"I brought you a jam doughnut," he said. Her eyes lit up and the smile of a child broke across her lovely face. We were in the University College London Hospital, UCLH, visiting my boyfriend's mother. I suppose I could call her my mother-in-law—her son Jim and I have been together for ages—but that's a term that's always sounded to me like you're immediately at odds with someone. I've never been at odds with her. She's one of the most beautiful souls I've ever known. Now we were losing her.
Two years ago, at the age of 84, Margery was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. Despite going a few rounds with a mixture of chemo cocktails, she was able to fill her dance card with the large social life she enjoyed. Up until a month ago, she was still driving. The last dose, which came in the form of a pill, knocked her flat. As she was struggling to get back up on her feet, she was diagnosed with sepsis, an infection with a 50 percent mortality rate. It landed her in a local hospital for a week. Despite things looking bleak, she stabilized enough and the doctors sent her home two days before Christmas. That didn't work out so good; a few days into the new year, she checked into the cancer ward of UCLH in central London and that's where I visited her.
She had a large room with a view over the city and no roommate, but the upside stopped there. She was fragile and could barely move without assistance. Her curly, ash-blond hair was gone—in its place was a baby pink flannel cap, much like the type a newborn wears. She drank water from a toddler's candy-apple-red sippy cup and wore a pink hospital gown with rosettes on it. All of these things could have been for an infant. She was dying. There was no way around it and the cruel irony of life struck me hard.
I'd flown in from New York to be with her, help out in any way, and enjoy her company, despite her illness. Jim had flown home for Christmas and was booked to return New Year's Eve, but when things got worse there was no way he was leaving her. If home is where the heart is, for him it would clearly remain in England. This also meant that he'd be taking an indefinite leave without pay from a job he'd only scored a few months ago. Neither of us have any debt, but we are far from well off. It's a terrible thing to be faced with putting a value on the time you can afford to spend with someone you love and who is dying. He'd been by my side in a grim room at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York, when my father died a few years back, seeing me through the worst of it. Margery was enough reason for me to hop a plane across the Atlantic and lose a week of pay, but being by Jim's side to endure the part of life that really sucks was another sound one.
Because of her illness, Margery's appetite was limited, bordering on non-existent. Before her diagnosis, her diet wasn't the best. A small woman, in her younger days she reminded me of the actress Myrna Loy. She's also a sugar lover and cancer loves a sugar lover—it feeds the beast. But who cared now; she was wasting away and we were going to give her whatever she wanted.
As Jim removed the jam doughnut from a small paper bag, Margery's hands came together, the tips of her fingers tapping against each other. Her anticipation resembled a child awaiting a favorite sweet that sits in a glass jar out of reach. The setting sun cast a brilliant pinky-orange glow throughout the room and on her face. At that moment, nothing mattered. It was all about the jam doughnut. A sweet meditation for her and a pleasure for us to watch her slowly enjoy it. She may have been the one staring blankly into space, but it was clearly a moment of Zen for us.
Each time we arrived for our visit, as we made our way out of the hospital elevator, we heeded the signs posted every few feet to sanitize our hands. Nearing the ward she'd been assigned to, the scent of alcohol mingled with the odor of urine. Passing by the beds of other patients, I heard the hushed voices of their visitors. Once in Margery's room, Jim greeted her with the pronouncement "We brought you a jam doughnut!" She'd smile, and when he leaned in to cover her with kisses and cuddles, she beamed even more and whispered, "That's so lovely." Her only son and youngest, he could do no wrong and witnessing their intimacy was a gift. But the third day in, her enthusiasm for her favored sweet dipped. "Don't want it," she said sadly, looking at us with a knowing expression. Jesus, I thought, what a cruel fucking world.
In my younger years, someone had once told me, look at the relationship a man has with his mother and you'll know whether he's worth anything. By all accounts, I'd struck the mother lode. Each night, when we returned to her home, he didn't need to tell me how frightened he was, I could see it in his worried eyes, hear it in his own stressed out shallow breathing. Her absence under that roof during my stay was a preview of the excruciating loss he will have to bear. Everyone once in a while, we'd talk finances, but any time we veered in that direction, we agreed that we could absorb the loss. We'll figure it out, I'd say to him because the value of Jim spending time with his mum at the end of her life outweighed any fears we had about money.
By the third day, she slept more frequently. Her breathing became shallower. Early January blessed London with some sunny days, but when it was rainy, her room filled with darkness and a gloom settled over my heart. When we visited the next day and woke her, she asked Jim with a frightened look, "What have you done?" She'd had a nightmare that he'd committed a crime. It had made the headlines, he'd been thrown in prison, and she'd been moved to a wretched house at the far end of a long beach road. "I just kept telling them: I want to go home, I want to go home," she said. It took us almost an hour for us to convince her that it was all a dream. Eventually, we had a laugh over it, but she couldn't shake the bad feeling. Not even a jam doughnut could fix it.
Later that day, we accompanied Margery into radiology, holding her hand as a radiologist oncologist inserted a needle into her abdomen to drain the fluid that had built up. I saw the mass inside her on the ultrasound and for a moment separated myself emotionally. In that instant, I found it fascinating how a rogue cell wakes up, takes over, multiplies itself with the worst intent and brings a body to its knees. Then the radiologist removed a long rod he'd inserted and, as he placed it across her torso, said, "Watch out, this thing might spring back." It did, grazing me along my ring finger.
As she was being wheeled along the corridor, we passed a woman who looked like her face had met the back of a van. Her eyes were swollen shut, black and bloody, and I quickly looked away. Being in Margery's hospital room was one thing. It confined me to her, to her needs and comfort, and to a great sadness mingled with love. In some way, it became a cocoon. I didn't want to witness anyone else's misery.
Margery was sleeping more now and would shout things out, sounding delirious. One time, as she lay with her eyes closed, she said, "Don't forget to tip the priest." When Jim asked her what she was talking about, her eyes flew open and she exclaimed "I'm still here!" Yes, he said, you're still here, we're still here. Another time, after waking, she looked over at me and said in her classic British accent, "What are those two doing making love on my windowsill?" It was my purse, which she'd envisioned as something naughty but she'd given us a giggle. She had us laughing even harder when she took a few jabs at then President-elect Trump but then asked me earnestly why Americans voted for him. I had no answer.
There's no real way to say goodbye to someone who is dying. Most people spend their entire lives avoiding the topic. The person who's dying doesn't want to get into it. It's not like the movies. You don't get a perfect scene, with soft music, a meaningful conversation and a perfect ending. The best you can do is to show your love and be supportive. I looked forward to cleaning her face with a warm washcloth. To applying her favorite moisturizer for her, and adding a little bit more around her nose and the sides of her mouth to keep the dryness away. I especially like laughing with her.
When I first walked into the hospital room, I hadn't seen Margery in over a year. Sure, I was shocked at the sight of her, but once that subsided I noticed how radiant she looked. Her skin was dewy and her cheeks flushed with pink. In her lucid moments, she still had her sweet and wicked sense of humor and we had a lot of laughs. But then again, we'd always had lots of laughs together. It was one of the great things about being in her company. Sure, she was in her eighties but she wasn't an old biddy. I loved listening to her stories about her younger years. This woman had survived the Blitz. She was the one who had turned us on to the Netflix series "Peaky Blinders," about a murderous Irish gang set in 1920s Birmingham, England. Jim had watched it with her when he'd visited the Christmas before she'd been diagnosed. He still talks about how chuffed he was to see his mum bob her head along to the show's opening theme song, "Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
Eventually, I had to leave. It was probably a good thing she was sleeping when that time came because I was an absolute emotional mess. My friends and I are all at the age of caring for parents who are nearing the end of the road. It's a number's game at this point, and walking out of that hospital room brought that realization closer. As the elevator descended, it stopped at a lower floor and in came the woman with the bad face. A tough-looking guy with wrap-around black sunglasses pushed her in a wheelchair and there were three young kids in tow. "That's a rough-looking family," I said to Jim as we left the hospital. "England's not all 'Downton Abbey' and 'The Royals,' you know," he replied in his own thick accent.
Two days after I returned home, my phone pinged as I was eating breakfast. It was a text from Jim with the cover photo from the Metro, the free paper he grabs every morning before taking the train to visit his mum. The pic was of Donald Trump; the headline read "What a Shower." His text read: I told Mum that Donald Trump likes golden showers. She said, why not if you can afford it! Yogurt and granola flew out of my mouth, as I choked with laughter. Cleaning myself up, I couldn't stop smiling. Yes, she would die from cancer but she was still killing it with her sweet and wicked humor.