I had lived with a long-term partner, had my first credit card bill demand and even knew how to poach an egg successfully. Well, most of the time. But I know now that I was never truly an adult until the day I leaned over my mum’s head at the kitchen sink and shaved it with a disposable Bic razor.
It was November 2014, halfway through, when I got a call from her, 250 miles away, less giddy and herself than I have ever heard her. She explained that she had found a lump that summer and had been to the doctor about it. Unconvinced by the first diagnosis - “it’s nothing” - she pushed with a different GP, and was referred. Screening told her it was stage three breast cancer.
This all came out like word vomit to me. Despite our closeness - emotionally, not geographically - she had kept the doctor’s appointments, the concern and the medical parlance to herself - until now. My sister knew and so did my dad - but I was hearing these details for the first time. Chemotherapy was mentioned following a biopsy in future weeks, and then perhaps radiotherapy.
We had lost my mother-in-law two years before to cancer, and the whole tale of treatments to come felt so familiar, like a physical jolt. But I knew what she needed, and I needed her to know that I was her strength. “I’ll come and take care of Dad when you’re in hospital next week,” I promised her. “Don’t worry about a thing, they’ve caught it on time,” never feeling as brave as I sounded.
When I went to look after Dad and help support Mum, they were like out-of-sync clock parts - her spinning at a high frequency as she got ready for a hospital stay while he plunged inside himself, spending his time pottering in the freezing cold shed. The moment that made me realise how strong my mother is came on a Saturday morning.
Her worry had been waking her at 3 or 4am every day, causing her to spend hours online, reading or just staring into space while her yellow Labrador sat faithfully at her knee. At 7am on the particular day I walked into the kitchen - and found her standing at the sink. A pair of hairdressing scissors sat on the draining board beside a can of shaving foam. “You’re just in time to help with this,” she smiled as you turned to me, a razor in her hand. “You’re the brave one.” Wordlessly, I took the razor and began to shave the rest. Her one big fear had been to lose her short, grey-coloured do - so she refused to wait for chemo to take it.
As she took the power back from the chemotherapy she would soon face, she became stronger because of it. I’ll never forget the determination she showed when she was truly frightened about what lay beyond, and I hope I do her some justice by being my bravest self throughout my own life.