“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything” – Michael J. Fox
I have a really, really large family with some really weird complex connections. Like any family over the years there has been the odd argument or falling out, but ultimately we love each other indefinitely. My immediate family consists of my parents, Grandad, four siblings, two sister-in-law’s, a brother-in-law, four nieces, four nephews, and recently a great-niece. And then on my Dad’s side…
Dad is one of five, so I have four Aunty’s and four Uncle’s, eleven cousins, and between them the cousins have twenty children (I think… I hope I’ve not missed anyone), and one more on the way. So all in, when my cousins wives, husbands and life partners are counted, there are well over 70 of us. Then when you add the married-in family e.g. cousins cousins, Aunty’s brothers etc, and the close family friends, there’s an additional twenty or so, leaving us just shy of 100.
In contrast, Mum’s side is considerably smaller. Obviously there’s the aforementioned Grandma and Grandad, and Mum also has two Uncles, two Aunties and two cousins (who have loads of kids). Sadly one of the Uncles and one of the Aunties have passed away, as well as my Grandma. This side of the family are not particularly close, and never have been in my lifetime. For this reason, references to family from here on refer to Dad’s side.
With the siblings, I am the youngest. I am also the odd one out in that I am Yorkshire born and bred, the next sibling is southern born and Yorkshire bred, and the rest are born and bred just outside London. Those three live in or around the same villages as the rest of the family. Approximately 50 of the family live within 20 minutes drive of each other (and all twenty of the extended family and close family friends). The twenty family members who don’t live within that zone are approximately half an hour to forty minutes away. Whilst we live 3 hours and 30 minutes away. For someone who love family as much as I do, this has been a constant source of pain and upset.
We used to travel down only for special occasions, christenings, big birthdays, weddings, retirements, and sadly funerals. However in a family of our size that was relatively regularly! I loved going down to see everyone – I was one of them. I felt welcome, they loved me as much as I loved them, as much as we all loved each other. From a young age, leaving them to come home was traumatic. I would be in floods of tears. One easter, when I was 7 or 8, Dad decided to try and help. He rang my eldest brother and arranged for me to go on holiday with them. A week in the Lake District. I was ecstatic. I knew the area well from spending my summers with Grandma and Grandad, but this time I was with my big bro and his family.
Following this, I grew closer to my brother. I would go down some years and spend a week in summer at his. Due to the age gap, his daughter was my age. We were like brother and sister growing up – when we were 200 miles away, we would still be talking every day. I longed to live near them, even with them at times. The usual pattern carried on around this, travel down for special events, spend a couple of days seeing everyone, and travel back. Despite seeing slightly more of them, it was no easier leaving. If anything it was harder. As the years rolled on, the cycle continued. That was until I was 17. I passed my driving test after 2 months of lessons, and within a few months I drove down to stay with my brother. It was amazing. I wasn’t there for a special occasion, no one was getting married, thankfully no one had died. I just went to see my family, like I always wished I could.
Due to university and work commitments, I soon realised I couldn’t travel down as much as I’d thought I’d be able to. I started to understand why Dad couldn’t drive us down all the time. Unfortunately life simply doesn’t allow for it. So I made myself a promise. Special occasion or not, I wanted to get down at least 3 times a year. That doesn’t sound much, but fitting in with other people’s schedule, as well as my own, that was the most realistic number. I had fought to be a part of that family, I pushed for what I knew I needed. I had forged my own relationships with everyone. I knew I was one of them.
My big brother was now calling me “bro”. Now I am sure that doesn’t sound like much to others, but believe me, this was huge for me. I felt myself fill up with the happiest of tears. When I had met my girlfriend, I couldn’t wait to take her down to meet people. They all got on like a house on fire. It was brilliant. It was perfect. But it wasn’t to last.
We knew there were concerns about my brothers health. He had been misdiagnosed a few times, and the true issue was missed. However they eventually found a large growth in one of his kidneys. They needed to run some tests. Those tests confirmed it was cancer. As far as they could see it was contained, but they needed to remove the kidney and investigate. They did so, and early signs were positive. No sign of cancer in the surrounding lymph nodes. It seemed the consultants were right, it had been contained. The full biopsy was to follow. The results from this yielded a somber outcome. The cancer was present in the surrounding veins. It was a case of waiting to see if it reared it’s ugly head somewhere else. Test after test was to follow, month after month. The news we all prayed would never arrive inevitably did. It had reappeared in his lungs.
The consultants were clear, they can try to manage it, and there are some advanced trial drugs that could be used, but a cure was not presently available. Big bro geared himself up, and accepted a place on the trial. He knew his life would potentially never be the same again, but he also knew this was the only option, and he isn’t one to give up, ever. Pre-trial tests were required to check the current state of play. However the results led to a curious letter saying he was no longer eligible for the trial. What the hell was going on? Naturally we all thought the worst. The call came from Dad, my heart sank, “I don’t know how to tell you this, and I don’t have any answers as to how or why, but… his body is fighting the cancer on its own. There has been modest reduction in the size of the nodules“. I’ve always known he’s a fighter, and also incredibly stubborn, but surely not?! I couldn’t believe my ears. He’s a bloody super hero!
The scans carried on to monitor the nodules, and the tests kept coming back, “no growth, some modest reductions in size, no new nodules”. Wow. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen. The tests grew further apart, the consultants seemed less concerned. After another routine check, I waited for Dad’s call. Eventually it came, “I’m afraid I’ve got some worrying news“, I was extremely confused, was this an elaborate wind up to say it’s almost gone?
“They have told your brother that they have made administrative mistakes. The cancer unfortunately never shrank. It grew. Aggressively. It has spread across both lungs, to the lymph nodes in his back, and his other kidney.”
I could hear the sadness in Dad’s voice. I’ve witnessed him cry a couple of times in my life, but I knew he was crying now. I couldn’t hold it in. I asked if I could call back in a few minutes. The second I put the phone down the world stopped. Everything went in to slow motion, and then like a steam train, it hit me. I broke down, sobbing. I couldn’t handle it. He’s my big bro. I had the illusion that he was invincible, nothing can beat him. In that moment, it was obliterated. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It goes after each and every one of us in some way. I knew this, but I couldn’t cope. Why my brother? Why now? Why us? I was furious. How could anyone make administrative mistakes of this magnitude, how could anyone be that incompetent? I wanted answers, and I wanted heads to roll.
Upon reflection I realised that now was not the time or place for the anger. The lack of funding of our NHS was likely a part to blame in this story. Suing them, or anything of the kind would exacerbate the problem. My focus needed to be on my brother, and supporting him and helping him where I could.
The problem I had was that I had never accepted or dealt with the fact that my brother had cancer. I had always dismissed it as temporary. I hadn’t found the right time to deal with it, just as I hadn’t found the right time to grieve for my Grandma. I needed to escape, I needed a way to forget for a while. It was then that I went back to the escape I knew best. The escape I’d been introduced to a few years earlier. I knew drink and drugs weren’t the answer, so I didn’t ask the question.
As Michael J. Fox said, family is everything. I had already lost one key component, I couldn’t cope with losing another.