Sindy Prankard tells a moving and very personal story of illness, motherhood and manipulation.
We are on our way to see Disney on Ice because my son’s girlfriend, for whom he bought the tickets, brutally dumped him just weeks before. It’s too late for a refund so, while I can’t mend Albie’s pride – which I suspect is more hurt than his heart – I can limit the damage to his wallet.
I’ve been an ice dancing fan since Torvill and Dean and, although Disney characters are not on my bucket list, I’m amused by the sight of mini Elsa and Anna lookalikes, and the occasional Snow White, surging towards Wembley.
Entering the arena, we purchase popcorn and cotton candy at exorbitant prices – justified by their Disney packaging – and then find our seats. We are surrounded by fidgeting preschool children.
Then my phone rings.
‘I’ve decided to stop treatment,’ my ex, Pete, tells me as casually if he’s cancelled his milk delivery.
‘What, now?’ I ask.
‘Not just yet, but soon.’
I realise that this a momentous decision for him, but his delivery of it is typically blasé. ‘I can’t really chat now,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll visit when I get home.’
‘Don’t know how long I have.’ This feels like a taunt, an attempt at emotional blackmail.
‘I’m in London.’
‘Then you know there’s nothing I can do right now.’
‘S’pose,’ he sulks. ‘Enjoy your day.’ He cuts off.
Suddenly the thought of an ice-dancing Elsa instructing me to ‘let it go’ is less appealing. And no, I definitely don’t want to build a bloody snowman.
The conversation Pete and I just had was part of a ritual, a special dance if you like, that had always been at the heart of our relationship. When we were together he had been incredibly controlling. By the time our relationship ended I was practically institutionalised. His need to be the centre of my world had reached crisis point following my mother’s death. Pete rang just as my sister, brother and I arrived at the funeral director with my mother’s cremation outfit.
‘I can’t talk now,’ I hissed.
‘I’m very worried,’ the voice was insistent.
‘I’m losing weight.’
‘And you need to tell me this now because?’
‘Because I’m losing loads of weight.’ He sounded annoyed now.
‘And when did this start?’ I dutifully asked.
‘So, the day after my mum died?’
‘What’s your point?’
What is my point? I ask myself. I’m drained and don’t have the energy to be making points. ‘How much weight have you lost?’ I venture.
‘Loads,’ he says, almost gleeful. ‘I’m losing several pounds every day.’
‘Do you feel ill?’
‘Err, no, but…’
‘Do your trousers feel loose?’ I interrupt. The funeral director is looking at me strangely.
‘Err, no, but…’
‘There are no buts,’ I tell him. ‘Put a new battery in your scales.’
The new battery sorted the problem. But now nothing as simple can help him. The man who always craved attention suddenly has a reason to be the centre of it. Pete’s cancer has struck suddenly and aggressively. It was hoped that the removal of both kidneys would rid him of this cruelly indiscriminate disease and then, once he’d been cancer free for three years, he would be eligible for a transplant. For the interim, thrice weekly dialysis would cleanse his blood of toxins and keep him alive.
For a little while the outlook was promising, but the treatment was almost as cruel as the disease and robbed Pete of so much. He grew frail. His weight plummeted despite the steroid-affected swollen, spongy quality of his skin. Unable to pass urine his body struggled to cope with the small amounts of fluid he was allowed.
‘I’m always thirsty,’ he would moan. ‘What I wouldn’t give for an ice cold pint.’
‘Would you give your life?’ I’d ask him.
What life indeed. The cancer had spread. That evil, tenacious, relentless disease would not give up its hold. He had been so full of life; enthused by so much, generous and loving, quick to laugh and just as swift to anger, but it was his ability to see the positive in everything that had first attracted me to him. Now his optimism was regularly tested. He got tired easily and the sparkle which had once drawn me to him was diminishing. But still he battled. And still he had my attention. I would drop everything if he felt well enough for me to visit. We even made it out to dinner – just once, but it sapped his strength so much he could barely close my car door. That was the moment I knew we didn’t have much time.
Our relationship had been as on/off as Ross and Rachel in Friends, and like that famous fictional couple I’d always suspected we’d find our way back to each other eventually. It was obvious now that would never happen.
Disney On Ice having been ruined by Pete’s intervention, I return home refusing to wallow in sadness for him because my other son, Mark, is getting married in a few weeks and he doesn’t have a cake. He jokingly suggests he’ll make it, but his friends scoff at the idea and so, in typical Mark style, he is determined to prove them wrong. With my help!
Panic sets in rapidly; my baking expertise hasn’t progressed beyond a Victoria sponge and Mark has never made a cake in his life. It takes up every spare moment. The week before the wedding most of the icing roses for the decoration are finished, but we still have the cake itself to bake and ice, as well as the usual pre-wedding preparations. It is manic.
Then my phone rings.
‘Can you come round?’ It’s Pete.
‘Err, kinda busy. Can it wait?’
‘I’m stopping dialysis.’
‘Oh, God. Can’t you hold on for another few weeks? Please.’
‘The time is right.’ And for him maybe it is, but for me it can’t come at a worse time. How am I going to be there for him and not let my son down? How am I going to cope with grief and happiness simultaneously?
Pete has chosen to end his life in the familiar comfort of his home. I expect him to be surrounded by machines and nursing staff, but the only indication that he is dying is the sight of his wasted figure, dwarfed by his king size bed. My visit is short because everyone wants to see him. Once dialysis stops the patient has about one week to live, maybe two but, as toxins saturate the body, organs begin to shut down and confusion is inevitable; a coma is almost guaranteed.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ I whisper.
‘I’ll miss you too. Well, actually I won’t because I’ll be dead, but you know what I mean.’ There is humour in his voice.
‘Why now?’ I ask.
‘Because I want to go now.’
‘Oh.’ I breathe deeply. I’m relieved when his daughter Marie comes in.
‘Okay, Dad?’ Marie asks. She has been taking care of him and is fiercely protective. ‘I’m popping to the shops. Is there anything you want?’
‘A packet of peanut M&Ms; make sure it’s a large one. After all it may be my last ever bag.’
She smiles warmly. ‘Oh, Dad, you can’t keep using that.’ And then she says to me with a chuckle, ‘He has used that so many times now it’s wearing thin.’ The cancer has not robbed Pete of his manipulative abilities.
‘Are you allowed to just stop treatment?’ I ask when we’re alone. I can’t believe that the authorities permit people to commit what is tantamount to suicide. I remember court cases where desperately ill people have campaigned for the right to refuse treatment and Pete is choosing to give himself just one week. I believe he should have the right to choose, but I don’t understand why this is deemed okay and yet others have to fight for the right.
‘Yes, I want to go now.’
Rather cynically I wonder if his decision is because my attention has been elsewhere; my focus shifted to a wedding cake. In typical Pete fashion he was ensuring my thoughts were of him.
‘I’m rather tired now,’ his voice is weak.
‘I love you,’ I kiss him gently.
‘You’re the love of my life.’ After these words I leave.
A few days before the wedding my son and I finish the cake. It looks pretty damn good and we feel a little smug.
And then my phone rings.
Photography by Paris Pilling.