Article by Mary McCarthy for the Irish Independent Weekend
How do I feel about dying? I suppose I will be scared at the time, but I'll probably be so sick I won't care... Eight years ago, Mary McCarthy began a novel about a woman dealing with incurable cancer. This March, she received her own diagnosis.
Eight years ago, I started my book 'After the Rain' about a woman with terminal cancer. This March, I was diagnosed with it myself.
Life imitating art or what?
Fluid on my right lung showed up suspicious cells. The medics had to do more investigations, but the Rapid Access Team in my local hospital indicated that cancer was on the cards.
I had already discussed this possibility with my GP, so I was mentally prepared. I can honestly say I wasn't surprised or even disturbed, but some weird sort of a mood of elation took over and I guess that was a symptom of shock.
K, a fellow patient and my new friend in the ward, insisted it couldn't be cancer because I looked so well. I felt in my gut that it was.
I had to stay in hospital for the draining of the lung, which took five days -- the doctors were amazed I had been able to walk around carrying all that liquid. When the fluid was removed, my breathing improved dramatically.
To everyone's surprise, I was in great spirits, as hospital is a cocoon with all the care and the routine. The nurses and aides are fabulous.
K and I were both in for two weeks and we had marvelous chats and laughs. The staff still talk about us. Like two bold schoolgirls, we kept going missing -- to the café, for walks down the corridor, to the garden in the lovely weather.
I had loads of visitors and was enjoying all the attention and the rest from chores. A young married couple, great friends of mine, had moved into my house to care for my dote of a dog.
A few days after being taken into hospital, the testing of the fluid was completed and I was passed on to the oncology team, as the fluid did indeed contain secondary cancer cells.
Fright, horror, dismay? No. Having worried about the results, when they came I was relieved. How could that be? Maybe the rest of my story will explain matters.
Fluid on the lung can be attributed to many things, but my case was more serious. The fluid, as I've explained, contained secondary cancer cells. "I'm bunched so," I said to the oncologist on the day he gave me the news.
He wondered how I knew. I told him about my brother, Niall. Another brother, Declan, had died from lung cancer two years before.
My parents had both lived to a very old age, so I had always been convinced that we, their children, would follow suit. It ain't necessarily so, as the man sang.
"How long have I got?" I asked him. This oncologist is gentleness personified but he could see that I wanted the truth. "Eighteen to 24 months. Or longer."
I appreciated his candour. "At least I won't get Alzheimer's," I concluded cheerfully. I think he thought I was a nutcase and he was bemused by my calm reaction.
He explained I would go through certain emotional stages. I said I knew that as I'd written all about it.
I told him about my novel and he was astounded. His whole team were. Like me, he reckons that I had gone through the stages with Emer, and had therefore saved myself enduring the same trauma.
The therapeutic effects of writing are certainly proved in my case.
They then set about finding my primary cancer -- loads of tests, scans, ultrasounds, etc. I was radioactive after the bone scan.
They reckoned it was breast, bone or ovary. Nothing was found -- no tumor anywhere. My own healthy immune system had cured the primary -- bloody ironic and typical of me, I told myself.
Apparently this happens to one in 20 people.
I had quit smoking 13 years previously, had just got my gold card from WeightWatchers and had given up the booze for Lent. So much for being healthy.
I had cured the primary and there was no cure for the secondary. They reckon it must have been ovarian cancer, known as the silent killer as it's often symptomless.
The immediate problem after the initial diagnosis was how to tell everyone else. My son was the one I worried about most. He lives in Rome. He knew I was in hospital for tests, but that was all.
The first person I told was P, my best friend. She was horrified, to put it mildly. So were my other pals.
My brother Des was totally shocked. Some of my friends were positive there would be a cure. I accepted that there wouldn't be because my brother, Niall, had secondaries too. He died within five months of diagnosis.
He had lived his life to the full and was my inspiration. He was 55 when he died in 2001, but he had experienced and enjoyed more in those years than most people do in 90. A great role model.
Talking about everything is my way of coping, and talk I did. What would happen to my lovely son? What about Benni, my beautiful Belgian collie? How long would I have to get my affairs in order?
I started to plan my funeral, but that was a step too far for my friends to discuss. Some of them couldn't cope with my dark sense of humour either, but they're learning.
Two more weeks of my hospital stay involved scans, X-rays, blood tests, etc. My friends and family continued to visit in droves and K and I got to know each other very well. We became great mates.
After two weeks in hospital, I was coming home. My son, Dara, arrived from Rome to pick me up. P, my long-suffering best friend and greatest confidante, came with him as a moral support.
I was traumatised, on his behalf. How could I possibly tell him the full truth? He genuinely thought that if I had cured the primary myself, I'd live for years. Besides, I looked fine. He wouldn't believe the prognosis.
One of the team took him into a room and explained it all. She was kind but factual. He had to accept that my lifespan was limited.
He was grief-stricken and I was heartbroken for him. A tough weekend at home ensued. He wanted to stay, give up his job in Rome to mind me, but the doctors insisted there was no need.
I was healthy [apart from those damned cells] and I had loads of support. He didn't need to disrupt his life. I was grateful for that.
He has visited since on a monthly basis and we keep in touch by phone and Facebook.
For the past five months, I've been undergoing chemotherapy -- not for the fainthearted. I'm having the treatment or else the lung will fill up again. The chemo will hopefully also contain the cells for as long as possible.
I have bad days and good days, and I rest every afternoon as I'm like a deflated tyre between 3pm and 6pm.
Some days, I'm so sick I don't care if I wake up at all in the morning; other times I'm at parties, singing and imbibing, or out for luscious lunches, enjoying my life to the full.
At the moment, there are more good days than bad, but I know that could change.
My friends are remarkable. I cannot put into words the support I am getting from them and my family, and not just moral support but practical: staying over at night to make me feel secure; bringing me meals and food; taking me out or cooking for me when I don't feel up to it; walking my dog -- one pal does this on a nightly basis.
The dog adores her and I am so grateful. Friendship is the greatest gift of all.
Dara is coming back to live with me in October as he had always planned to do. I'm looking forward to that, but I hope life won't be too difficult for him.
I'll do my best to be in good form, but that becomes hard when illness takes over. I told him my only regret was not having a grandchild, to which he responded: "I didn't know there was a rush on."
Neither did I.
I don't look sick yet. I still have my hair, although it is thinning slightly and there are no guarantees I'll keep it, but so far so good.
Sounds stupidly vain, I realise. If there was a cure for me I wouldn't mind, but I don't fancy losing my hair as well as my life.
There are many different types of chemo and I suppose mine is less severe as they're not blasting a tumor. I've avoided surgery and radiation too. See? Every cloud, etc.
They have to monitor and finetune the treatment as we go along. The team in the Bons are brilliant -- kind, efficient, great listeners. They treat the person first, then the symptoms. This is so refreshing.
The oncology ward is bright, small and cheerful, and all the staff are wonderful. The other patients are inspirational.
I'm not dying at the moment, but I will die from this. How do I feel about dying? I suppose I'll be scared at the time, but I'll probably be so sick by then I won't care. I'll insist on as much morphine as possible -- I'm such a wimp the dentist has to sedate me.
I don't believe in an afterlife, though I'm keeping my options open, just in case. I'm hoping for oblivion, but if there is another world I'd love to meet my idol, George Harrison. He could accompany me on his sitar 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'.
My worries are any mother's worries. Will my son be okay? Will he be able to live in our lovely home when I'm gone? The gas bill is astronomical.
My dog Bennie will miss me like hell because he is my shadow. I've given him a taste of immortality, as an essay I wrote about him is coming out in September in an American magazine called 'The Bark'.
Anyhow, dear reader, I've finally learned to live in the present -- take every day as it comes. I go out with friends when I'm well and I rest when I'm not.
People have learned to accept my situation because I totally accept it myself. What else can I do? I want no pity, sympathy or platitudes. Some naturally pray for a cure but I am a realist -- always was and always will be.
My mum had Alzheimer's for 17 years and it was the most heartbreaking episode of my life. I came home to live with her for six of those years and did my best to help her and care for her, but it became too much for me.
She wandered at night. She had no sense of time or place and she only remembered the distant past. She became totally confused.
I was out of my depth. A robust funny, generous woman little by little turned into a stranger and yet she was still my mother.
Finally, I agreed to put her into a nursing home. The day my brother, Des, and I took her out of the house was the saddest day of my life.
Added to the sadness was a profound sense of guilt. I felt I had failed her. I felt like a landlord of old evicting a tenant from her home.
She lived for another 11 years in the home in Ratoath and visiting her there was really tough, despite appreciating the great care she got.
During those years, I wished for her death, for her release from this hellish existence. When she did die in 2001, seven months after Niall's passing [of which she knew nothing] I was grateful, and had to again contend with the feelings of guilt.
I wouldn't wish this sorrow on anyone. I'm glad my son will avoid that heartache. Old age is not always easy and I've escaped it.
Another reason for my acceptance of my own mortality may be due to the fact that I have lived in Glasnevin all my life.
From my bedroom window I have a view of my school, the Botanic Gardens, the mountains, the city and, to the left, I can glimpse through the trees to the tombstones of the famous graveyard.
Death is part of life -- I'm being realistic here, people, not morbid.
Also, for those of you who studied 'Soundings' poetry book in school, you will be aware of all the poems dealing with the transience of life, the immortality of art and the stark fact of death.
These themes are a bit heavy for teenagers but I, who taught the book from 1973 until its demise in 2000, was well used to discussing death, in all its forms.
So, perhaps my background and environment have helped to shape my attitudes.
No, I am not a mad woman or even a slightly depressed one. It's just that I've always known that we are all in the same queue, although I think I may have skipped to the top of it earlier than I had anticipated. "The readiness is all," as Hamlet said.
I have had a nice life. I loved my teaching job [English and French] for 34 years in my Alma Mater, the Holy Faith Convent, Glasnevin. I took early retirement five years ago.
I truly loved writing my books. I have seen the places I wanted to see and enjoyed my holidays all over Europe. I liked New York, mainly because of the Broadway shows. I'm a sucker for musicals. The production of 'Chicago' was brilliant.
My favourite country to visit is France. I love it: Brittany, La Rochelle, Paris, Nice and the south, with all its gorgeous towns and villages. I particularly adore St Paul de Vence.
I set a lot of my first book, 'Remember Me', in Grasse. Speaking the language also makes visits there more enjoyable as it enables me to converse with the natives.
I have extraordinary people around me. I have lovely nieces and nephews and many of these have their own fantastic kids. The McCarthy clan is thriving. I love chats and could talk for Ireland.
I've managed to retain my sense of humour. There really is a funny side to everything. I can still enjoy my walks in the park on good days.
Now, to my delight, I have my fifth book published. Life could be a lot worse. Or, as Emer in the novel says, things always seem better "after the rain".
The book is not depressing. It's not just about death. It's about love, family, redemption. And there is humour, of course. Mostly, I intended it to be uplifting.
Note to self: don't sweat the small stuff -- now I get it!
- Mary McCarthy