Smile, love and be kind

Although I never met her, I have been following Emmy Coates’ battle with cancer ever since she bravely announced it, hoping beyond hope that science would find a way to save her from its clutches and keep her reunited with her childhood sweetheart Jake for longer than the all-too-short time they had together. The sad news of her recent passing at such a tragically young age, and the incredible poise, eloquence and honesty of her grieving husband in the immediate wake of what must have been the worst time of his life have affected me deeply.

These two people and their bittersweet love story (quite honestly, they achieved more in the last year than most people manage in a lifetime, which is surely testament to their jaw-dropping positivity and utter amazingness-if you haven’t been following their story get yourself over to their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ejtandemonium/ immediately and catch up-thats an order*) epitomise what it means to live life fully and in the moment, to cherish the very existence of love and appreciate that, in the end, nothing else matters.

Emmy’s catch phrase of “Smile, love and be kind” will stay with me forever. As will Jake’s words in the blog he bravely wrote after her passing, when he said:

“I wish with all that I am, that I could have just one more day with her. To laugh with, to hug, to kiss, to hold tight.

So make me this promise. Go out. Go to your husband or your wife. Your partner or your lover.

Tell them that you love them. Embrace them. Hold them that little bit longer. Squeeze them that little bit tighter. Whisper sweet nothings and try to forget, just for a moment, those small irrelevant worries. You’re only here in this world for the shortest time and you never know when it might all disappear.”

We take so much for granted in this life, and spend so much time worrying about things that likely won’t even happen – or, as in Emmy’s case, might eventually happen but there is nothing that can be done about it anyway.

In response to Jake’s blog, therefore, I for one promise both Jake and Emmy that I will carry their positivity in my heart for ever, and that I will try my best to not take those I love for granted.

God bless Emmy, you were a shining star in this world and I’ve no doubt you will be a shining star in the next one too.

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*If, like me, Emmy’s story has touched you, I would urge you to make a donation to the Royal Marsden hospital, for whom Emmy and Jake tirelessly fundraised. You can do it through their fundraising page: http://ejtandemonium.com

Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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Grey Skies, and Blue

Today in Brussels it is grey and rainy. I really can’t complain; since we got here last Saturday the weather has been nothing short of glorious. Both weekends were spent wandering around parks and suburbs in t-shirts with our faces raised to the sun like flowers. You’d never know it was November.

But today it seems the harsh winds and lashing rain have brought with them a kind of malaise. Or perhaps it’s a melancholy of my own making, made more prominent by the sudden onset of such inclement weather. In large part I’m caught up in sadness over the recent deaths of two people; one, a dear family friend who last week lost her battle against cancer, and the other this brave soul who yesterday chose to end her life at the age of 29 before the cancer that was invading her brain brought it to a close.

I didn’t know Brittany Maynard personally, but her story and the videos she made documenting her decision to end her life were so personal and inspiring it was impossible not to be moved. Or at least that’s how I felt. I know there are many who criticised her stance on the right to die movement, but I’d hazard a guess none of them have been in her position or been close to someone who has, or else they would most likely feel somewhat differently.

I have some personal experience of watching someone with brain cancer lose their fight, having seen a colleague pass away some years ago. And I can honestly say there are few things more traumatic than seeing a person’s personality and joie de vivre decline day by day, watching as they lose the ability to speak, to function, as their body wastes away and their face puffs up with all the drugs that are pumped into their system in a futile attempt to keep them alive. What is most distressing is seeing in their eyes that they know exactly what is happening to them, and understand how things will play out. Having witnessed this first hand I could never agree that someone in that situation should not have the right to die with dignity, should they so choose. I think the real tragedy is that more people don’t have this right.

Today I made the decision to go back to England next week to attend the funeral of a dear family friend, Fran. I have hugely fond memories of the many family holidays we took together in France and Italy when I was a child; me, my mum and stepdad, Fran, her husband Paul and son Matt, playing boules and listening to Dire Straits on repeat. I was distressed to learn of Fran’s cancer when it first reared its ugly head a year or so ago, even more so when it was discovered the cancer had returned, this time terminally. She passed away last week with her family beside her, and when I found out her funeral was next Wednesday I knew in my heart I had to attend. So I’ve booked my Eurostar and will accompany my parents. It feels right for us to be together as a family at such a sad time, and I’m so glad we will be able to show our support for Paul and Matt, with whom we share such happy and joyful history.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m feeling a bit homesick in light of the above. When people die it shakes your foundations, especially when those people are so close or, in the case of Brittany Maynard, so tragic and reminiscent of other sad losses.

But instead of being sad I know both Brittany and Fran would say come on, buck up, be happy; this life is short but full of love, and hope, and joy – so go out there and enjoy it, be good to people, make a difference. And don’t let a bit of rain and grey skies get in the way. There’s always blue sky on the other side, after all.

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RIP Stephen Sutton / A lesson for us all

Today is a sad day, because it is the day that Stephen Sutton – the inspirational 19 year old who raised more than £3 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust whilst battling the disease himself – finally lost his fight and passed away.

What Stephen achieved in the short time he had far exceeded what most people achieve in a lifetime. Instead of turning his back on life as his body marched inexorably towards its tragic and untimely demise, Stephen made sure he squeezed every last drop out of the time he had left. Not only that, he turned his plight on its head and used it to help others in the same position. How many 19 year olds have the maturity and drive to do something like that? In fact, how many people of any age do? He also ignored the ignorant trolls who came forward when he was released from hospital after showing signs of improvement and accused him of being a ‘fake’ and lying about the seriousness of his condition – refusing to rise to their vicious bait about giving people their money back (something I for one would certainly have handled far less graciously).

Stephen’s story has got me thinking about selflessness and self-awareness; two qualities Stephen had in abundance but which so many people lack. You only have to look around a busy London office or commuter train to see people complaining – about their lot in life, or about the behaviour of other people and how it’s negatively impacted on them. True, everyone needs to let off steam once in a while, but in such moments it would do us all good to take a leaf out of Stephen’s book, think about how our negative behaviour and attitudes impact upon others – instead of the other way around – and realise that we all have a choice: To stay bogged down in our daily problems without bothering to raise our heads above the selfish parapets we inhabit, or to stand up, be counted and make the changes we want to see in ourselves and those around us. Thanks to people like Stephen Sutton, I know which I plan to do.

RIP Stephen: Wherever you now are please know that your legacy will live on in the lives of all the many people you have helped and inspired xxxx

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Forever young

I’ve never been a fan of beauty features, especially those interminable ones that harp on endlessly about the latest ‘miracle’ cream which most of us would have to sell a kidney to stand even a chance of affording. These days even girls in their early twenties are slathering on anti-wrinkle serum every night in the hope they will forever retain their youthful complexions. Whatever happened to growing old gracefully?

Lord knows I’ve done enough damage to my skin over the years through sunbathing and smoking alone. Fortunately I’ve now firmly knocked the smoking on the head, but I’m still partial to the odd high factor cream-less lay about on the Common, despite the regular health warnings we’re now subjected to (have the people making the announcements actually looked out of the window lately? It would be a miracle if the sun’s rays were able to penetrate the thick canopy of cloud that’s hung over us for the past few months).

But whilst many of my peers won’t use anything but the best on their skin to try and redress the balance of years of excess, I’ve always balked at spending over £15 on any single beauty product (with the sole exception of Boots No.7 Protect and Perfect serum, which is scientifically PROVEN to work, don’t you know). My mum, who’s in her sixties, still looks fantastic for her age and claims never to have used anything but soap and water, Oil of Ulay (as it was ‘back in the day’ – sorry Mum!) and E45 on her skin. So I’m praying to the God of Genes to keep me in good nick without a monthly shipment of Crème de la Mer.

What I have begun to fall victim to now I’m advancing further into my thirties is the latest tranche of fad food supplements. Only last week a packet of Spirulina powder plopped onto my desk (soon to be followed by a packet of Wheatgrass powder). Promising to “combat various forms of malnutrition, boost the immune system, protect against cancer, support detoxification, increase overall energy level, fight infections, counter obesity and relieve stress,” this is one SERIOUS super food.

The downside (because of course there is always a downside with these things) is that it tastes AWFUL. This morning when I mixed up my first dose with some apple juice and banana it smelt so bad I could hardly bear to raise it to my lips and take a sip. But I persevered, because if it does even half of the things it claims to do I might very well live forever – which will likely cost a fortune in skin cream, even if it is the £15-a-pop kind…