To return to my blog, I thought I’d say something first of my absence.
What a tough year it’s been (understatement). In April last year my second son Walt was born, and days later we found out my mother-in-law had leukaemia. She spent most of the year in and out of hospital for chemo treatments, with the seriousness of her condition fluctuating from doctor to doctor. By November she was in remission, yet by March of 2019 the cancer was back, prognosis 2-3 years. As we all struggled to come to terms with this, attempting to make the most of the time remaining, she had further results. At the start of April she was given weeks if not days, and a week before Walt’s first birthday, she passed away.
It’s something commonly said, but my mother-in-law, Fran, was a truly incredible person. She was born in Durban in South Africa, to a black mother and white father (who had to renounce his white status in order to marry). Depending on which parent she was with she would be treated as either black or white, and both she and her many many siblings have stories to share about this that are both heart warming and heart breaking.
Now I say many many siblings, because I’m never completely sure how many there are. Just when you wrap your head around those you would class as blood relatives, you learn there are more and more adopted. It was her family’s way to take in any who needed a home or a mother, something that Fran continued through her life. My brother and I lost our own mother very young and have no family in the area. In all but paper work, we were adopted by Fran. You could expect this treatment for me, I married her son and gave birth to her two grandchildren, but how common is it for the daughter-in-law’s brother to be so accepted too? When a home was needed he and even his girlfriend were given a room in Fran’s house, no questions asked. When he was saving for a house, she helped. One of the recurring compliments made during Fran’s funeral was how much of a mother she was to everyone, feeding (excessively), clothing, and housing all the waifs and strays she came across.
After escaping a South African convent (yes, this actually happened), she undertook the boat ride alone to come to the UK to work as a nurse, soon joined by her sisters. There are too many stories of their time in London together for me to write, or to be believed. They involved birds and motorcycles and penis shaped puddings. There are always so many new stories to hear, I’m just sorry I can no longer hear them from her.
She worked as a district nurse when I met her, and had both the best and worse bedside manner I’ve come across. If you were sick she’d be on hand straight away to baby you and make soup (luckily she gave me the recipe for her amazing leek and potato!). After having surgery following my second son’s birth, she gave me all my injections, with words of what a poor baba I was, as if she’d not just been diagnosed with cancer. Yet she also once told a patient she couldn’t find a vein to take blood because this patient was far too fat. Yikes.
Fran was the queen of back handed compliments. She’d ask if I had a new conditioner because my hair didn’t look nearly as frizzy. Different make up as I looked much better than usual (I don’t even wear makeup…). But never nastily done. She also loved innuendos, a love we share. Like the time her husband Jeff emptied his sack. She meant bin bag, but… well, she knew what she meant. And her favourite medical treatment was to have a poo. Tummy problems? Have a poo. Sore throat? Have a poo. Likely the cure for a heart attack is having a poo too!
After a false start at retiring, Fran finally gave up work when her first grandson was born, taking care of Dara three days a week so I could go back to work. She didn’t want to be known a Gran or Grandma or Nannie; she thought that all sounded too old. During one debate on what to call her (she just wanted Fran), she said she’d happily be referred to as Arsehole, which we decided not to teach our then one-year-old son to say. In the end we settled on Franma, which he still calls her. I’d always chuckled at the idea of a twenty-year-old man talking about his Franma. Perhaps that will still happen. I hope.
Dara still talks about Franma all the time. Not only did she child mind for him those three days, but she was here every day. As I look out of my study window, I can see what was Fran’s front room. This is how close we lived, hers is the house opposite. Most mornings we’d hear the front door open (there was never a knock, I’ve been interrupted on the loo countless times!) and Dara would shout, “It’s Franma!” He’d run from the table and give her a hug. Even while she was ill, even in the last few days, she’d look for excuses to take him to her house and bake or play or draw on her sofa. (I say excuses as I was concerned she’d tire herself looking after him). Looking back now I’m glad I always let her get her way, the time spent with both Dara and Walter was precious. I hope Dara remembers it well, though I know Walt will be too young.
If you ask Dara where Franma is now, he always gives the same answer, which will make those unready for it cry. “She’s on her island in my heart.” (The island part comes from Benji Davies Grandpa’s Island, a children’s book we began to read to Dar in the hopes he’d begin to understand what death meant.)
A week before we found out about Fran’s final diagnosis, we went to Centre Parcs. She and Dara shared a bedroom. She was too ill to get about much, but even time spent in the cabin was great. Her daughter Gabby visited for a day. She’d even brought a swimming costume, but in the end they stayed cuddled on the sofa all day.
Gabby was due to get married in November of this year, and it was a date Fran was desperate to reach. After the chemo we were able to go wedding dress shopping. In part it was a celebration that Fran was in remission too, but we weren’t to know what was months away.
I mention this because as soon as Fran’s diagnosis was changed to days, the wedding was brought forwards. We thought this would be a trip to the local Guildhall, we could never have expected what followed. As marriage licenses are location specific, they could only marry in the venue book for November, Kilworth House. In two days–TWO DAYS!–a wedding was planned.
Gabby contacted Courtyard Bridal where she’d ordered her dress, in the hopes she could have her veil (the dress was long off arriving). And they insisted she have one of their wedding dresses, loaned for the day, at no charge. They even paid for it to be cleaned afterwards. The wedding was tiny, only Gabby, Fran and the two of her sisters that live in the UK, my husband Alex and I, Gabby’s fiancee Ed (obviously), his parents and two brothers. Yet rather than any uninvited guests get offended, they all helped make the day memorable. Bridesmaids organised hair and makeup, a cake, and a flower display at the venue. I made the bouquet, and without conferring we all managed to get the flowers to be a perfect match. Bottles of champagne were brought out constantly, with more and more absent guests calling the hotel to purchase them. Ed’s parents footed the bill for a meal, and his father doubled as photographer. These are the lengths people went to to ensure Fran could make her daughter’s wedding, and that the wedding be truly amazing.
Fran passed away eight days later.
To any who have read this blog, this was my cathartic way of trying to sort how I feel about all of this. Every day is different, and has different challenges. I’ve lost one of my best friend, my children have lost their grandmother, and my husband has lost his mother. I guess we’re muddling through.
Now I need to go and find myself a tissue.