it felt. Before life knocked the certainty out of me.

There’s one thing I have always been a thousand per cent sure of, though, and that’s how I feel about you. From the very first moment I saw your scrunched-up little angry face, bellowing at me as the doctors laid you on my chest, I felt a fierce, fierce love for you. It was so white hot it seemed to burn my insides. And believe me, despite everything that’s happened since, I’ve never stopped feeling it for a single moment. I would do anything for you, my darling. I have done things for you that most mothers would never be able to imagine. And I will again. Because it will keep you safe. And that is the only thing in this world that matters to me.

I know you hate talking about when you were little, but maybe tonight after what has happened – and I am so, so sorry my darling girl, I wish it could be otherwise – you can understand a little of what it was like. Sitting by the side of your hospital bed, holding on to your tiny hand. Carrying you to the bathroom when you were too weak to make it. You used to protest that you were too big to be carried, and I would pretend to stagger under your weight to make us both laugh, even though you were less heavy than a child of half your age should have been. Watching how brave and unquestioning you were with the needles and the pills even when I could see how much you had to struggle to swallow them and fight to keep them down, and not even being able to promise you that everything was going to be alright because I didn’t know whether that was true.

Because by then it had turned out not to be alright so many times. Because you weren’t just small for your age. And whatever the chances probably were, it had turned out not to be nothing. And you weren’t bringing up your dinner because of allergies, or food intolerances, or any of those other things that kids eventually grow out while their awful parents without a clue strut about wearing it like a badge, as if it’s something to be proud of. And you weren’t even lucky enough to be one of whatever percentage of kids it is that don’t react badly to the chemo, and your hair – your beautiful chestnut hair, with that heartbreaking baby smell I can still summon up to my nostrils even now – came out in clumps on the brush that I had to drag over your head as you sat patient and brave and unquestioning on my lap with me trying to avoid your bewildered eyes staring back at me in the mirror. Both of us pretending for each others’ sake that this was ok, it was fine, this was just something we were going to get through and come out the other side.

I don’t think you’ve ever known how close you really were to dying. Sure, you used it as a playground boast – “I nearly died,” I used to hear you saying to your friends after you started hanging out with the sort of kids that think that kind of thing is cool – but it was just words you were using in the way children do, words they’ve learned the sound of but not the true meaning. That only comes in all its clarity when you’re a parent, wide awake in the early hours of the morning and staring sightlessly into the darkness. Or at the emptiness of a long hospital corridor, with its harsh, antiseptic overhead lights melting away all euphemism and flattery to expose the skull beneath the skin.

That was where he found me, all those years ago. I couldn’t tell you what day it was, or what time, only that it was an hour when everyone is fast asleep except for the best and the worst in the world.

He looked like just another doctor. He was dressed like a doctor. A surgeon, in fact, though his loose blue scrubs were so spotless and uncreased that they made me suddenly aware of my own tired grubbiness and wonder just how long had passed since I had even managed to rub a finger over my teeth or a paper towel beneath my armpits in the Ladies, which was about all I could manage by way of hygiene at that point. But he was a lot younger than Dr Woodville, the surgeon who did your first operation, and who had assured me that they had almost certainly succeeded in locating all of the tumours and there was a very good chance little Lucy will be up and about in no time, something else which turned out to be more empty words. And he didn’t look much like the junior doctors I’d seen dragging themselves from ward to ward in the early hours either. His face was as fresh and unlined as an airbrushed model in a magazine, not a strand of his slicked black hair was out of place, and he had the most incredible green eyes that seemed to look right into me as he sat down opposite me and asked the only question that mattered.

“How is she tonight?”

It took me by surprise. You’d be amazed how many people in those weeks had come up to me to ask me “are you alright?” even though most of them had more than enough medical qualifications to know there was no possible way on earth I could be. I told him all the answer that I could fit into words, which was that you were sleeping. Pure exhaustion was doing at last what the drugs no longer seemed to be able to. And I was trying to make myself comfortable – no, that’s another empty phrase, I was slumped on a hard plastic chair trying to relish how uncomfortable I was because that way I could kid myself I was somehow taking some of your suffering for myself, even though I knew the world doesn’t work like that, however much it ought to.

Except that that night it turned out that maybe it could.

“Dr Ramakrishnan is a very good doctor,” he told me. That was the paediatric oncologist in charge of your treatment. “I’m sure she’s doing all that she can for Lucy.”

I could barely hear my own voice as I trotted out another of my practised phrases. “Everyone’s been very good to us.”

He nodded, and he seemed to know that I couldn’t manage a conversation, so we just sat together for a while. I suppose looking back, that was another thing that should have given me a clue that he wasn’t a junior doctor, because when do they have the time to just sit around? But right then what I needed most was some company from someone who seemed to understand, and I was long past asking questions. After a bit I realised I was crying, and he took out a handkerchief – a proper, white cotton handkerchief, all folded neatly into quarters and then diagonally again to fit in his breast pocket – and passed it over to me as I nodded my thanks, and we sat there in the corridor opposite each other, the only sounds my sniffling and the quiet hum through the door of the machines that were keeping you alive.

After some time had passed he leant forward, steepling his fingers – he had long fingers, I remember, with perfectly manicured nails – and looked at me like he had come to a decision.

“There is… one thing that we haven’t tried yet for Lucy.”

It was like a little jarring jolt of hope had gone off somewhere deep inside me, where I thought nothing was left but emptiness. I suddenly felt more awake than I think I have ever been. “What? What is it?”

He explained that it was an experimental treatment. Not one that was on offer to everyone. And that there was a risk involved. But I wasn’t interested in any of that. If it gave you a chance, I would take any risk there was.

He asked me if anyone had talked to me about donors. Of course they had. Even back then you could barely get out of a GP’s surgery without them trying to push one of the little red and blue cards on you. But they had also told me it would be no use in your case, even though I had said again and again how happy I would be to give up any one of my own organs in place of your tiny ones as the tumours worked their way through each of them in turn. And I told him as much, again.

He gave me an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be suitable in this case. The process does not leave the donor in a… functioning state. And Lucy would need you after the treatment to look after her and nurse her back to health. Unless… there’s anyone else?”

The tears were coming back again. His handkerchief was sodden through. “I’m on my own.”

“Ah. Lucy’s father isn’t -?”

I shook my head. He nodded sympathetically. “Naturally it’s every parent’s first instinct to do anything for their child. To be prepared to give up everything for them. At least, that’s how it should be.”

It felt like I was being given hope, just to have it snatched away from me. Although at least now I had someone to blame for it.

I told him all about your dad. How we hadn’t had any contact with him in years. How you didn’t even remember him. I told him things I’ve never told you, my love, although I think you always understood more than you let on. I always wanted to protect you from the details. But you need to know them now. To understand.

Your dad and I met too young. And although I’ve never regretted it for a second, we definitely had you too young. When you’re only a teenager you’ve barely got enough love for yourself, let alone anyone else, and your dad had a big problem even liking himself. I don’t even know what he thought he felt for me. And then you arrived, and there was never any question where all the love I had to share was going. Which I suppose, looking back, left him feeling even more on the outside, just like he was always saying he did. But that’s not to make any excuses for him. He had more than enough of those for himself. 

I should have spotted the signs so much earlier than I did. On our second or third date he tried to batter some lads from the college rugby team who were making laddy remarks at me in the bar, but somehow at the time I made myself think it was romantic – my own knight in armour, defending my honour. Only after he came off the worse in the encounter, and I was left doing DIY first aid in my bedroom because he flatly refused to go to A&E, he somehow managed to turn it back on me and tell me that he wouldn’t have to risk getting a kicking on my behalf if it wasn’t for the way I dressed and acted. And after it happened a few more times I started to believe him, which is why I started wearing all those drab jeans and baggy t-shirts you used to laugh at in my old photos. But I never minded you laughing: you were right, they were terrible, and old-fashioned even then, and secretly I loved the fact that once you were interested enough to want to look at them.

But gradually I realised that I was growing apart from all my friends, and stopping doing the things I used to love to do – do you remember years ago how amazed you were when I told you I used to act in the drama society at college, and you said You? No way! I kept telling myself that it was just part of growing up and discovering who I really was when actually I was being turned into the person he wanted me to be. And it turned out he didn’t like her much, either.

And then I got pregnant. You don’t want or need to know the details but it’s the reason I’ve tried damn hard all your life to make sure you’re not the sort of girl who’d let something like that happen to her. And he insisted he had to drop out of college and get a job to support me while I carried on studying, and then devoted himself full-time to resenting me for both those things.

You know he used to hit me, because I’ve been honest about that ever since you first traced the scar on my forehead with a tiny finger and asked me in a solemn voice how it got there. But the bit I couldn’t explain to you, because as a child you wouldn’t understand, was that it wasn’t the violence that hurt the most. It was the way he always looked at me and talked to me. Like I was some kind of vermin that somehow had got into his house and was fouling the place up. Something like a slug, that however successfully it manages to stay hidden and out of your way can’t help but leave a disgusting trail behind so you know it’s been there. The slaps and pushes and dragging grips on the arm only happened when he had been drinking, and I got to be an expert at spotting the signs and finding excuses for getting you out of the flat then, whatever time of the day or night it might be. But that look – that contempt – that was there was there all the time. And I lived with it right up until one day when I came into the front room when you were playing happily in your playpen, gurgling away without a care in the world, and I saw him looking at you with exactly the same expression. He didn’t do anything else, just sat there looking down at you in utter disgust and resentment, but the next morning as soon as he left for work I packed a bag for you and one for me and walked out of that grotty little flat and never once looked back.

I told the stranger this, and much, much more, right there in the hospital corridor. The words just came tumbling out of me, maybe because I’d been keeping them pent up inside for so long. And by the time I’d finished he couldn’t have been in any doubt exactly how I felt about your – no, he doesn’t deserve to be called your dad, he never did anything to earn that title.

At least, he never had until that night.

I said I didn’t even know where he was these days. It had been years since I’d heard anything about him. His mother knew better than to include any mention of him in the Christmas cards she sent each year if she wanted there to be any chance of you getting to read them.

He reassured me that wasn’t a problem. “We never have a problem finding donors. Our register is very comprehensive. All we need is your consent to proceed.”

I could kid myself that I didn’t know what I was signing up for, that he somehow tricked me into it, took advantage of my vulnerable state. But we talked for a long time that night. And I understood.

He held out his hand, and I passed him the wringing wet handkerchief. He took it, and he folded up neatly like before, but before he tucked it back into his pocket he pressed it hard to his lips, and those green eyes were looking right into mine the whole time.

“Go in and see your daughter,” he told me, and I nodded dumbly. My legs had stiffened beneath me and it took me a moment to find my balance and cross to the door of the room where you were still sleeping soundly, the machines beeping and whirring around you. And when I turned to look back, the long hospital corridor stretched away empty in both directions.

You stayed asleep for a long time that night, and well into the next morning, and when you woke up you looked more refreshed than you had in weeks, with a little colour creeping back into your cheeks. Your test results still weren’t good, but by the next day they had crept up, and they carried on rising all that week until Dr Ramakrishnan gave the first genuine smile I think I’d ever seen her give and told me you really did seem to be making progress. By then you had managed to sit up and eat a whole meal – chicken pie and vegetables, I’ll always remember – and most of your jelly for afters, and the nurses were so pleased with you that they even managed to persuade me to go home and sleep in my own bed for a night, and when I got back not long after seven the next morning they were laughing and telling me I wasn’t going to believe it but you’d already had your breakfast as well.

From then on there was no stopping you. You were scooting around the place on a walking frame before we knew it, making friends with the kids on the other wards, and getting cross with me if I tried to come in to the bathroom with you because you said you didn’t need me any more. After a few weeks I was taking you off the ward every afternoon for walks in the park, or out for pizzas, or trips to the cinema, whatever you demanded. And the mornings I spent talking to doctors and social workers about the care and support package we would need in order to have you home for Christmas. And we managed it, too. And after that, except for regular outpatient checkups that became less and less frequent as the years went by, you never went back.

In the midst of it all I was too busy to notice that we didn’t get a card from Nana Barnes that year. She wrote me a letter towards the end of January, to say sorry but she had some bad news: her son had passed away. He had been found with knife wounds in an alley behind a pub in Portsmouth, where he’d apparently been living. The police thought he must have got into a fight with someone – he’d been barred from the place earlier in the evening, which sounded like him – but they didn’t have any suspects, and they thought in the end it wasn’t the stabbing that killed him, he froze to death out there by the bins. She said that although she understood how things were she thought I would want to know.

She was wrong. I didn’t want to be told that at all.

I put the letter away. I wasn’t such an irresponsible mother that I wasn’t going to tell you, but with everything else that was going on you didn’t need to know right then. And somehow, like a lot of other things, I never did quite get round to telling you. So that’s what this letter is for now. To make sure you have the full picture. You might have stopped listening to anything I say a long time ago, but you at least deserve to have my side of the story.

When people ask me how the teenage years are going, I tend to say things like “ooh, we have our ups and downs.” But we can’t kid ourselves, can we Lucy? There have been a lot more downs than ups, especially lately. At first I was so relieved and happy just to have you home and well again that I didn’t see it, or I just told myself you were catching up on all the things you’d missed out on because of your illness, and everything would settle down. And of course, I blamed myself, for all the usual reasons single mums do, convincing myself there was something missing in your upbringing that should have been there. But that wasn’t true. It was actually the opposite, wasn’t it?

“She’s got the devil in her, that one,” my mum once said in exasperation after you’d pushed her right to her limit. It was after that awful incident with the kitten that you insisted till you were blue in the face was an accident, and we said we believed you because we wanted to so much. But it wasn’t the devil. And I know, because god forgive me, it was me that put it there.

I wasn’t sure at first. Not for a long time. I made excuses for your behaviour, apologising endlessly to the parents of other kids at your school, begging your teachers for extra chances and pleading special circumstances right up until you finally got yourself permanently excluded. And I made excuses for the bruises too, hardly believing the same words could be coming out of my mouth again. You were so little when it started. I told myself you were just lashing out, that you didn’t know your own strength.
Maybe you didn’t. Is that how it works, Lucy? Is there still a frightened little girl somewhere in there, terrified of the brute she’s forced to share a body with and unable to control him? Is that maybe the reason for the boozing, and now the drugs? Are you trying to blot him out, escape from him?

If that the case, I can’t blame you. I don’t resent all the money you’ve stolen from me over the years to pay for it all. I’d gladly hand it all over, and more. Because the alternative is even more awful. If you’re telling the truth, that means you really do hate me. That I’m worthless, the worst mother in the world. And I know that’s not right.

And so will you, now. I’m proving it to you.

This shows you how much I’ve been clutching at straws lately, but I even thought Charlie might be the one to save you. Because I could see how much you cared about him. Alright, I don’t think much of him – you could do a lot better than a drug dealer, and I know that’s what he is, Lucy, I’m not stupid, however often you tell me I am. And I hate the way he’s treated our home like a dosshouse from the very first time you brought him home, and me like the hired skivvy, but I suppose he was only picking that up from you. And I wouldn’t trust him not to hurt you, or cheat on you, or break your heart sooner or later. But there was one time, when I got back from a late shift and found that the pair of you passed out on the sofa in the front room in a stinking haze of weed, and the look you had on your face while you were cradled in his arms was one I thought I’d never see again. You looked happy. Content. So full of trust. I’d forgotten you could even look that way. It was the same expression you used to have when I was carrying you in the hospital all those years ago. And for once it made me not mind that you’d used up all the food I’d got in for my dinner and left most of it crusted onto the pans and the plates with half-crushed roaches in them that were scattered all over the kitchen for me to clear up as usual.

So you were so wrong when you screamed at me after the accident that you hoped I was “happy now”. Yes, I was always going on about his bike and how dangerous it was, especially when he was stoned, but surely you can see that was because I knew something like this might happen? And when I said thank god you weren’t on the bike too, that was pure relief speaking. And when you yelled at me that you wished you were, that if he died you would rather be dead too, it was like a knife going in to me right then. Because I could tell that you actually meant it.

So what I’m telling you, Lucy, is I get it. I understand. And you have my blessing. Because you see I came back after the nurses told me it was best for me to leave. I waited outside the Casualty department at the edge of the car park, watching the ambulances come and go, until I thought you’d have had enough time to calm down. Until after the last of the office party drunks had been bandaged up and sent home, and the waiting room had emptied, and the nurses had gone off their night shift and the cleaners arrived, though the sky was still black as could be. And then I crept back. I got as far as the doors, stopping just outside the circle of light that spilled out of them, not close enough to trigger the sensor that sets them sliding open. I looked in through the glass, and I saw you sitting there with your back to me, looking so vulnerable, and so young, and so broken. And I saw who was sitting there opposite you. He was dressed just the same as before. And when he spotted me, his green eyes locking on mine over your shoulder as you sobbed into that neatly folded handkerchief, I realised something else. He didn’t look a single day older.

I know how it works, Lucy. It has to be someone you’ve loved, once. He explained that to me, too. Otherwise everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they? If you could just pick some awful criminal, or a politician, and wipe them out just like that to save someone who mattered, think how much better the world would be. But that would be too easy. No, it has to be someone who cared for you, who did their best to love you in their own way, and made mistakes and didn’t always get it right. And it also has to be someone who you’re now prepared to sacrifice without a second thought.

And I accept it. I’ll go happily. Because I know I can make you safe, my darling girl. Charlie may not be all you need him to be, or love you as much as you need him to, but I can. I can straighten him out, make him behave like he ought to. With me pushing him, he can become the man that’s good enough for you. Who can save you from yourself.

And I won’t ever have to let you go.

That was a knock. It’s him, or maybe some of his people. I must go and open the door to them.

I don’t know how it will happen. I think we will go for a walk together, somewhere far away from the house. It’s a cold night again, but I won’t bother with a coat. I will leave this letter here on the kitchen table for you. You sit tight at the hospital and wait for news of Charlie. It should not be too long now.

I will see you very soon, my darling girl.