On the strength of a Catholic Herald review my wife, Jo, recently bought With the End in Mind by the hospice doctor Kathryn Mannix. Having now read it myself, I can attest that this is a book deserving the highest praise. With a wisdom born of 30 years of clinical practice, Dr Mannix helps to demistify a subject that is increasingly taboo – how people die.
Jo actually bought the book for a friend, whose husband is seriously ill with cancer. Sadly, we now have need of it ourselves. For my wife’s cancer has returned and her oncologist has issued those two terrible words: terminal prognosis.
Like many mothers, she is grateful for the time she has had since first being diagnosed with breast cancer. That was more than five years ago. Then, our youngest child had yet to start school. Now all six of them are – we hope – less vulnerable to the enormous and life-shattering shock of losing their mother.
As the late AA Gill said after he was diagnosed with “the full English”, it is actually a great privilege to have time to prepare for Last Things. Pity more those who fall foul of the loose ends and unsaid goodbyes of a fatal motorway crash.
Jo has never spent more time texting, nor wasted more time trying to text. This is because the chemotherapy has all but destroyed her finger-prints and makes it difficult to use the touch screens of modern smartphones. Apple take note.
My wife has touched many people with her ebullience, common sense and kindness. She has been deluged with cooked meals, text messages and phone calls. Flowers and notes have come from relatives, former work colleagues, neighbours, friends from church, members of the three choirs she sings with and Pony Club mums.
The bouquet that produced the most tears was from her “check-out girls”: the supermarket staff she has always made time to talk to. Providing food for eight made her a regular. But being the kind of person who refused to see human interactions as transactional made her beloved.
The only sour note was struck by staff at Royal Holloway College, which is part of the University of London. Our eldest is in the first year of a geology degree there. She enjoys the course and has been doing well. She faced a difficult choice: drop out and forfeit all the work she’s done, or be absent from her mother’s side during what may be the final few weeks of her life.
Bravely, and without prompting, she has decided to halt her studies and start again in September. The college authorities were blunt to the point of insensitivity. They wanted to see proof of her mother’s illness and insisted that she leave her hall of residence room within a matter of days. Perhaps it’s a reaction to all that talk of a higher education sector laid low by trigger warnings and safe spaces.
Further back along education’s evolutionary track, we have nothing but praise for the schools attended by our children and the pastoral care they have offered. Our grammar school brain-box daughter has been given a blue plastic card to place on her desk to indicate that she might be, well, a little blue. At the small school where our other children are pupils a senior member of staff offered to do the school run for me. For a hard-bitten journalist, schooled in the cynicism of the daily news cycle, this abundance of charity and tactful expressions of sympathy are little short of a revelation.
Telling the children was a moment to dread. Jo handled it as she has everything since her terminal diagnosis, like the still centre of calm surrounded by swirling eddies of emotion. She used an analogy borrowed from the BBC comedy Rev. In it the vicar, played by Tom Hollander, is asked about dying by a child. He likens the experience to that of the life cycle of the damselfly. The nymphs see their kind breaking through the surface of the water and disappearing forever. They are frightened by this. They are oblivious to the metamorphosis that awaits them when, with delicate wings incapable of re-entering the water, they will see a new world of wonder all around them.