This, of course, was a clear invitation to both dogs to jump on top of me, or so they seemed to think. With one of them pinning my lower legs and the other taking up most of my left thigh, I was feeling quite warm and comfortable, and that cookie smell was glorious.
The curtains were closed and the lights were dim. The Christmas tree was decked in colorful lights that slowly changed from color to white and then back again. Listening to the two aquariums burbling away in the background, I was thinking how peaceful everything was. All four children were home, but the house was calm, the gifts had been wrapped and were sitting prettily beneath the tree, and life was good. I managed to lean over and snag my laptop without disturbing the dogs and balanced it on my right thigh. Sipping my cup of tea, I logged in to Facebook. It seemed to be mostly filled with posts about Christmas preparations, a nice change from political rants. There were pictures of pets under Christmas trees and children baking cookies. I wondered briefly if I should take a picture of Emma doing just that, but I decided that she would likely veto that idea. I noticed a new message from my cousin, Ellie. It started with the usual pleasantries: How are you? Hope you are all set up for Christmas. What followed, however, was not quite the cheery season’s greeting that I expected.
Her message said that she had had a very rocky couple of weeks. Her husband had been in the hospital with a lung infection. He recovered and was sent home, but the day after he was discharged, she had been diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer, which necessitated an immediate start of aggressive chemotherapy. I felt a sudden chill as I continued to read. She had apparently had some concerns a year earlier, but after an examination, she had been told it was likely nothing to worry about. She had been lulled into a false sense of security. She apologized for dumping this on me just before Christmas but thought her female cousins should know because there could be a hereditary link. She finished on a lighter note, continuing with "All is not lost, I have survived my first chemotherapy session, and it turns out that red wine is, in fact, compatible with chemotherapy. I will get through this, but things are just a bit crap right now." I could totally imagine her saying that, and even hear it in her southern English accent. As children, we had teased each other about our accents, mine being more northern. For some reason in my head, she sounded ever so British, and the thought made me laugh, but the message was not one I wanted to hear. Somehow, pretty, twinkly Christmas lights and smells of baking cookies now seemed out of place.
I felt shocked and a little numb. I thought of the history of cancer in our family. It had taken our grandfather and three of his children, including Ellie’s mother. My own mother had suffered from, but survived, breast cancer, and only one uncle was so far unscathed by the disease. As cousins, we were all aware of it, but it had not manifested in our generation. Somehow, we thought we were all immune—or at least had been. My cup of tea went cold, and I must have had a morose expression on my face because my husband, Ian, coming in from outside, covered in snow, asked me what was wrong. I told him about the message. He had barely met Ellie but could tell that I was upset about the news. He reminded me that my mother had survived and tried to reassure me that she would likely be fine, too.
I thought about Ellie a lot over the next several days and kept an eye on her posts on Facebook. She apparently had a good Christmas, and there was a video of her with her husband and son having fun with a new bass ukulele on Christmas day. They looked happy, and the shadow of the recent diagnosis was not apparent.
Until relatively recently, I had not been in contact with Ellie for many years. As teenagers we had drifted apart and had only seen each other occasionally at family gatherings. We have a big family, so even then we didn’t really connect, and I hadn’t had any contact with her at all since moving to America fourteen years previously. A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I had received an email from her, letting me, along with a long list of other people, know that she had a new email address due to changing jobs. I didn’t have her previous one anyway, and I’m not sure where she had gotten mine. Perhaps, she got it from her brother, Adrian, with whom I had been more frequently in contact. After learning of her new email address, I decided to get in touch with her, and we ended up reminiscing about our childhood. After all those years of no contact, it seemed like yesterday that we had shared those vacations, and it felt good to be back in touch again. Either she friended me on Facebook or the other way around, but, whichever the case, through her occasional posts, she came back into my life.
As children, the three of us "older" cousins had been very close and spent many summers together with our grandmother. Granny lived near the sea, and she would let us take bikes and go off together for adventures. We would stay out all day and ride up and down the promenade getting sunburnt and eating sandy sandwiches on the beach. One snowy winter, Adrian and Ellie both stayed at my house. We had enough snow to build an igloo, which was rare in England. We worked on that together for hours and hours and only came in when it got dark. Our hands were red and cold through the soggy gloves, and our noses were dripping. After warming up a bit and finding dry gloves, we took candles out there and slightly melted the inside walls with the flames to make them smooth and hard. Sitting on cushions huddled up together, it was surprisingly warm inside. The flickering candles cast ominous shadows, and letting our imaginations run riot, we made up increasingly wild, scary stories until we were called in by my mother. My cousins and I probably only saw each other once a year, but being an only child, I relished those times and have fond memories of them now.
Not too long after we had re-established contact, I learnt from a Facebook post that Ellie was going to be playing her violin on a local chat radio station in Watford, England. She included a web link that would be streaming the episode live online at 5:30 p.m. on whichever day it was. I happened to glance at the clock on that day, just a few minutes before 12:30 p.m. here in America, and I remembered that she would be playing. “Five hours time difference,” I thought, “right on time.” I quickly found the link and listened to her talking, playing, and singing as part of a duet with her friend. I sent her a message saying I can hear you loud and clear here in America! She got the message as soon as she was off air and was thrilled! It was the first time I had heard her voice in what seemed like forever, and she sounded just like I remembered.
About a year later, I was planning on visiting my mother for her 70th birthday and posted that I would be in England if anyone wanted to meet up. I was expecting to hear from school friends in the area, but the first person I heard from was Ellie. She lives at the other end of the country from my mother, a good three to four hour drive away, so this was quite a surprise, but a good one. I ended up thinking it would be nice to see other relatives too because, living in the United States, I rarely got to see any of them. I ran this by her, and she thought it was a great idea and enthusiastically threw herself into helping me organize it.
The idea snowballed, so to speak, and, in the end, Mum’s surprise birthday meal ended up being a gathering of twenty-six of her relatives. Ellie, her husband Rick, and son Sam traveled up the evening before and stayed at The Pack Horse, the local, traditional, stone built country pub where I had booked the meal. I had borrowed an international cellphone from my husband and given Ellie the number, so she had let me know when they had arrived. I had to surreptitiously use the phone, but I learned that she had made sure that the birthday cake I had ordered had been delivered, and we arranged that I would send her a message as soon as my mother and I got back from church the following morning. I had told Mum the week previously, that I would be taking her out for a meal on her birthday. I also let her know that I had been in contact with Ellie on Facebook and that she would very much like to join us. Mum was happy with that idea and said she had always liked Ellie, and we agreed that Ellie and her family should join us at her house before the meal. She had no idea that Ellie was coming up the evening before though, or that so many other family members were also converging from around the country.
The next day, after church, Mum wanted to introduce me to all her friends. I wanted to be polite and knew it was important to her, but I had other plans. Under the watchful eye of the statue of Jesus in the church hall, I had to remind myself to be patient. Trying to relax, I sat on the hard chairs with a stewed cup of tea and a couple of semi-stale cookies and made small talk with the little old ladies, some of whom remembered me as a child and delighted in telling me so. The visiting daughter from America was apparently a novelty, and Mum could have stayed for hours, but after a while, I reminded her that Ellie would be arriving at some point, and we should probably go home. I managed to fire off a message to Ellie, and, ten minutes after we arrived home, her van appeared at the bottom of the hill. Mum commented on the perfect timing, but I don’t think it registered that it wasn’t a coincidence.
I hadn’t met Rick or Sam before, other than seeing Rick across the other side of a large, crowded room over twenty years ago. When I first saw sixteen-year-old Sam walking up the hill towards the house, I was sure he was my cousin, Adrian: the same build, the same walk, the same dark hair in a similar disheveled cut. I realized, as he got closer, that he was too young to be Adrian, though the resemblance between uncle and nephew was uncanny. It was a very blustery day, and they got to the door looking somewhat windswept and were glad to get inside. The requisite pot of tea was made, and set out nicely on a tray, along with the sugar bowl and milk jug. A new tin of fancy cookies was opened, and we all crowded in to the small living room. The fire was going in the hearth and occasionally a gust of wind would make its way down the chimney and cause the flames to dance. Ellie remarked that the room looked smaller than she remembered, but, of course, we were all a lot bigger than the last time she had been there. Rick and Sam sat on the couch, but Ellie ended up perching on a stool that is normally reserved for giving my mother’s spoiled cat treats. As they talked about what they had been up to, it was obvious that the three of them were exceptionally close; the connection between them was palpable. They all played various musical instruments in a band together, chatted about music freely, and seemed to finish each other’s sentences. Often, families have a variety of separate hobbies, but they all shared an infectious joy of music.
For Mum’s birthday, Ellie had dug out some old photos of a vacation when we were staying with our grandparents in Anglesey, and my Mum had joined us for a few days. She had framed a few of them together and, though they were faded in color and more than a little blurry, they brought back many memories. My favorite picture was one showing Adrian, Ellie and me with sand and big, happy grins on our faces. Ellie and I had matching hair braids and gaps in our teeth, although, being six months older than me, her new teeth were partly grown in. Rick listened with apparent interest as my Mum, Ellie and I reminisced about the donkey rides on the beach and the episode with the rubber dinghy. We remembered Grandad climbing up to the top of a tall lighthouse. He plodded up at what seemed like a snail’s pace to us, but he didn’t stop, and he ended up getting there before us because we had winded ourselves half way up. Sam was trying to get wifi on his phone, and, other than absent-mindedly helping himself to cookies from time to time, he was in his own world and oblivious to us. I know I’ll forever remember this cozy atmosphere—a happy snapshot in time just over a year ago.
This year, watching from afar online, I was just happy that their Christmas appeared to have been fun, despite Ellie’s diagnosis. Apart from wondering how she was doing, I thought of how Rick and Sam must be coping. People in the supporting role can often feel helpless as they watch loved ones suffer. A couple of weeks after Christmas, I messaged Ellie to see how she was getting on, but didn’t hear back. Having seen many images online and on the television about chemotherapy, I knew that it was a brutal treatment and can leave people feeling totally drained and sick to the core. I decided to check in with her again towards the end of the month, just to let her know I was thinking of her. I certainly didn’t want to pester her because she had quite enough to deal with.
On a Saturday morning, only about a week later, I logged on to Facebook on my laptop. Sitting in my favorite chair, with one dog at my feet, but the other elsewhere for a change, I propped it up on my knees. The first thing that caught my eye was some recipe that looked tasty and then some comment about someone’s anniversary, along with a nice photo of the smiling couple. I scrolled down a bit and saw a comment that read I am so sorry to hear about Richard, he was a great man. RIP. I muttered to myself, “Who’s Richard?” but almost simultaneously noticed the attached photo, and my eyes were drawn to a familiar looking man. My brain seemed to be in slow motion because it was having a hard time figuring out why he looked familiar. On the other side of the picture was Ellie, who was also tagged in the photo. Ellie? I looked closer, and realized the familiar looking man was Rick, Ellie’s husband. RIP Richard? Richard was Rick. I stared at the screen for what seemed like an eternity, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. I scrolled through the comments and other posts too and then started at the top again, but it still didn’t want to sink in. Time seemed to slow down, and I was actually aware of the clock ticking on the wall. Rick was supposed to be okay; it was Ellie who had cancer. Rick needed to be there to support her, to help her get through it. How could this happen? My fingers hovered over the ‘reply’ button, but I didn’t know what to write. Sorry for your loss just didn’t seem to cut it. I took my laptop up to the office where Ian was working on something at his desk. “Look!” I said, holding it up to him. “I don’t know how to respond.”
For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, I knew I needed to say something to Ellie but couldn’t figure out what. I thought of her still going through chemo and wanted to weep for her. Multiple times I sat down with my laptop, and multiple times I put it down again without having written anything. In the end, figuring that she may not be on Facebook at such a time, I chose email rather than a Facebook message and I wrote:
I saw a number of posts on Facebook today saying RIP Rick. I am so sorry. What happened?
You are really living a nightmare at the moment. Not sure really what I can say, but I’m thinking of you, and Sam too.
I hope you have plenty of support around you and manage to just take each day at a time.
Thanks so much for coming to Mum’s 70th, and I’m glad I got to meet Rick then, as I hadn’t really done so before.
Take care, as best you can.
These words really seemed inadequate, but they were all I could come up with in a reasonable space of time. Thoughts of her cancer diagnosis came back, and I wondered what the news had been as to whether it had spread and what her prognosis was, but it wasn’t the time to ask. I wasn’t expecting to hear back from her, but within half an hour, I got a reply. England is five hours ahead, so she must have been up late.
Apparently, Rick seemed to have bounced back from the lung infection, but then, suddenly, it got the better of him and with little warning, he was gone. In her words, she had lost her best friend and soulmate and didn’t know how she was going to carry on. I remembered how I felt when hearing of my father’s passing, the sense of loss and of being lost, and for a short while, a sense of disbelief and total incomprehension. I had the support, though, of my family, and it was her support that was gone--ripped away from her. I felt her devastation and knew the bottom had fallen out of her world. She thanked me for my kind words and for getting in touch and said that once she had pulled herself together, she would be back in touch again. At least she knew that I cared.
Through all these events, it has become apparent that family relationships forged as a child, even after years of neglect, can quickly be rekindled. If I had been there in person, I would have simply given her a hug to express my sorrow, but as it was, I couldn’t do that. Even so, from across an ocean and a continent away, I could, in some small way, share in her grief. Family forever, I am here for you Ellie.