A year earlier, in February 1992, I had been told my breast lump was malignant. I had breast cancer. I was 33 years old. Until then I had been a full-time mum. My three children were quite small: Jack was five years old, Nancy four and Eve just 14 months. My husband, John, was a farmer and there seemed, until this time, nothing remarkable about us.
Following diagnosis I was immediately given a mastectomy. I spent a week in hospital, and some time recovering at home. During this period Grandma moved in and took over. Grandma was very much a short-term solution to what was going to be a long-term problem. I was to receive radiotherapy, which meant making four trips a week to Poole, 25 miles away, over five weeks. At the same time I was undergoing a six-month course of chemotherapy. It has to be said we struggled. Extra help around the home came in every form. Nannies, au pairs, family and friends. Our main concern was to disrupt the children as little as possible.
By August 1992 the chemotherapy was over. I was rather pallid and two-and-a-half stones heavier, but I had made it. Now I felt able to piece family life back together. While John was harvesting, I took the children camping in Cornwall. Wind-blown and drenched, there was an overwhelming sense of normality; we were just like everybody else.
My mastectomy and I learnt to live together; my weight was beginning to drop and we decided to go to Africa as a treat. But while in Kenya I developed breathing problems. They did not spoil the holiday but there were underlying concerns for my health. Within 24 hours of arriving back in this country I was told I had secondary cancer of the lungs. The consultant told me how they would try to slow the cancers with a hormonal repressing treatment. But I realised that what he was really saying was that there was no cure. I was dying.
Nobody can say when I will die. We take each day as it comes. It seems something of a miracle that I have survived this long. Christmas shopping has been a bit of a surprise. Back in March I imagined it would be John's problem, yet here I am lugging about armfuls of gifts, with, it has to be said, more pleasure than I have experienced in years gone by. Tomorrow is a luxury; nowadays 'the future' is a period of time that doesn't include me. But it doesn't stop me planning ahead.
As parents, our priority was to organise our domestic regime. I insisted on a rigid routine that we could all depend on. We were not looking simply for employees, but for people with their feet firmly on the ground who would make a commitment to us as a family.
John rearranged his working day in order to join the children for breakfast and see them off to school. As a farmer, his usual working day began before 7am. Our next-door neighbour comes in on weekdays to help wash and dress the children, then looks after Eve, sorts the washing, makes beds and generally runs the house. In the afternoons Eve goes to a childminder who lives 100 yards down the road. At 4pm, Sarah, our mother's help, arrives to manage tea, homework and bathing. This period is known as 'Happy Hour' due to the (absolutely normal) tiredness and grumpiness of little people at that time.
Weekends we spend as a family. It's a struggle sometimes, but being just 'us' is worth the fatigue.
This routine has continued through numerous admissions to hospital for chest drains and operations. I have good days and bad days, but above all I have busy days. Each night I pray that I don't die tomorrow because I have too much to do.
The children know I'm dying. Jack asked me one Sunday lunchtime in a pub garden: 'If your breathing doesn't get better, will you die, Mummy?' I told him that I thought I probably would. He told Nancy and for some time we talked a lot about it. Jack was anxious about his Daddy dying as well, and he wanted to know who would look after him and his sisters if they were orphaned. I said I felt sure Grandma and Grandad would bring them up. 'Don't be stupid', said Jack, 'they're so old, they haven't got long to go]'
He was also worried that I had a disease he could catch and would in turn die of. When we explained that this was not the case he seemed reassured. Finally, Jack wanted to know if, once I had died, Daddy would have to marry Sarah. I said I thought that highly unlikely as Sarah already had a boyfriend.
Being honest with the children has not been easy; one instinctively wants to protect them by lying and saying that things will get better. But this would betray their trust. It seems as long as they can believe 'they' will be all right, they can cope better than us adults. These days we rarely talk in depth about my death or my being ill; it is important to maximise every day. What I do with them today is their memory of me tomorrow.
A video camera was an absolute must. We record anything and everything. There is an exhaustive tape of us eating supper together, which may seem boring, but to my youngest daughter will be a priceless document of our everyday life together. It is hard to grasp that she will grow up with only the vaguest memory of me. We have taken endless photographs of me and the children, and I look at them and see all that my children will see of me in years to come.
My greatest investment has been the books I have written, one for each of the children. They describe my feelings for each child, the things we have shared, important events and unimportant occasions that were significant to me. The books are part diary and part fiction; each one contains stories about a family of children with no mother and a wonderful father. Through them I have tried to show how a mother's love does not come to an end with death.
I have used the books to invest in the future, help the children through the difficult times and alleviate any false fear or guilt. I have told them all that if Daddy marries again I would be very happy, because it would stop Daddy feeling lonely and it wouldn't in any way mean that Daddy had stopped loving me. I hope I have also given them the freedom to love a stepmother without feeling they have betrayed me.
The instinct to mother and protect is so stong. One friend asked jokingly if perhaps I had filled the freezer to help my family through the early months of bereavement. The real joke is that I have. I have put my house in order, and will depart at my convenience.
Throughout her illness, Lesley Elliott has been raising money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Kingsway House, Seventh Floor, 103 Kingsway, London WC2B 6QX. Telephone: 071- 405 5111. It is a campaign, supported by all the cancer charities, to establish a breast cancer research centre in London where scientists and doctors can work together. The campaign has a target of pounds 15m and has so far raised pounds 6.5m.
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