Time Past Waits There Patiently
It’s been a few days now since the news of my brain (not that I’ve lost it entirely!) and I’ve been remarkably ok. Some happy moments combined with an overwhelming urge to set my world to order before I can no longer. This is pretty normal. I’ve also come to accept that this in this chaotic world, I can’t do it all. Also I want to paint and draw, walk, be with my family. I’ve been following them everywhere. They know, my son knows, about the cancer in my brain although he assures me that he’ll still love me when I’m stupid after the treatment. He says he likes the idea of winning more board games.
I’m to have whole brain radiotherapy, because there are multiple small tumours distributed over the brain and so picking them off one by one would be tricky and also may miss those present though smaller than can be detected. This has implications for the healthy cells of course. My memory long, short and working could be affected and I think I’m going to have to take this on as a real probability lest I should be disappointed at not being able to complete an easy Sudoku on the back of the paper when waiting for my Chinese carry out.
Seriously though, I’m terrified of this: my memory and thoughts with them myself, me, being lost. I want to try to write my memoirs like a download, a record and mainly just because I’ve always wanted to write.
I love stories, making my world into stories and understanding what has become of the child, born fifty years ago in a tiny mining town just South of Edinburgh. I’ve come a long way in 50 years. I’ve had a life like so many other people, ups and downs, and I would have benefited from knowing what I know now right at the start. As a baby, named after the childminder of my two older sisters, how was I to know anything really? We all learn in our own time. I have learned that life is short, and life is good, peppered with utter bliss though it can sometime hurt so much. Life is wondrous.
I’ve always marvelled at the fact that everything is made of atoms without exception and the atoms are made of around 14 different types of ‘stuff’ that arises when matter is formed. So that’s everything, you, me, the table, that insect that just inspected my cup of tea, the bacteria on this keyboard, the air I breathe in and out, all made of the same stuff. Like a big pot of 14 types of stuff arranged in different ways, connected somewhat, but distinct from one another as part of the world. Though I am alive, we’d say the table is not. The water in my glass is not alive, but the insect is. In the jumble of things, what is life? What is the magic that turns us from ‘stuff’ into living, loving, thinking and feeling living beings? Whatever it is, I’m glad I am touched with it.
The computer hums at me as I contemplate. I drink water and tea and wonder where to start. My memories and my story are waiting in there, while the radiation bounces round damaging cells. This will take a while to work its way about, so that in a few months an MRI scan will show how successful the treatment has been. My understanding is that healthy cells will recover and go on doing what they do, while the unhealthy ones will die and not reproduce themselves unhealthily. I’ve no idea really how the story will be and it might not be in order or make any sense other than to me. I feel compelled to I’ll choose a moment from the past I think. A while back I wrote some stories about my grandmother. I’ll get my breakfast if you’d like to read one…
Just a Trifle
The trifle appeared. From where and for why, I had no idea, other than this was Granny’s house and this was a trifle. The two would be irrevocably linked in my mind, as if in fact they were only one thing composed of millions of minute parts, including for instance: a custard dwelling place built upon a foundation of soaked-in-fruit-jelly sponge, topped with heart stopping roof of whipped cream sprinkled with rain of hundreds and thousands.
We ate politely with our shiny silver spoons, making sure not to snort or gobble. Granny said soothing things as we delicately scooped the last delicious scraps from the glass bowls. At the end of our meal she clucked happily, tidying the plates and cutlery into the kitchen. I thought: this is what a granny is.
She certainly looked like a granny; there could be no mistaking it. She was short and grey and her upper back was round like someone had stuffed it with a cushion. Her knuckles were knobbly and wrinkled and the skin on her face was papery and thin and it hung about her face as if it really didn’t belong to her. I wondered idly if she had once been really big but then shrunk. That was my Granny.
One Sunday morning, we sat at the tiny formica table in the kitchen while granny fed us toast with cheese triangles and cups of weak tea. My tongue was still reeling in disbelief that it was possible to eat cheese so early in the day, when Granny approached the fridge and announced there was to be a treat. My heart quickened at the thought of something sugary. Naturally this the perfect compliment to a sophisticated repast. Granny said the word ‘later’…
Disappointment and a feeling of needing not to seem ungrateful filled up my skinny little body. She asked us to guess what it might be. We didn’t guess but looked on silently, all three of us sisters, with eyes like saucers. Granny produced a large bowl and tilted it so that we could see. A yellow, shiny gloop stared blankly back. Granny explained the latter stages of trifle making with a girlish excitement I’d never seen in her so animated. I was It didn’t seem right seeing the trifle in this state; unfinished and less than magnificent. It was the spectacle of the finished piece I so adored. This stripped back, deconstructed half-dessert wasn’t the same and somehow I resented now knowing that it wasn’t a fantastical work of magic, but instead a planned, long laboured over and therefore ordinary work.
She also explained that we should wash up the dishes and do some weeding in the garden while she went to mass. With that she changed her slippers for shoes and her apron for a coat in the hall just beyond, and then, reaching up for her hat as she went through the door, she reminded us to be ‘good’. The door clicked shut and the sound of her clackety heels receded into the rumble of distant, intermittent traffic.
Once she was gone the house filled with an air of uncertainty. I’d never washed dishes before. Soon I found myself with my hands in the sink directed by my two older sisters, feeling warm water soak up my sleeves. I kept washing, but the dishes seemed to go on appearing for a considerable time. I felt the aching lack of granny and her quiet in the labour of this. A space opened up, filled with something I couldn’t yet name which made me realise that I was a child and this was a chore. My sisters dried and put the dishes away as I washed. They chattered and I listened.
Later, in the garden we stood about wondering how to find a weed. Every border adjoining the gently sloped grassy bank up to the back fence resolutely refused to give us any clues. The house-sized rose bed pursed its lips tightly, pushing out the perfumed petals, but showed nothing we could get hands on to show the required amount of work. Bewildered we went to the front garden where a perfect display of summer colour met our search. No weeds.
What were we to do? The instructions were clear. What would happen if Granny returned to find no weeds had been pulled out? I was gripped with fear of untold wrath. The pit of fear rose up and held me while my sisters went on looking.
Together they found the only weed in the garden: a thistle, a weed and no doubt. We discussed at length that thistles were weeds and this was definitely a thistle. It was as big as me. The leaves were broad and leathery. In full purple flower and jagged without mercy, the solid abomination took all of our combined wit and strength to remove. We laboured with trowel and fork, scratching our skin and soiling our clothes. The sun shone full on our efforts.
By the time we’d dug out the root, the perfect grass was flattened all about with trodden in soil and the defeated creature lying vanquished on the front path. The skin under my nails ached with dry summer earth, jammed in tight. We had worked, and now satisfied, made our way towards the side path to find a suitable resting place for the disgraced thistle in the back garden.
Just then an odd squawking noise rang out along the quiet road. We turned to see Granny at the front gate with her fingers over her mouth and eyes wide. Silence roared up and crashed upon us. Granny’s breath escaped.
“My thistle,” she whispered.
A silence lasted as mountains do. “I’ve been growing that for fifteen years.”
Later that evening, she offered us more of the magnificent and delicious trifle. She scooped out little helpings into our bowls and sighed. The escaping air filled the spaces, forgave us, and resigned me to my guilt at not recognising her labour in all of this. How she had put effort into all of her world for our benefit. Nothing at Granny’s went without noticing from then on.
And so I return to the present and after a bowl of fruit with yoghurt and honey, I’m full but still yearning for cheese triangles and the warmth of her, and her trifle home.