For Margot

Here goes.

As I keep on having a good time, relishing my return (at least for now, though today has been relentlessly steely grey and sodden, as befits an English August bank holiday Monday and may signal the start of dank reality for me), and H, our 20 year old just arrived back from her African travels, and yesterday we revelled at our very good friend, Dr M’s 50th birthday, so M makes plans for the end of her life. It therefore seems wrong to be celebrating and enjoying and happy, but I do and I am.

It is, however, a tribute to M and her openness, strength of spirit, love of life and sheer determination that I’m able to write this knowing that she herself might read it, and others who know her well almost certainly will. I appear to have resorted to clichés, for which I’m sorry but cannot improve upon, because M has been an inspiration, another cliché, but truly true. I haven’t known her the longest or deepest, I mean to stake no claim. Indeed, I have never known her without cancer. Yet her illness has not defined her (though her approach to it partly has). We met shortly after I moved to Houston two years ago. She started off as my son F’s gorgeous girlfriend’s mum and ended up as my friend. And though she’s needed help and support, it’s definitely not been all one way – she’s taken me out, provided advice and company to me, given Dutch language and cultural education (!) plus many times a temporary home to F, and decent meals for both my boys while I’ve been “out of town” (that would be holidaying, according to Mr N). And, lest anyone should forget, alongside the other two Ms, she has been an integral member of the mighty 3M tennis team, always good to partner rather than face, and ever patient with my lesser skills and foul mouth. It has to go on record that I have never once beaten her. (I acknowledge that that could just indicate that I am crap, but I assure you M is not.)

Now, she is leaving Houston to return home, which is the Netherlands, in painful circumstances. She has stopped treatment and wants to be with her family. Her goodbyes this week will be final.

When she and I said goodbye eight weeks ago, I hoped and believed we’d see each other again, but that may not happen. This, then, could be my farewell. And here’s the nub of what I was trying to articulate when I said it’s a tribute to her that I can write this: it’s shit that this is happening; shit for her, for H, for their three kids and the whole family. Even in the worst of circumstances, M says it how it is; she lets you know how she feels, what she needs, and the things for which she hopes. So when she’s combative (not just on the tennis court) and positive, you know it’s not false, she really is fighting and forceful. You know where you are with M. And her honesty has made me brave.

I don’t want this to be a eulogy, too late. I want M to know (maybe someone will tell her for me if she’s not able to read this first hand) that I think about her so often. I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling like this – dumbstruck and inadequate and helpless but still bloody caring – and of course M herself is not alone in facing terrible illness. And that’s sort of my point – though badly made so far, it’s so hard to be clear – here we all, mostly, are, going to parties, drinking, seeing new places, making new friends, meeting old friends, moaning about or enjoying the weather, wearing no slap, chucking ice cold water over each other, pretending to engage with the deep but really only engaging with the trivial and posting about it all too, me as profoundly guilty as anyone, yet all the while we know people who are sad, suffering, ill, in pain, and dying and – despite our trifles and mundanities – wish so very much they weren’t. It feels at best insensitive and at worst a betrayal to carry on as normal, but carry on as normal we [we: those of us moved by the empathetic constriction of sadness and anticipated hollowness of loss but who nevertheless will not be fundamentally, organically floored, which is no-one’s fault] do. I don’t want M, or anyone close to her, to think I don’t really give a toss because according to my Facebook status I’m annoyed about the Scottish independence debate and I’m cold today, that’s all.

This all sounds a bit self indulgent, and I know that if M were to be scanning Fb she’d be generous spirited enough to be slightly amused or diverted. Because life, in its corny old usually boring way, rolls on, and that’s the horrible, stark reality for those who have to contemplate its end before they should have to, but also, eventually, the comfort for those who have to carry on. That’s the tragedy. If only it wasn’t so, for M, and for others like her. Simply then, before it’s too late, I want M – Margot – to know I really like her, she has brought Dutch courage into my life, and she has made a difference.

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