Lesson number two – it is shocking how rapidly the body can change and deteriorate.
At the start of treatment, everything was positive for Mum. The treatment plan made sense, the likely success rate was high, and Mum’s fatigue had started to dissipate. She’d had her diagnosis and treatment plan, so she wasn’t constantly worried about the next test result. At this point, it is hard to envisage different your loved one will look. And then it is painful to see your favourite person wither away from themselves.
I’ll give you a bit of a “run-down” of my Mum. She was 5”5, with hazel eyes and glossy black hair which was immensely curly – she liked it cut into layers with a full fringe then styled in a roller blow dry, and only ever found one stylist who did it properly! She was white with olive undertones in her skin, which meant she tanned beautifully (which my brother has inherited from her…not me though). Mum was overweight for a lot of her life – though I wouldn’t say she was fat. She had a round, full face and carried her weight around her torso yet had slim legs, making her the classic apple shape. She had big boobies, a round tummy, and a big bum.
She always wore jewellery. Always. She always had her watch on, at least three rings, a necklace and a pair of earrings. On several occasions if we’d left the house and she’d forgotten to put any of those pieces of jewellery on, if we weren’t too far from home, she would turn back to adorn herself appropriately. Mum also loved wearing perfume and would not feel herself if she’d forgotten to apply it. She wore mostly Chanel Chance, Jimmy Choo, or Charlie Red. Mum didn’t wear make-up an awful lot, she liked a subtle look, usually opting for a tinted moisturiser or sheer foundation with a dusting of bronzer and a light layer of mascara. She’d always wear a red or pink lip if she was dolling herself up though.
Then the chemo started. It tired her out, it made her lose weight, her body shape, her hair, the glow in her skin. When her hair started to fall out (it usually happens to chemotherapy patients around 2-3 weeks after their first session), Mum asked me to help her feel herself again by doing her make-up and styling her hair. Of course I wanted to, and the occasion felt like an honour. Mum was slightly distant whilst we were doing it, no guesses as to the reason why… When we were done she was really pleased with how she looked and asked me to take a photo of her so that she could remember this occasion as a nice one, and have one last nice photo of herself before she went all Sinead O’Connor.
You can see in the photo how distant she’s feeling. Her eyes not confident enough to glance directly at the camera, her once full and infectious smile slightly strained, and her stance hunched as if she’s feeling vulnerable. Compare this photo to the one on the right which was taken six months before at my brother’s graduation, look at the difference in her overall demeanour.
Then the serious shit started. The weight was falling off of her. Her skin started to droop and sag, her muscles were weak and unable to carry her for long periods of time. Her past full body was now like a…bag of cottage cheese (no offence Sue babe, truth hurts sometimes). Her skin lost its olivey goodness, and any other goodness too. Chemo stripped the nutrients out of her skin, it was sallow and dry – despite my best efforts as a wannabe know it all skincare connoisseur. Her round and full face had become gaunt, sunken. All of her beautiful dark curly Rita Hayworth esque hair was gone, leaving behind a de-crowned woman who fucking hated wearing a wig, and got sad and frustrated when her head was too cold.
This is one of the lessons I wish I had been told by someone who’d been through seeing a loved one die. Their body will not be theirs anymore. They will lose control over the vessel they have steered for their lifetime. It hurts to see.