When I was 21 my biological dad, brother, aunt, uncle and cousin stopped speaking to me after I asked my step-dad to give me away when I got married. My step-dad was paying for the wedding and none of my paternal family had been to see me since I was 7 years old and my Mum had moved us to another county, plus they’d never met my fiance, so I feel I made the right choice. I’ve not seen or heard from any of them since apart from my brother who, 24 years later, decided he’d made a mistake and wanted to make up. I said no, particularly as I’d written to them when I was told I might die and they wrote back and told me to “pull myself together, there are people in the world worse off than you”. They thought ME was “all in my head” even though they’d never met anyone with it or seen how desperately ill I was.
When I was 22 one of my closest friends was killed. She’d been given a bike for her 21st birthday and was hit head on by a car while out riding it. She was so badly mangled not a single organ could be used for transplant.
When I was 24, my then best friend was diagnosed with a brain tumour while taking her final exams to be a Midwife. She survived, but was left permanently disabled and blind in one eye.
At around the same time, an old school friend died in his sleep from a brain aneurysm. He left behind a young wife and a 2 year old daughter.
At 26, another good friend passed from liver disease.
In my late twenties, I nearly died from severe M.E.
In the last 10 years, I’ve lost my one remaining Grandparent, an uncle, 5 aunts and my Mum has lost her 2 best friends – all but one died of cancer.
Two years ago, a wonderful friend of over 30 years died from Colitis, which should never have been allowed to happen and still makes me furious when I think about it. In the same year, another dear school friend committed suicide after a long battle with depression.
My Mum now has a terminal disease. She could live another 5 years or she could have a heart attack, or catch a chest infection, and die next month.
I’ve had no option but to deal with the loss of people I care about.
The biggest lesson learned has been to appreciate the people in my life. I’m British, northern and working class – we don’t do gushy and I tell my step-dad I love him on high days and holidays – but I show him I love him every day. The first thing I do after I get up each morning is ring him and my Mum just to check they’re OK, even though I’m going to be seeing them 4 hours later. And when I leave the house, they both wave me off at the window. Every time. Even if I’m just going to the shop and will be back an hour later 😉 .
My friends know how much they mean to me. I have 2 wonderful neighbours, both in their seventies, who are like second parents to me. Again, not being comfortable with overt displays of affection, I always put “love you both” in their Christmas card, even though I’d never tell them this to their faces 😉 . They had a car accident a few days ago and the first person they rang when they got home wasn’t their own daughter (who fell out with her Mum last year over something absolutely ridiculous), it was me, and I rushed round to hug them with relief that they were both unhurt.
I never want to be one of those people who loses a loved one and has things they wished they’d said or done. Life is precarious – my “goodbye” today could be my forever goodbye, tomorrow is never guaranteed.
The realization at a young age that death comes to us all, and not just when we’re old and expecting it, has been a powerful driving force. Most days, I try to act like I’m not sick. I try to ignore my symptoms and get on with living. I often say to myself “if this was your last day on earth what would you do?” and it helps me stop being quite so scared of the future, and to put up with my symptoms and cherish the moment (I’m starting with a migraine, and am seeing dancing coloured spots as I type this and my head is starting to pound, plus I’ve got palpitations and pins and needles because I’ve just eaten breakfast, but I’m ignoring it all and typing anyway).
On the flip side, I think some of my friends would describe me as pretty ruthless. If someone takes me for granted, is deliberately hurtful, or is just generally difficult to be around I just get rid. I don’t dwell on it afterwards or feel hurt or upset – they’re not worth my time or energy. As many of you know, my best friend of over 20 years recently fell out with me and I haven’t missed her for any second of any day. Honestly. The fact she could chuck 22 years of friendship away so easily shows she didn’t value me and why would I want a relationship with someone who doesn’t value me? Life is way too short and precious to waste it on people who aren’t worth the effort. I don’t know why so many people cling on to relationships which are toxic, unsupportive or just generally crap. Walking away is so easy (spouses and joint mortgages aside) – say goodbye and jog on, even if they’re family. Sharing a gene pool means absolutely nothing to me and certainly gives no-one the right to treat me like shit. My step-dad isn’t biologically related to me but he’s been more of a Dad than my genetically related Father ever has and some of my friends feel more like siblings than any of my three brothers.
Love is many things but most of all it’s a verb – it’s a ‘doing’ word. Saying “I love you” isn’t enough, you have to show it. And it may be a cliché, but love doesn’t hurt – it’s supportive, reassuring, kind, compassionate, respectful, companionable and fun. It’s all pretty simple really and I don’t know why we make relationships so complicated.