In recent months the mortality of my parents has been brought home to me in ways I would prefer not to endure again. It’s time to start showing some appreciation.
The realisation that my parents were actually getting old came slowly to me. I guess it began about a decade ago, when Dad had the first suspicious skin growth taken off—I think it was from the back of one of his hands. He’s always worked outdoors, most of his life in fact, and because the whole skin cancer message, particularly the melanoma one, didn’t really start to bight until the mid-80’s, he’d had some pretty bad burns in his time. It wasn’t a great surprise then, that after a lifetime of exposure to the sun, some skin cancers had started to form on his hands. I remember observing them on occasion, and wondering if these small, scabby, sometimes open sores were itchy or uncomfortable in any way. It never really occurred to me though, that they might be a precursor to something a little more deadly.
I remember Dad’s father having similar marks and blemishes on his hands, though I really didn’t know him too well, he died in the early 1980’s from cancer. This, combined with a number of my grandparent’s generation slowly shuffling off, eventually began to dawn on me as a deadline—sorry, limitation of life span—and that one day it would be my parent’s turn, and beyond that, my own. Within the space of a few years, mum turned fifty (we threw her a ripper of a surprise party) and passed the age her mother had been when she developed ovarian cancer; my brother turned twenty-one (which invoked some more neuroses for me); and then mum’s father died, and suddenly I had no more grandparents. That was when I realised we were all being pushed slowly to that precipice.
Since then, my parents retired, Dad continued to have pieces lopped off by blade and ice. Neck, ears and hands, all copped a slice and dice. However, with the exception of a few “mild“ skin cancers or conditions, none of those ever came back as being members of the “M” club. It was concerning that these growths were being taken off with increasing regularity, however the notion that either my parents might one day not be here was still a totally foreign one, or at most, something I might think about for a moment before pushing it to the back of my mind for the next six months.
When I went home for Christmas last year, my Mum showed me a mole on her back that had been identified as suspect and been given an appointment with a knife. As soon as I saw it I couldn’t help but murmur that “yes, it doesn’t look right. I’d be getting that off as soon as possible”. It emerged that my remark was what most people who saw it had said, and this consistent chorus was doing little to calm my mother’s nerves. Fortunately, it was enough to ensure she kept following up with the hospital about when she could go in for surgery.
After having that and a number of other moles removed, she had to wait for a week or so for the results to come back from pathology. The cuts had been relatively small and had done little to hinder her mobility. The word that came back wasn’t good. All of the moles but one were in the clear. The one from her back was a stage two melanoma—they said the chances of successful treatment were still good, but also let it be known that anything beyond stage two can potentially be a death sentence.
There’s something about that word’melanoma—that weighs heavily in one’s ears, particularly within the context of a loved one. Coupled to that, was a request from the pathologist that more of the area surrounding the mole be removed, and the inevitable conclusion that it was quite possible they found evidence of the melanoma’s long tentacles at the edge of the removed tissue, and that perhaps it had spread further than they first thought. I immediately found myself remembering images I’ve seen in the media of people with deep gorges cut into their bodies, or limbs and other body parts amputated, to remove the contaminated tissue. I began to think of the statistics surrounding the fatality rate for melanoma victims, and that even if they caught this one, there were no guarantees another wouldn’t develop, and go unnoticed at a later date.
The second cut took much more, and this time, left Mum partly immobilised for a time. At least this time around, the pathologist had only positive words of encouragement. A sigh of relief for all. It did get me thinking though, of a range of things. I thought of the episode of Enough Rope where Denton interviewed Rolf Harris, who broke down when speaking of his parents and how he never told them what they meant to him.
I thought of how, in the next decade I’ll probably say goodbye to one of my parents for good, possibly both of them. In that context, I found myself coming to terms with the fact I have so little time left with these two amazing people, and that there’s so much left for me to learn about them, and maybe they about me. For so long now, I’ve felt a security in knowing that if in need, I can call on them for help—be it financial, emotional, or any other—escaping the rat-race to visit them for a few days or weeks has always been both welcomed and welcoming. I guess this is an experience all people go through at some point, and it’s a step everyone undergoes to reach a common understanding with their ancestors.
I’m re-living my first game of musical chairs, and learning a new definition of what it means when the music stops.