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The importance of seeing family

It has been been an unusual week. My aunt and my grandmother passed away within twelve hours of one another. My already small family has taken a great hit. I had never seen someone battle with cancer before my aunt was diagnosed earlier this year. She was stoic, but not being able to eat takes it toll. She lost the weight that she'd wanted to shed for years, and then some. I remember her making the best roast dinners as a kid. Piles of vegetables so high, I could not see my brother's faces across the table, which at the time suited me fine.

My aunt could remember every meal out she ever had. Not just what she had ordered, but what everyone else ordered too. Towards the end when she could not eat, she would ring and ask me what I was having for dinner. I felt cruel telling her, but she loved talking about cooking long after she was able to do it.

We had a family holiday on the Isle Of Wight earlier this year. My widely dispersed family came together to make memories. Harder than it seems, trying not to notice hair loss, walking aids and obvious fatigue. You can see cancer eating it's way through a person, if you look close enough.

We knew it was getting bad when she was unable to do her beloved scratch cards, but she was determined to meet my brother's new son Herbie.

My Uncle redecorated my cousin's old bedroom to make a haven. I was nervous when I went to visit her there, perched uncomfortably on the edge of the bed, scared my smallest movement would hurt her. She rolled to one side and demanded I lie on the pillow next to her.

That was the last time I saw her. She went on to meet Herbie, born three days before my last visit.

My nan was a very different story. Fiercly proud and independant, she lived alone, unaided and refused help from anyone. A fall a while back left her more vunerable than she was used to, but she told the nurses who came to visit her where to go, in her broad Geordie accent.

She fell again last week. She lay on the floor for two days until my brother went and kicked the door down, worried when she didn't answer the phone.

She was diagnosed with hyperthermia and pneumonia. It seemed bleak, but she improved. When my brother and I went to visit she was proclaiming (loudly) how dreadful her dinner was and taking the mickey out her fellow patients.

She wanted to go home, until she realised it would not be possible.

When it dawned on her that she would have to go into a care home, she made a decision. She stopped eating and went rapidly downhill.

The pnumonia came back with great gusto. Her lung collapsed. She sat the family round her, and calmly declared that she wanted to let go. At her request the oxogen machines were turned off. When offered a sip of water she said 'I'd prefer it were wine'. Those were her last words and she passed the next morning.

One had fought to stay, and one had fought to go. Either way, dying is often hardest for the people left behind. My favourite poem 'Death is Nothing At All' offers me comfort at funerals but I struggle to talk to all the people I've lost, believing they can hear me. Plus I'd look like a lunatic.

The only time I feel ghosts of good friends is when I see the starlings dip and swoop in murmurations over the sea. I imagine they are all the people I loved, seeing all the sights they never saw. Free from responsibilities, old age, cancer, pain. May my flock of starlings have two new members when I next spot them on my run, and may they spur me on to sprint harder.

In the word's of another famous poet, Andrew Marvel (who actually wrote the poem 'To His Coy Mistress' hoping she might 'put out'): "Let us tear our pleasures with great strife, through the iron gates of life; Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run."


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