Three Added Months by Yvonne Dalziel


Russell nods and points me to one of the two chairs set out for the main protagonists.  He takes the chair in the corner of the consulting room; a back seat to the event that will change his life. The consultant looks with a ‘who are you?’ glance as I sit beside Julie.  He is polite, indifferent; I’m not considered important here.

             ‘Mr Sharman,’ he says and offers me his hand.

             ‘I’m Julie’s mother-in-law.’  I didn’t know then how often I would say that in the next three years, or how occasionally with home care supervisors or occupational therapists, I’d get confused and say, ’it’s about my Mother-in-law, no sorryI’mthe Mother-in-law.’ 

                ‘You’re an intelligent woman, Julie.  I’m going to be straight with you,’ Mr Sharman looks past me, ‘with you both.’ I sense my son lean in to hear, I half rise, make a gesture for him to sit where I am, but he shakes his head.  He wants his truth at a distance; an attitude he’ll maintain with stoic pride as he attempts for too long to deny what is happening to him.  I am aware of his movement behind me, as I listen and take notes.  He is tying and untying his shoelaces, brushing imaginary marks off his trousers. I veer from irritation to sadness at his hesitant engagement.  It is likely one of the worst days of his life.

           That evening, with a whisky in hand, the space between him and the world will collapse, he’ll cry, keep asking, ‘What will I do?  How will I manage on my own?’  I can’t make it better for him, can’t kiss away his pain and distress like I could when he was a child; that magic power  lasts only as long as the child believes in it.

            The emergency scan shows that Julie has a brain tumour.  It’s how she lost her ability to count in a classroom of eight year olds, and can no longer text.  The pictures of that scan dominate the back wall behind Mr Sharman’s desk like huge, illuminated, halved walnuts, each with a white patch to the side that suggest a wiggly thing with a tail has settled in, will be hard to evict.

             ‘You have children?’ Mr Sharman asks, and flips the pages of the medical records.

                Julie nods.  ’Yes, aged three and six.’

               ‘I’ll do what I can for you.  I promise.’  His voice indicates that he is moved by her plight although this is what he does every day, operates on brains, like a car mechanic, opening up the bonnet, finding the problem, sorting it.  He says, ‘I’ll clear as much of the tumour as I can, perhaps up to 90%. It is situated near the surface.’ I find myself thinking, that’s lucky, it’s accessible, but there is no luck in any of this.  ‘The tumour is so close to the speech centre I’m afraid thereisa risk you’ll lose your speech, might even be paralysed.  But,’ he adds, ‘removing it could add three months to your life.’

                I hear three months ‘added life,’ understand the significance of what that means and the motor inside revs up, ready for action.  But there is nothing for me to do.  Julie is calm, asks questions about the side effects of the operation and the treatment, whether she’ll lose her hair, as if she is talking about someone else. I stop myself from asking about the tail and whether the tumour has already spread.  I’m just the note taker.

               ‘It’s your choice, but without the operation your life expectancy is limited,’ he says.

              ‘How long?’ Julie asks.  He smiles, won’t answer that one, not until he has the biopsy results.

               ‘Go and chat about it.  I’ll see you tomorrow.’

              Then we are walking to the hospital cafe, wondering it if will be open, Julie saying, ‘I fancy something with a large amount of chocolate.  Can’t do any harm, now, can it?  In fact I might start smoking.  What does it matter?’  It is one of the rare times in the early stages of her illness that I hear her anger. She will be depressed at the shortening of her life, at the loss of seeing her children grow up, and as her dependency grows she will, at times, target her rage at me, and my son. Mostly Julie is pragmatic; subsumes her feelings into action.

              It’s late afternoon, the cafe is deserted.  Our voices resonate and drift around metal tables, hard chairs, empty spaces.  I wonder how such discussions can happen in a place like this.  But there is no best place for the taking in and digestion of this kind of news. Russell hovers with a tray of hot drinks, and a large chocolate brownie. He looks like a schoolboy sent to the headmaster, not sure what he has done wrong.  He is my first born.  I know he wants to run off, to be elsewhere, to not be here, to not talk about this.

            Julie bites into the chocolate brownie. ‘Russell, I need to have the operation. It’s my best chance.’

               He looks into his cup.  ‘This coffee is bogging,’ he says.  Julie looks at me, shakes her head.  The bell has rung: Round One, the start of watching them deal with this change in their lives. They will spar, she trying small punches to get a reaction, he shuffling backwards, leaning on the ropes, avoiding the blows by never being close enough.  He will come to it in his own time, the realisation that this defence, held like a warrior’s shield against unknowable depths of fear and pain, doesn’t make it go away.  In the years ahead I will suggest, cajole, and then weep in desperation at his refusal to acknowledge he needs help.

                 In the cafe Julie’s voice has that quality she uses with me to insist that cheese cannot enter the fridge until it is double wrapped, or sheets need to be stored by size in the linen cupboard, with matching pillowcases.  This time it is different.  I take heed.

               ‘We need you to be a central part of our family, now.’

                I remember, ‘three added months’ and the significance of what Mr Sharman has said undoes my pretence at being detached, contained, a mere note taker.  I cry, promise to do anything she wants, anytime, but ask, ‘Can I still go to my mindfulness courses?’ Julie laughs. 

                ‘I’m not locking you up, but we will need you so much.’  Russell stands up, goes to buy himself a Coke.  We look at each other,  our eyes unable to hide the truth of what will happen.  I nod.  This is the moment I’m pulled in, into the chaotic sanctum of another family’s intimate life.  It’s a place of no escape and like a climber caught on a precarious edge, unable at times to manoeuvre the next safe toehold, I’m trapped by the mutuality of love and need and obligation.      

             She is given large doses of steroids to decrease the inflammation around her brain, and discharged home to await surgery.  Cupboards are ransacked, pots and dishes thrown out.  Filing cabinets are emptied as she looks for insurance policies, her will, important bank details.  Her father and brother come from Glasgow and shake their heads at the whirlwind of activity, tell her to rest, conserve her energy.  It is pointless.

              Being awake during surgery terrifies her, but some weeks later she will entertain the surgical team with her wit and courage as her brain is drilled.  She gathers a host of followers rooting for her, comes home with a gallery of images on her phone: the exposed brain, the scan of the tumour, the long bald area, a wound with serrated edges, blood sticking to black stitches. The three year old loves to look at it, the six year old with his father’s sensibilities refuses.  We won’t know until the biopsy results what kind of tumour it is, but Mr Sharman suspects a Glioblastoma, the rarest and most deadly. It might already be at stage 4: invasive, settled.

            And it is.  It shrugs off all attempts at eviction, its comfort disturbed by treatment from time to time, but it doesn’t shift.  It is here to stay.


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