I’m sat in the living room at my Grandparents house. The TV is on but I’m not really paying attention. My Nanna is sat in her usual chair and my Grandad sprawled out on the sofa. We are sat in silence and I am deafened.
It’s the first time I have been here since I found out Nanna was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I found out in a phone call. We’ve briefly touched on it. My Nan and I talk, she speaks in clipped abrupt sentences and there is an anger I have never seen in her before. Her language used to be long and fluid, coloured by inner smiles and delivered with heart. Whenever I think of her there is always softness, kindness, a patience that has never ending depths. I sit and I ask mundane questions and I’m not sure what to say, and I’m afraid of the wrong words said in the wrong way. For some reason I feel so much distance between us and I have no idea how to reach across to her. I want to cry, and to hold her and to tell her I love her, I want to ask the hardest deepest questions and delve into what this all means but I can’t. We dance around the subject for a while then sit and watch the TV and I am yearning for something I can’t place.
I am so aware. I can feel my whole body. I can feel them sat near me and I can feel – her. I can feel her brain. I can hear my breath in my ears. I can feel my heart beating and there’s a knot in the pit of my stomach making me want to run. I wonder what she’s thinking. I’m too afraid of what the answer would be. This is new for me. Nannas house has changed from a second home to a strange place of uncertain grounds and listening walls. I need to leave. I need to leave right now.
I have the dog with me. He needs a walk. I tell them I’m going out for a walk which is fine. I leave the house and step outside and it’s a clear night. There are a few stars out and as soon as I step into the night air I release a huge breath I didn’t realise I had been holding.
I don’t know where I am going but I find myself outside a shop. I tie the dog to a post outside and walk in and buy four flavoured cider drinks. I figured the fruity ones don’t smell as strong so it will be easier to disguise. I make this decision without even processing it. I buy a pack of ten cigarettes and a lighter and I walk towards the park.
My mind is still very sharp yet distant from me. My legs take me to the park and I find a bench looking into a field. I can see everything in fine details. Blades of grass, individual leaves. The sky is so big and I feel so lonely. My heart feels dull and I think I might cry but my face is dry. I wish I would cry but it doesn’t happen.
The Dog is happy sniffing around the unfamiliar area. I open my first flavoured cider and I drink half of it in one go and light a cigarette. I sit there and stare at the sky. I drink my cider and I smoke cigarettes one after the other until the sharp edges become blurred. I can feel my thoughts slowly get foggier.
I have no idea how long I’ve been sat here but my ciders are gone and so have all my cigarettes. I make the walk home, not really feeling my feet touching ground. I walk into the house and they are exactly as I left them. They ask if I enjoyed the walk and I smile and nod and give them a kiss and sit back down.
Everything is exactly as I left it, only now I am calm. Now I am numb. The blur is bliss. I allow the evening to wash me away…
The next day I awake and I feel dull and grey. I head to the kitchen and Nanna and I make small talk but there is a tension and I am not sure If it’s my fault or not. The fog is no longer the warm fog of the booze and is instead a heavy thudding cloud formed by the aftermath of my evening bench session. I taste of cigarettes, a flashback of an old habit everyone thinks I’ve left behind. I think she knows but she doesn’t say anything. I can still sense anger inside of her and later that day as we say our goodbyes it’s as though we are two strangers.
In the evening I drive home and I start to cry – Slow and heavy tears. They roll down my cheeks and into my lap and all I want to do is drive back and pour my heart out and explain to her everything she has ever meant to me; but I don’t. I carry on driving and hope someone will meet me for a drink when I get home.
Quite some time has passed since that particular visit.
I recall how much I struggled with clarity back then, how I was afraid to be alone in my own head; afraid to feel anything in it’s pure form. I had a way of supressing any negative emotions or experiences to “put on a brave face”.
I was known as the ‘happy one’; the one in the family who seemed to go untouched by all the madness and tragedy, the one who would comfort and make everyone laugh when, ultimately I made myself an emotional cage. You see, I thought I was helping the ones I loved by being the ‘ok’ one, that because we had endured so many issues such as suicide, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia that I had an obligation to have it all together. So that was my act. That was what I would project. I would be the light relief because I couldn’t stand the thought of adding to the pain.
Alcohol went from being something I would indulge in when in a social situation; to something I would do in secret, something I could hide within. The sharp realities of life don’t hurt as much when they are dulled by a head too oiled with Stella Artois and black.
I did not handle the news of my Nanna’s mortality very well. She was one of the few constants I’d had throughout my life and I couldn’t ever imagine a world where that would no longer be true. And it broke something inside of me, and eventually all that suppressed poison would come spilling out.
A few months later
After I had been sober for a few months I decided to address how I felt about it and really embrace whatever came with that. Instead of reaching for something to dull the aches I allowed myself to experience them fully and it was almost fascinating, liberating! It hurt, and I was confused and there was an inner child in me that wanted someone to come along and fix it, take the bad stuff away. I finally cried, processed things and I called her more often. I talked to her about my own depression and my journey going sober…and that distance between us slowly grew smaller. The more I shared and opened up the more she did and that’s what I needed. I needed to know I could be there even in the smallest of ways for her, make her laugh, make her smile, talk about happy memories because there were so many!
I went to see her and I asked the big questions, I asked what I wanted to know and it was not always easy to hear because what she is going through is something I can’t understand. Not fully. I can understand anger, frustration, disappointment, hopelessness and the need to try and protect the ones we care about from pain, which is something her and I have in common. Even though she was the one with cancer all she seemed to care about was the welfare of all of us! I don’t know what it’s like to truly look my own mortality in the face. Her journey is her journey and there are some parts of it I can’t understand but at least now I am of sound mind enough to show her my love; because there is so much of it.
It’s interesting how many of us reach for a bottle to dull ourselves to pain. When you have a hard day, do you not have a few glasses of wine to ‘take the edge off’. The end of the week is celebrated in a crescendo of excess in order to reward ourselves for getting by one more week. How easy is it for us all to self medicate believing that our tipsy state is preferred to the rawness of a clear mind? Wether you have a problem with alcohol or not I bet most people can relate in some form to the phrase “drown out your sorrows”.
How many people can’t do or say some things unless lubricated with booze? Performing, admissions of love, sharing truths, dancing with abandon?
I am learning now it’s ok to feel all of it. The highs and the lows. There is a sense of freedom in knowing I am brave enough now to be alone with my own thoughts…
As for Nanna…
We had that talk. I put my head in her lap and I sobbed like a little girl and she stroked my hair and for a moment she was my Nanna and I was her Grandchild. I told her I loved her and that she was more important and special to me than she would ever really know. We laughed over old memories. I made her re-tell all the children’s stories she invented for bed times; better than any Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl because it was her voice and she made the words magic. Finally. That was what I needed. That was what I had been yearning for.
When I drove home that night I cried. This time I cried because my heart was full.