In Satya Robyn’s novel ‘Thaw’, Ruth gives herself three months to decide whether she can find a reason to carry on living. There’s 75% off the Kindle version today (99p / $1.49). You can meet Satya Robyn here - but first, please read my story.
Learning from James and Hester
Not long after the turn of the millennium, my elderly neighbour James, aged 96, announced from his hospital bed: “This week, I shall decide whether or not I shall go on living.”
A few months before, his wife Hester had died in a residential home, where she’d been staying for a few days during his previous hospital treatment. Between hospital stays, they could just about manage to live at home together, but neither could cope alone.
Hester’s death had been unexpected – well, as unexpected as it could be for a 90 year old. She’d had breast cancer for several years, but in old age cancer often grows slowly, and it was not cancer that killed her but heart failure. She just sat on her bed one day, fell back and her heart stopped.
James was bereft, but at least they had achieved their goal of reaching their silver wedding anniversary. Only silver at their age? Yes, that’s right. Childhood sweethearts, they’d been forbidden by their family to marry because they were first cousins. After they’d retired, and James’s first wife had died, they’d eloped. They’d headed early one morning down the hill to the parish church before anyone could stop them, and they did their best to live happily ever after.
For the last few years, they’d been taking turns to go in and out of hospital, like the little people in a weather house. As whichever one was not in hospital was not strong enough to visit the other more than a couple of times a week, I was commissioned to ferry letters from one to the other. Hester’s eyesight was dim, so she’d ask me to read the messages aloud. This had to be done in a loud voice so that she could hear them properly. Invariably opening with old-fashioned terms of endearment (“Treasure…” was my favourite), these love letters – for that is what they were – made the whole ward smile.
To be honest, it probably wasn’t a matter of choice whether James lived or died. He was 96, after all, and had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. Like Hester’s illness, I think it had been lurking for some time. That winter they’d become dramatically frailer. Most poignant was James’s phone call to me on Boxing Day 1999, asking me to come round to plump up Hester’s pillows, as he was too weak to help. At this point, I was also nursing my own husband, who was to die of leukaemia ten days into the new millennium, just five days before Hester.
But don’t feel sorry for me. I have never felt so loved as I did then. My family, friends and neighbours were unstinting in their support. I spent New Year’s Eve at my husband’s hospital bedside, before sleeping over at my parents’ house nearby. I’d been dreading returning home next morning, until I found two candle lanterns on my windowsill, left by neighbours, one for each of us. It was a gift of hope.
When widowed, unlike James, I never doubted that I should go on living. After all, I was a mere child compared to him. I was 39.
Ever the optimist, ever the opportunist, I rebuilt my life. I remarried a couple of years later, and, to everyone’s surprise and delight, produced a daughter, Laura, at the age of 43.
But it wasn’t only this good fortune that gave me a reason to go on living. A further share of bad luck was in store. Just 13 days before my precious daughter’s 4th birthday, she was rushed to hospital with Type 1 Diabetes. If not caught and treated in time, it would have been fatal. We were lucky: we caught it early, and she survived, but it is a chronic, incurable illness that will need medical intervention and vigilance 24/7 for the rest of her life, unless a cure is found. (That’s why I support JDRF, the charity dedicated to finding that cure.)
I remember with perfect clarity receiving the diagnosis. We sat in the office of a lovely, gentle, kind lady GP who listened with increasing gravity to the symptoms – unquenchable thirst, urgent dashes to the loo, weight loss – before taking a tiny blood sample to test Laura’s blood sugar.
“I wouldn’t do a blood test on a child unless it was essential,” she assured us.
She looked at the test meter and was silent for a moment before announcing the result.
We knew there was only one explanation, because my husband’s own diagnosis with diabetes six years before had taught us that a normal blood sugar is 4-7. I tried to hide from my daughter the silent tears streaming down my face.
“Are you able to drive to the hospital?” the doctor was saying gently. “If not, we’ll call an ambulance and blue-light you there.”
But my husband drove, and on that twenty mile trip to A&E, where they were poised to receive us as an emergency, I realised that our lives had changed forever.
Ever since, my prime reason for living has been to keep my beautiful daughter healthy – to manage her condition to the best of my ability until she is old enough to take care of it herself.
But who am I kidding? Will I ever I stop worrying about her well-being? I’m sure most mothers would say the same, even without the diabetes. I’m sure I never will, even if I live to be as old as James.
And I’ve just realised that if I do live to be as old as James, then Laura will be exactly the same age as I am now. This strikes me as a good omen, I don’t know why.
It’s also an extraordinary coincidence that Satya Robyn’s “What I Live For” event falls precisely on the sixth anniversary of Laura’s diagnosis with Type 1 Diabetes. When I realised this, I knew I had to take part, to celebrate not the diabetes, but the daughter that I live for. I’m very blessed.
Satya: thank you so much for inviting me. It has been an honour to join you.