23 Jan 2017


Content Warning: Death. Medical details. Cancer. Woe.

Your guts live inside a sort of bag in your abdomen. This bag is called the omentum, and the idea is to keep everything snug and safe, and together. If anything should rupture within your abdomen, through cancer, or infection, or ulceration, this bag has to be opened up, emptied and cleaned if you are to have any chance of survival. When Mum's bowel burst, that's what they did to save her. As you can imagine, sometimes you miss a bit, and this also happened to Mum. This tiny missed bit grew into an abscess right on her liver. The cancer had so convoluted Mum's insides that attempting to operate again would have been enormously complicated and probably hastened her end, thus being a massive waste of money and quality of life. So, instead, they decided to stick a drain in it.
They stuck it in one lunchtime. You cannot imagine the smell, the miasma it created. Just the tiniest drop of pus would stink out a whole sheet. It really upset Mum. She was a very clean person, obsessed with food hygiene and the fact that molecules that could be smelled could be inhaled. The intention was to remove the tube, but this was impossible because first the infection kept filling back up, and second it was in a tumour. So, the tube stayed in and she had a 600ml capacity bag strapped to her leg. When it first went on, it fit perfectly. By the time she died, it flapped around and didn't fit to her leg at all. It was a very visual reminder of how much weight she had lost and how quickly.
She was terribly distressed about the smell, and the next morning, I was wracking my brains about what I could do for her to make her feel less violated. I found some travel Molton Brown bath gels and I took them into hospital, and bought some flannels. She couldn't have a bath or a shower with the drain in, so she chose the one she liked best and I put it on a flannel for her to smell instead of the drain. She liked White Sandalwood the best.
I had a travel sized pot of the white sandalwood moisturiser at home, so I took it round once she was home, and I spent a long time putting it on her. I'm not sure whether it was because she was chronically dehydrated, or the liver failure, or the immobility, but her skin cracked really badly and she hated it. The moisturiser helped a little bit. I ended up buying her a massive canister of the stuff as a reward for being so brave. As an early Christmas present. As an attempt to make her smile.

And so I spent the rest of her life gently stroking her with moisturiser, trying to restore some life to her dying skin, trying to keep in contact with her because I was afraid. I recall me, Jess and Sooz ALL moisturising her at once on occasion. She loved to be touched. She had trained as a massage and aromatherapist when I was young, and she had such an art when she gave you a massage. Jess has the same gift, but I do not. But I tried. And I'm not usually very physical, but I wanted to do something.
But as time went on, her skin became unbearably fragile and painful. I hurt her by accident so many times, because I got the pressure wrong. She would snap sometimes; she wanted us with her but she wanted to be alone. She sat in the garden, covered in fleeces, reading magazines, chainsmoking, and we would sit by her and try to read too, but not really taking in the words. I would try to stroke away the sloughing of her skin, the chafing of her frustration - only very occasionally expressed - and try to make her feel normal again.
After a while, she lost the feeling in her skin. We could touch her properly again, although I don't know if she could feel it. Dad could move her more easily. Whenever I was with her, when she couldn't have a conversation, which was most of the time, I reflexively reached for the moisturiser. I brushed her hair. I did the same things I do for my babies when they are poorly. I tried to show her how much I love her.

And now I will never ever be able to smell white sandalwood moisturiser again without smelling the bag of toxicity hanging from my mother's leg. Without smelling the hint of cigarette smoke that surrounded her right up to 48hrs before she died. Without feeling the cracked skin under my hands, desperately trying to rehydrate her by willpower alone. Without recalling the desperate urge to somehow stave off her death.

Which is a shame, because it was my favourite too.

13 Jan 2017

Me? Doing a Masters?

I think it's a fair shout to say I haven't had the best start to doing my MA.

I signed up on July 27th. On July 29th, my mum became critically ill. I debated whether to defer for a year. I debated whether to do it at all. The more I read about the course, the more I wanted to do it.

I've been interested in social history for ever. I've spent the last year working on family trees for me and my friends, and become intrigued by family structure particularly in rural areas. I've got a talent for creating narratives from primary evidence, for constructing strong arguments, for finding links that aren't immediate obvious and for holding vast stores of intricate genealogy in my head. Local history extends this into the landscape - who lived where? Why did they live there? What did they do? What did they earn? How were they linked? How does this compare to other areas? It's a natural step up from family research and it appeals to my soul.
Then there's my mum. Mum loved social history. She was fascinated by the rise of leisure time in the Victorian era, and the link to the railway network and how resorts were created to supply demand. Having experienced the stigma of being a single mother in the sticks, illegitimacy interested her. Coming from a big family, and having one herself, she read about other big families. She encouraged me. We would talk about history more than almost anything, monologuing at each other on the phone for hours. When I did the preliminary tests for getting on the MA, one of the questions was on the rise of Blackpool. Mum was a bubbling torrent of information on it when I told her. I am devastated that she's not here to talk to about it all anymore. She didn't want me to do the MA when I first discussed it with her, way back in June. She thought I should go directly into writing (my eventual aim) so she could read it. But I didn't feel qualified to write about it without a single history qualification to my name.

So, I decided to do it anyway. My start date was 1st October, by which point my mum was nearing her end. I worked hard but sparingly. It is terribly difficult to focus when the person you need most is dying. You think about little else. You worry. You want to be with them. You don't particularly want to be reading about tiny Highland communities in 1780. Or doing anything really. It's hard. But I did it.
Then she died. She died and I had a deadline. I postponed the deadline, but I still knew it was coming. Everything I had studied before fell to fog. And since she died, every time I read something she would have loved to know about, I feel a stab. It's not fair.

So I wrote my essay. I struggled a bit, just to get my thoughts in order (complicated by having a general anaesthetic a few days before) and then to write it, to use a whole new system of referencing, and to write about something I've not really done before. There is a lot of crossover between modern history and sociology, but they require different styles, and the essay was theoretical. I got it in. I got 63%, which is far more than I hoped for. It was not easy to write, but I found my style and voice much faster than I ever have before.

Now I'm looking to my next essay, getting to grips with the vast amount of potential literature on offer, and having to decide for myself what is and isn't relevant. Before I began this, some mansplaining dick told me that there was 'lots of reading' involved in an MA. I was pissed off because...well duh, but it's the quality of reading that counts. History perhaps generates the most written material of any subject, and some of it is diabolical quality, and some of it is absolutely essential, and some of it is absolutely essentially and like wading through treacle. And you have to decide what's good. I am currently sitting with no less than six relevant books, another two on the laptop to work through, countless potential journal articles that might be useful. I might only use one paragraph from each book, but I need to find it. Your undergrad is SPOON-FED to you in comparison to this.
And I daresay for those who go on to do a PhD, a masters is equally spoon-fed.

I love writing history. I love writing, full stop, but history is a particular pleasure. Telling the story of people who lived long ago, who never hoped to be historically relevant, who did nothing to immortalise themselves. That's a privilege. Finding their stories, hidden in the records, and understanding their context. That's my favourite thing. Reading ancient newspapers is much better for the soul than reading facebook. I don't know if I can actually making a living doing this - probably not, the world is awash with historians and you have to be pretty fucking ace to get published - but even if I can't, I will try. I will try for my mum. I will try for myself.