Friday, 27 December 2013

Bittersweet Christmas

Christmas this year has been overwhelmingly difficult in many different ways, and yet also completely lovely shortly after the dinner was on the table. That wretched dinner! More about that one later. 

Years ago, when my kids were tiny, and Toby was oh so ill and fragile, going out was nigh on impossible, so instead I promised myself that what my kids lacked in terms of days out I would make up for with fabulously fun and over-the-top birthdays and Christmases. However, I never bargained on getting cancer. 

This Christmas has really given that old cancer of mine a chance to showcase its talents which are total and utter exhaustion, zilch energy, distracted concentration levels, crippling joint pain and a fairly generous helping of depressive lowness too. Absolutely everything took longer, didn't go quite to plan or even deteriorated into total disaster, or so it seemed. I just seemed to spend the previous three weeks working harder for longer hours than I've ever had to before, and just not achieving anything at all worth noticing. The house was a tip, and the harder I tidied the more tippish it seemed. The more planning I did the more catastrophically pear-shaped things went. Quite frankly, I've always been like Mrs Christmas, loving every minute of pulling everything out of the bag and making it all happen, but this year I was Mrs Christmas Misery personified. 

Christmas dinner was a nightmare. I could not get my head around timings or cooking methods or gravy, bread sauce and sprouts whatsoever. How have I got everything in the oven and out simultaneously and on time in previous years? I haven't got a clue. All I know is that all I wanted to do by ten o'clock on Christmas morning was to sit on the floor, burst into tears, throw the sodding lot in the bin and get someone else to produce cheese on toast for all and sundry instead. 

Somehow it all worked, but I've learned some valuable lessons in the process. At 2.30pm baked salmon fillet with a herb and lemon sauce on brown bread and butter was served, and swiftly followed by Turkey, Ham, Stuffing, Pigs in Blankets, Roast Potatoes, Bread Sauce, Sprouts, Parsnip, Broccoli, Peas and Gravy at 3 O'clock on the dot. All by myself, and the clearing up too. 

So what were those lessons? Quite simply, never again. I've had to face up to the fact that I'm just not well enough anymore. The stress and the panic and the worry and the going to bed at 3am for a week or so beforehand just to try and get everything done is crazy. If I'm lucky enough to still be alive next Christmas and I do this all over again, then I would really be pushing my luck for the Christmas after that. 

However, next Christmas will not be the same, nor any Christmas beyond that one ever again, and not because of my cancer, though goodness knows that may impact on future Christmases a fair bit too. 

The main thing I've had to cope with is the sadness that this year was an end-of-an-era Christmas, with all sorts of things beyond my control about to change for our family. 

The first change is heartbreakingly difficult to even write about, and it has taken months of very difficult emotions to cope with to accept this change as an inevitability.  Toby is leaving home. I know that this is age-appropriate, and at 19, a vast swathe of his age-group are away at uni or off doing their own thing, but with Toby it is so different. He still has the mental age of a 2 year old, and the mindset of a toddler. He is very Mummy-clingy, and has no clue of what we are planning for him and why. 

The very sad reality is that I am no longer well enough or strong enough to care for him 24/7. I tuned that one out and lived in denial very successfully for a very long time, but then a tragic event brought it to a head. I know of another breast cancer patient whose disease was following a near identical pattern to mine. She, too, was doing comparatively well until her disease started progressing very suddenly, and in the space of 6 weeks she had died. It was a huge shock to her family, and has given me a bit of a wake-up call to ensure Toby is properly cared for if the same thing were to happen to me. 

If I was to deteriorate suddenly, what would happen to him? Social Services would have to act very quickly, and may have no choice but to shoehorn him into a situation which may not be suitable or where he may not be happy, and he wouldn't have me fit and well enough to be banging or doors if things are going pear-shaped, or to visit him several times a week to help him settle in. 

One day, I will die, hopefully not for a very long time yet, but when that day comes, I want it to be a sadness for Toby, rather than a tragedy. The idea of him losing his mummy and his home in one fell swoop is just too much for me to comprehend. I owe it to him to ensure he is happy and settled elsewhere before I toddle off the edge of this planet. 

Making such a major decision has been probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do, The idea of Toby, as vulnerable and dependent on others as he is, being cared for in some sort of residential setting is just the stuff of my nightmares, and has been for several years. When he was very little, he was not expected to survive, which was incredibly hard to accept and live with on a daily basis. At the time, I thought that was the worst thing that could possibly happen to a mother, knowing with virtual certainty that her offspring will die in childhood. 

Now I wonder if that really is the saddest possible outcome. At least he would only have known the type of love that a warm, close-knit family can offer. For years I have woken in the night tortured by the image of a Toby in his fifties, living somewhere else, unhappy, unloved and unable to make his needs and wants understood clearly. All learning disabled adults are vulnerable to abuse of all kinds, but when they are also largely non-verbal, these fears for your child's future are magnified beyond all proportion. 

My job is to make sure that we springboard him into his new setting as positively as possible, and that I am still well enough to advocate for him for long enough until Francesca and Adam are sufficiently confident to take over. He will always be a huge part of this family wherever he is living, and I am trying to console myself with the fact that, if this goes well, our relationship could develop so that I am "just his mummy" for the first time in our lives. Of course he will still come home often, and we will visit him frequently too. Yet other people will be there to do his physical care and cajoling and giving him his medicines; all that stuff will be out of the way so that he and I can just have fun in the very silly ways we both enjoy together. 

In the next few days, I'm hoping to write another post about the whole topic of care, and the decisions I have had to make and why, but right now there's another change to tell you about too.

I'm going to be a grandmother to a little baby boy in April, courtesy of my youngest son, Adam and his lovely girlfriend, Alex. They told both Grandmothers-to-be together in the same week their GCSE results came out, so they are far too young in most people's eyes. It's not easy to become a parent when you haven't even finished your own childhood yet, but I am so proud of both of them in the way they have taken it on board. They are acting responsibly, saving for the baby, working hard and pulling together - they may be young but they are growing up incredibly fast and showing a level of maturity that I've seen lacking in new parents double their age. 

There are huge social stigmas attached to teenage pregnancy, and I've done more reading up on the subject than I ever thought possible. Yet how can the birth of a brand new baby ever be anything other than joyful? In many ways this little boy is already blessed. He is being born into two incredibly strong, resilient and loving families who are both pulling together already to support this new little family unit in every way we know how to. 

If you have been reading this blog for a few months you may remember that the one thing I was very sad about when I was diagnosed with Stage iv cancer was that I was unlikely to meet my grandchildren. If Adam and Alex had waited a more conventional extra 10 years before starting a family, that may well have been the case, but now I can look forward to being a fully-fledged Grandma with babysitting duties and everything else Grandmas are good at doing. 

In our situation, though, I feel very strongly that my role is to support them all through thick and thin, come what may. When they leave the house with the baby they are going to have to learn how to grow a thicker skin to deal with hostile stares, remarks, judgements and ignorant assumptions from strangers who won't understand that young parents need more support, not less. 

Teenage parenthood does not have to be a disaster, in fact, I'm hopeful that this baby could actually be the making of both of them. As long as we all support them so they can finish their education so that they have a reasonable earning capacity, they don't have to be a poverty breadline statistic either. If I'm still around I will be highly amused at watching Adam deal with parenting a teenager when he is still in his twenties, but having seen both of them becoming focussed and forward-thinking by the day, I'm sure they'll both deal with whatever challenges parenthood brings them admirably. 

Even Francesca is off, out and about, doing her own thing. She has made me brim with pride and quake with fear in equal measures this year, as she has discovered a travel bug and fallen in love with Italy. She spent several weeks in the summer as an Au Pair on a Sicilian beach for an extended Milanese family supervising 5 small children. Then she enrolled on an intensive language course in Rome, absolutely falling for the place. This weekend she did both Rome and Bologna, managing to make it home in time for Christmas but arriving at Heathrow in the height of the worst storm we've had for years. I have a feeling she'll be spending a lot of 2014 in pastures new, and I'm thrilled to see her making the most of her youth. 

It was only May 2012 that I was diagnosed with cancer, and my biggest fear then was leaving the three children motherless, well before they are ready. They are still nowhere near ready for me to pop my clogs, but just look at how far all three have come in the space of less than 2 years. 

Back to Christmas. Dinner was on the table but it took me an hour or so to get my own Christmas spirit flowing nicely again, possibly helped in the end by a couple of glasses of good red wine. By the evening, things were great, the kids were happy, the whole family was there and we laughed like drains til the small hours of the morning. In the end, it was probably one of the nicest and happiest Christmases ever. 

Who knows what next Christmas will look like. The dynamic will definitely have changed, but Toby, our very own family Christmas King, will definitely be at home for the whole of Christmas. Who knows about the others? Francesca, Adam, Alex and Baby will know how welcome they will be, as will everyone else in our extended family, but it's now up to my kids to decide for themselves to do what feels right for them at Christmas. One small change I may make though, next year it could well be cheese on toast for Christmas Dinner. 


  1. Hi Yvonne, Once again you astound me, all the very difficult things you deal with, I'm sure Toby will be very well looked after and you will be with him most of the time, the hardest part is making the decision, you will see, it will all work out. I was a teenage mum (17) back in the early 80's when it was really frowned upon, but with the help of two brilliant families, we managed to bring up a very beautiful and well rounded young lady, who was the first one in both families to go to university and then go on to become a Lawyer, I find the easiest way to silence the ignorant critics is to succeed in the most spectacular way possible!! Sending you lots of love and hugs x x a

  2. Adrienne, once again, thank you for your kindness. It's great to know that teenage parents can be excellent role models too. A lawyer - you must be so proud, and I love the concept of using spectacular as a weapon! Love and hugs back to you too xxx

  3. Yvonne, I don't envy your dilemmas and decisions to be made for Toby's well-being. Yet you're so pragmatic in the way you resolve issues that are emotionally overwhelming...and you are such a good, caring Mum, that you will make the right choices for the next stages of Toby's future.
    And I know that your two families and the young parents to be will transcend the stigmas and challenges around teenage parenthood, because you're all good at problem solving and coping with difficult situations.
    I'm so glad that after the challenging Christmas dinner preps were under your belt, you all had an evening of family fun and laughter.
    I wish you all a very happy, healthy New Year 2014!
    Sharon, Ottawa xox

    1. Sharon, thank you so much for your kind, supportive comments. Despite everything, we had a great Christmas in the end. I really hope you did too. Take care xx

  4. Yvonne, I am totally humbled by your blogs and postings...I have no idea where you get your physical and emotional strength from and can only admire every ounce you clearly demonstrate. Your reflections re the future of your son,Toby, are very touching in practical and pragmatic way. I've just taken early retirement from Manchester City council due to ill health, after 25 years working in Children's social care I understand your partner works to seek placements and is always empathic towards individuals needs, often fighting the system over finances etc! Your son will be fine and you will also learn to be, for him. As for 'young parents' I can assure you that many I've met are tons better than the abusive 'more age appropriate' ones! I was a parent at 18 in the 70's and have 2 wonderful adult children to show for it! I'd love to say that I believe everything will be good for you...I'm also a counsellor and I try to live in the 'here and now' if you're here, now, there's something going right for you. Be 'mindful' of that! Love to you, I'll watch your journey and stay in touch. Pam x

    1. Pam, thank you so much for taking the time to leave your very kind words here, I can't tell you how much it means when people take the time for such kindness. The whole Toby situation is a very difficult one, and I have a feeling that, in the end, he may cope much better than I do, and thank you too for sharing about your own experiences of teenage parenthood - I have a good feeling about this one too - they are both just blossoming by the day. As for living in the "now", Toby has taught me an awful lot about that one. I used to break my heart worrying about things that never actually happened, and even if they had happened, I'd have used all that valuable coping strength up by all that silly worrying! Please do keep in touch, and thank you for getting in touch once again. Yvonne xx

  5. Oh Yvonne, this is such a powerful, moving post. I am so full of emotion I can am not sure what to to write here. All I can do is to thank you for your honesty in sharing your story. It is a story that needs to be written and read. Wishing you and your family blessings in the coming year xxx

    1. Marie, thank you. I'm sorry if I got you all choked up, honestly, we're all doing fine, I promise. I hope you're doing equally fine too. Thanks too for sharing this post on your Weekly Roundup. Reading the others I'm both humbled and honoured to be included in such an amazing group of writers. If anyone else reads this and wants the link, here it is: Hope you have a lovely New Year, and a wonderful 2014. Yvonne xxx

  6. dear Yvonne,

    I found your blog via our dear Marie's weekly round-up, and I must say I am so very touched by all you've written about your family, and the challenges you have so courageously faced with such love and hopefulness. you are a wonderful writer - I know this because if I run the whole gamut of emotions - laugh, cry, be awed, humbled, and inspired - well,, it seals the deal for me.

    I wish you and your family every Good Thing in the new year; and I will align my hopes for all to be well right alongside yours, and hold you all close to my heart.

    much love, and a brightly shining light to help you find your way,

    Karen, TC

    1. Karen, thank you so much for leaving me a message here, it means so much. Marie's weekly round-up is one of the highlights of my week, so it's also great to meet someone else who feels the same. Thanks too for you very lovely comments about the blog, I just sort of tumble the words out as if I was chatting to a friend in my kitchen, there's very little conscious thought that goes into these ramblings! Please stay in touch, and sending you every good wish for the coming year too. Yvonne xx

  7. Yvonne this has made me bawl my eyes out, massive hugs coming your way xxxx

  8. Oh Sian, sweetheart, I'm sorry! You'd better knock on my door very soon for a real hug. We're fine and doing well. You know that though, don't you? I worry more about you and the boys than I do about my gang! xxxx

  9. This is also my first time reading your blog I feel like a puddle of mush right now but your strength and tenacity are over powering.... Thank you for such an eloquent honest post.....Alli.....

  10. Hi Alli, thank you for reading and especially for leaving a comment too, particularly such a nice one. Sorry it's made you feel like a puddle of mush! I know that feeling very well, in fact it's probably a much better description of me than any! Take care, and thanks once again. Yvonne x

  11. Oh Yvonne, I just want to give you a big hug right now. This post is so poignant and so full that I am truly at a loss as to what to write. Hugs always work though, right? Thank you for sharing from your heart. xoxo

  12. Nancy, thank you. Hugs always work wonders, and mean so much too. Hope all is good with you xxx