I wake up alone in my Mum’s flat, where she used to wake up alone.
I drink tea out of Mum’s favorite delicate thin-sided china mug as I lean forward on one foot and slightly crane my neck to stare out of the kitchen window wondering whether to put the clothes out on the line. I look over the top of the other flats at the gray-blue sky and waving green tree tops. I’m in the same pose at the same window Mum stared out of every morning for 31 years, searching the English sky for some indication of what the weather will be like, as if our weather was a knowable entity.
I pay the bills that used to come in her name. I iron the tea towels. I worry about my sister the way she did.
I sit on her couch, in the same spot she sat when she couldn’t get comfortable. I stand in the shower where she rubbed her stomach and wondered why she was bloated. I cook with the baking sheet that she would fill with vegetables, hoping that enough of them might do the trick. I wear the coat she wore as she tried to walk off the heaviness in her stomach. I wear the boots she wore as she became so tired, so tired she didn’t want to go to work.
I’ve sat in her living room with my knees up to ease the knawing pain in my spine. I’ve turned around in the shower thinking the heat might help the burning sensation in my lower back. I’ve eaten kale believing it will make it better. I tried to ignore the pain increasing daily which made my walks become shorter and shorter.
My mum waited months to find out it wasn’t a lingering stomach bug. She went into hospital where she found out she had ovarian cancer.
I waited months before finding out at the same hospital that the growing ominous pain in my back was not my breast cancer spread to my bones. Instead I have regular-people-problems of multiple prolapsed discs causing nerve compression. My nervous system reacted like I’d received a stay of execution. They are frayed from my whole life depending on the end of a sentence starting with “Your scan showed……”
It’s not the first time I’ve sat alone in pain, knowing my risk of reoccurrence, strangled with terror.
It won’t be the last.
I live with death. It is in every lotion that outlived my mum. Death is with mum’s coffee still in the fridge, the good kind, to offer to guests. I live with it in every pain that sears through my body. I live with it every time I have to mentally take note of a new symptom and how long it stays. I live with it every time I see my sister smile. I live with the knowledge that there is no one else that can give my sister the support I can, that although I live with death, on her behalf, I cannot, I will not, accept it.
The statistics for a woman under 40 with a hormone positive breast cancer is one in three of not surviving 8 years. I’m not great at math but that puts me at 33 percent chance of not making it 5 more years.
I have to live, but I know that there is no difference between me and the 33 percent of girls who won’t make it. Just like there is no difference between my mum who passed away in eleven months and women who live for decades with ovarian cancer. The thin walls between healthy and sick, alive and dead, between mother and daughter are now translucent.
I take the clothes out of Mum’s washing machine and put them out on the line. It’s becoming less strange to me that in one of the wettest countries we insist on hanging clothes outdoors. As I become less American and more English I agree with mum that the sheets smell so much better dried outside than in the tumble dryer. She would say it’s worth the effort of putting them out “even for only an hour”. It is also just as possible I’m becoming less Tatum and more my Mum. We’re almost the same height, both with curly brown hair and as the pillow case billows in front of me I see a passing neighbor give a double look. I’m not sure who they saw.
I look up at a heavy gray cloud. I hesitate whether to bring the clothes back in. I take the risk and leave them out. I think that’s what Mum would have done.
The English weather can go either way.