A thought from Rachel Smith

17th December 2016

Some reflection on the fifth anniversary of the first day of the rest of my life

It was five years ago today when an ashen-faced doctor told me that scan had detected a mass in my mum's brain. I had flown into my hometown that morning, hungover after a work Christmas party, with the intention of taking her to the hospital. She had been acting odd for a couple of weeks, forgetting to show up for Skype calls, struggling to find words when she spoke. As my mum sat beside me, a vacant expression on her face, I explained her symptoms to the doctor. He first suggested that she may be depressed. “I don’t think so”, I said, “something seems really wrong”. He finally agreed to a CAT scan just to make sure. We waited for hours for him to come back, while I tried to keep face and engage in light conversation with mum. When he appeared in the doorway, I knew from the look on his face what he was going to say. It was a tumour.

I drove mum home from the hospital, my mind racing over how I was going to take care of her. The next day, one of mum’s friends would call her house, and as I explained the situation over the phone, I broke down crying. I just couldn’t keep calm anymore. As I cried, my incredible mum, who had always been my anchor of emotional support as the sole parent since I was 12, watched me, without an ounce of recognition of my pain on her face. She just looked mildly puzzled at my reaction. What I would later learn is that the tumour had already affected the part of her brain that allowed her to empathise, she wasn’t capable of caring for me anymore. Mum would pass away two traumatic months after that day, but that was the moment I remember realising that the parent I loved was gone. I was on my own; safety net ripped out from me. It was terrifying.

When mum was diagnosed I was 25, but still in many ways, a child. I’d spent a long time stuffing around at university, partying too much. I’d finally got myself a full-time job as a web developer the summer mum got sick but was still used to her rescuing from the jams I’d get myself in to - totalling my car, mismanaging my money. I’d been having a swell time ‘cruising' through my 20s until this day five years ago changed everything, and I was thrown head-first into maturity.

First, there were the immediate lessons to learn. When it comes to public health care in Australia, the noisiest people get the best service. Ask to get what you want, don't take no for an answer. People, in general, are terrible at dealing with grief, and will often be extremely selfish about it. Let people help you when you need it, don’t let people try to force “help” on you when it will do you harm. The guilt around not being a good enough daughter or good enough sister will ruin you if you let it. Getting your Will drawn up is really important, and should not wait. A competent lawyer and accountant are invaluable assets. Good, healthy people die young. There is no making sense of cancer, it just happens.

I also learnt some lessons about myself. I can hold it together in a crisis, where many others would fall apart, but my stoic independence can and will cost me my mental health in the long term.

After the funeral, the effects of my mother’s surprise illness and passing continued to ripple out into my life. At Andy’s suggestion, we relocated to London. Some people would call moving countries a brave move but if I'm honest it was more of an act of running away, putting distance between myself and the place my mum had lived. Travelling, and visiting new countries was a good distraction for my grief. In hindsight, it was probably the best thing we could have done. The distance from home gave me space and time to heal. Also, I was working with laser-focus on my career. Mum’s death made me reassess the trajectory of my life, and I decided I wasn’t making the most of it. People would ask me, "how do you stay motivated?". "Because I was recently reminded of my mortality, I could die of cancer tomorrow” would be an unsatisfying response but it would be the truth, for the first few years.

Some of my old habits (that I had incidentally, inherited from dear mum) like leaving things until the last minute meant I wasn’t the best manager of my mum’s estate. Bills didn’t get paid on time, and paperwork went a miss. I am incredibly grateful to my parents-in-law in helping me get by with this. Despite my shortcomings, my sister and I were able to sell our family home and scrape together mum’s estate (not easy, when there is no Will), while living abroad. The thought of me managing something like this when I was 24 is unimaginable. After five years, I’ve finally got a handle on this money and tax management thing; I pay my bills before they are due :)

I’m 30, and I feel like I've made up for the time I'd wasted before I was 25. I somehow, with Andy’s unfaltering support, have built a life and career beyond anything I could have imagined for myself back then. Looking back, I know, I am the person I am now as a direct result of losing her. I would give up every ounce of success I’ve achieved just to have her back, but I know that’s not how life works. I miss her. God, I miss her, especially at this time of year, but I no longer mourn that sense of security and childhood like I used to. I like the person I’ve grown in to, and although brain cancer is horrific for everyone it effects and I would like nothing more than to eradicate it, I have to be grateful for the positive ways my trauma affected me.

Me, Mum, Laura
Me and my two best friends, Mum and my sister, Laura. I've since dropped the thumb sucking habit.

I’ll sign this off with a request, many of my friends and acquaintances have young or teen children. Please, please, get your Will finalised with your lawyer. Life insurance would also be ideal. My mum was the best person I knew, one of her few faults is a habit of putting things off until after the last minute. As such, she hadn’t had a Will organised and to be honest, none of us would think she needed to as she was young, fit and healthy, and looked after herself. Please, get your Will sorted. It takes a minimal amount of time and money compared to the costs and stress it would save your partner or children should the unimaginable happen.

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