When my mother started to cough, the doctor told her not to worry. She wondered if it might be mesothelioma, the same cancer that killed her sister and brother, but he said it was ‘almost impossible’ that all the children in one family would get it. When the persistent cough, and increasing fatigue didn’t go away, she agreed to go see a different doctor. What followed was nine months of tests, procedures, and confusion, as consultants first diagnosed then re-diagnosed my mother, telling her it was, amongst other things, pleurisy, oesophageal cancer, lymphoma, and finally, on December 24th, 2014, she was finally diagnosed with advanced mesothelioma. She was offered palliative chemotherapy and pain medication.
Over the next eleven months, I cared for her and continued to be her advocate in the strange world of terminal caregiving. It demanded more of me physically, emotionally and mentally than I thought I could give at times, especially as I was also the primary carer for my young, disabled son, but it was also a precious and intimate gift of time. As her world, and mine, grew smaller, we found joy in what was close to us: spending time together, sitting in the garden, watching the days unfold. She said she didn’t need anything more.
My mother died at home on December 1st, 2015, age 83. She didn’t like to be called brave because, as she said, she didn’t have much choice about it, but she was resilient, generous, and strong. It was a terrible ending for a wonderful woman.
My mother was not scared of dying, but she wanted to know what was happening to her body, and what would come. She’d ask the doctors and nurses to tell her, but found that few people were willing to talk about it. The unwillingness to talk about the process of dying, disempowered my mother at a time when she needed the opposite. When it came to writing the poems that make up To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre, it was important to me to write as close-up and honestly about what caregiving had been like — the quiet hours of waiting, the restructuring of life around the inevitable, the physical demands of cancer on the patient and carer, and finally, about the letting go, not just of a loved one, but also of the role of caregiver.
I wrote the first draft of these poems in the year after my mother died, and then put them away for a year before working on them again. The first draft was about me putting down the experiences for myself. The second (and subsequent) drafting was about crafting each one to go as close as I could to the story I was wanting to share. I am proud of the poems in the pamphlet, and really pleased that they have been published by such a caring, independent press. Since the book was released, I have had people tell me that the poems have helped them. That is a wonderful thing to know. I have also been able to raise awareness about mesothelioma, which kills around 5000 people in the UK every year, and also raise funds for the Mesothelioma UK charity.
‘To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre’ is an invitation for readers to share the private and intimate moments of dying. It is a love-letter, and a leave-taking, and a personal meditation on loss and love. Just as nature moves through the seasons in the poems, so does grief. It is messy, and hard and sometimes, beautiful. Just like life.
Victoria Bennett is an award-winning writer and poet based in the valley of Eden, Cumbria, where she lives with her husband, and son. Her latest poetry pamphlet, To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre, is published by the Devon-based independent press, Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd. and available to order direct from the publisher here: https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/victoria-bennett/4594998880
“Exquisite poems, tough and tender in turns.These are moving meditations on loss and loving-kindness by a daughter to her mother: a gift to anyone who is alongside a loved one in their dying time.” Tanya Shadrick (author of ‘The Cure For Sleep’)
The Suede Shoes
after Thich Nhat Hanh
No good news from now
the doctor told us.
The nurse cried.
You did not.
I spend my days on the telephone,
searching for certainties:
names, dates, results,
chasing facts like dandelion wisps,
running out of time.
Sometimes, we talk about death.
Mostly, we talk about hospitals.
Bit by bit, their language claims us.
Meanwhile, the hen scratches
around the tree and the bees
collect nectar from a creeping vine.
The sun finally shines.
This is our in-between
Why bother planting that seed?
Why turn the beds
for a summer that will never come?
Why bother buying the pretty suede shoes?
We choose the shoes because
we can still find joy in a step.
We plant the seed because
we still love the way
it insists itself into life.
We turn the beds because
there will always be a summer,
even after you are gone.
Soon, we shall have only echoes
but for now, we drink tea
and watch the clouds move,
watch the light pass
between the storm
and there is still good news.
How To Watch Someone Die
First, let go of all the plans
you once had: the casual ways
we assume the right to live.
Create a box for all your future tense.
Catch yesterdays in your upturned hands,
unfurl memories, learn to read code.
Before long, these too will be dust.
Abandon sleep. Forget the clock
and roll like a wave
on dawns and dusks that drip
like morphine into days
that feel as if they could go
on and on and on, but never
look away, in case you miss
the moment that it ends.
Learn to live between the punctuated hours,
your ears attuned like the city fox
to spot an altered breath,
your eyes alert to the pallor of skin.
Juggle everything, and fail,
and tell yourself this is your best
and know this best will never be enough.
Accept you cannot change any of this,
and break, and get back up again.
Try not to let them die before they die,
try to let them stay in this world
even as this world gets smaller
every day, even if some days
you wish an end to this and when it comes
try to remember
to stop, to sit
to the silence
the dying is done;
watch the morning come.
Try all over again
to let go,
To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre
It is enough
the pebble roll
in my hand,
to curl, cat-like,
warm in the sun,
into an hour
of not doing,
to stand, long enough
to hear the curlew call;
to remember our lives
opening to it all.
With special thanks to Victoria for sharing this wonderful work with her. Let us know what you think in the comments below.