May your days be merry and bright, And may all your christmases be white
(This is an article Kate wrote for the Times last week, which was printed today. She asked me to publish it to the blog as our time with her is now very short. Billy – 11th Dec ’14)
The ghost of Christmas Future will hang around our table this year. As we decorate the tree, open our presents and sit down for lunch, I will not be the only one imagining what these same rituals will be like next December when I am no longer there. This is my last Christmas; 2015 is the last New Year I will see in. I am 36, my twin boys are not-yet-six, and I am dying from advanced colon cancer.
I have had this disease for over two years, but now I am drawing in like the December nights, knocking on the door of what Philip Gould called the death zone – the great winding down we all will face when we have weeks, not more, left to live. We found out last month that cancer was reproducing wildly in my colon, abdomen, lungs, liver and bone – ever the over-achiever, my disease has taken the opportunity of a break from chemotherapy to run riot. So, I have exited the world of Oncology, a known space of sage Professors and carousels of bright young Registrars seeking to nuke my disease with an aggressive phalanx of drugs. I enter the calmer, quieter world of Palliative Care; regular visits from the nurses at my local hospice, ever increasing doses of morphine in an effort to quell these terrifying new-found pains that travel my body. In this new world my quest is for liveable days, pleasant and comfortable hours and moments of snatched happiness.
When I was asked to write this article about Christmas I hesitated. I hesitated because I am terrified that I won’t make it even that far, and writing down my hopes seems like tempting fate. Look at Linda Bellingham. She decided to stop her chemotherapy to give her a glorious “last” with her family, but she didn’t make it. And I am desperate to be well enough to open stockings and sing O Little Town of Bethlehem one more time, and desperate not to mar festive seasons to come with the grim anniversary of mummy’s demise. But, like all things that come with this dreadful disease I have named my Nuisance, I am not in control. I do not get to decide what speed this final part of my journey takes. Force Majeure could strike at any moment: I could pick up a chesty cough from the school playground which would do me in. The tumours could tighten their stranglehold on my liver well before it gets its last taste of Christmas sherry. Cancer is cruellest to the control freak like me. It strips away pleasures, one by one, finally stripping away my ability to plan anything other than the day ahead.
Come what may, Christmas won’t quite be Christmas this year for our family. Faced with this combination of hope and uncertainty, my family learn from Larkin: we know there is nowhere we can live but days. We can’t postpone our happiness until tomorrow because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We have to make the most of now. The 25th December is too far away to bank on, so I am denied my usual months of pre-Christmas list-making. But today, oh today I can be sure of. Today I will meet my best friend’s newborn baby. Today I will sit with my children and stuff our tasteful wooden advent calendar with gaudy sweets. Today I will walk with my Dad along the banks of the river Cam as the damp December mist enfolds us. And soon, so soon, it will be time to get the Christmas decorations out and marvel over the brightly coloured objects we haven’t seen for a year. Primary-coloured, heavy clay bells strung on ribbons, fashioned by clumsy toddler hands. Baubles covered with baby handprints. The armless Angel we cherish, amputee or not, secure in her perch at the top of the tree.
We can’t bank on anything. But that doesn’t mean we stop hoping for it. With a break in the pain, I can get out of my bed and my planning gene kicks in, as irrepressible as hope. What do I want this Christmas? I want to do the simple things again. Christmas is about precious rituals carved out over the years; learned from my parents as I grew up, now taking on a new shape in my own family. On Christmas Eve, I want my husband, the boys and I to go to cinema to see Paddington, have a crudely un-festive lunch of burgers and then go and sit in the shadow of Isaac Newton’s statue at the Trinity College crib service. I want to be able to get up at 6am to the shout of “is it morning yet?” and “Father Christmas has come! He’s come!” I want to toast my 100 year old Gran and smile as I see generations of one family around the table suffering our annual ration of Brussel sprouts. I want to see in 2015 in the wilds of Suffolk with my best friends and their kids, and a massive rib of beef. These are more than plans. They are iconic rituals which have gestated over the years. Repetition has scored the grooves deeply into our lives. I know these things we do will not die with me.
Let’s say I do get that far, let’s side with hope and say I make it to the toasts and the turkey and the carnage of present opening. I wonder how we will cope with the presence of Christmas Future at the feast. I am sure two rambunctious five year old boys will help keep him under control. And we are a pragmatic lot, our family, so I suspect we will welcome him in with some black humour and offer him a mince pie. An unwanted but acknowledged guest, better at the table than knocking menacingly at the window. Better we welcome him in and recognise that whilst my time-horizon is now as truncated as a toddlers, for those sitting next to me the idea of a long afterwards when our family is three, not four, is ever present in their minds.
I wonder if we will struggle more with the burden of lastness and the expectations of perfection it brings. There are few things I distrust more than the bucket list; I find any potentially wonderful experience easily ruined by the weight of expectation. I can celebrate this year being the final Christmas Dinner I eat – I never liked turkey much anyway. But if this is the last time I will open stockings with my children at the crack of dawn, then I will want it to be perfect. And, of course, it won’t be. Even if by some miracle I am fit (tish) and well (enough), like every family we will have our festive niggles. My darling, consumerist, selfish little boys will cherish the plastic Minecraft figures I bought them under duress more than my hand-crafted, memory laden gifts I have prepared for them. I will expend precious energy shouting at them when they refuse to wear a “smart” shirt and trousers for the big day. They will see more of the Mini-Ipads which Father Christmas has been asked for than my precious face. My husband will hate the jumper I buy him, as he does every year. The dog will steal a leg of turkey. My parents will have a terse exchange over the gravy, and only I will want to watch Downton Abbey.
Christmas always brings with it these stupidly high expectations, whether it is the last ever or whether you have years more celebrating ahead. We have expectations of perfect families, well-behaved children, thoughtful gifts lovingly received, peace and harmony replacing squabbles and nagging. If we are not careful, reality will ruin Christmas. Not just for our family, what with all this fate-tempting writing and my sky-high hopes, but for all of us. So I like to remind myself that a real Christmas includes the bad stuff too. Not just the gingerbread house, but the arguments over who will get to eat the sweet-filled roof. Not just the carol service, but the cold, wet wait at the bus-stop afterwards. Not just generations of family under one roof, but snidey bickering, competitive gift-giving and marital disharmony. And for us, this year, not energetic mummy running the show, but mummy lying on the sofa. Mummy sleeping through present opening. Mummy reaching for her ‘special Calpol’ to ease the pain. Dad taking too many photos of mum. A little cry on each others’ shoulder at the end of the day.
The Christmas idyll is never an idyll, for any of us. So my promise this year is to enjoy all of it. These days that lead up to it, not just the main event. The grumpiness, anger and frustration with my best beloveds that are a reminder that I am alive and red blood still pumps through my veins. I am pale imitation of the energetic parent I once was, but there is still pleasure to be gained from Christmas as a spectator sport. Though my Christmases past are blissful memories, I do not need to live there. The present is no idyll, but it’s what we have. And I intend to enjoy it. May you all do the same.
Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) was published on the 5th of January. You can order your copy today.