28th June 2023

It’s been a difficult couple of months.

My mum and me…

My mum, a fit and healthy 73-year-old, has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.  As a family it has shaken us.  It was picked up as an incidental finding during investigation for a very unusual stroke presentation – pure motor loss of her left arm.  No facial drooping, no speech slurring, just left arm weakness.

She was diagnosed at Easter, and until about a month ago, she was completely asymptomatic.  No cough, no breathlessness, walking 3-5 miles daily at pace.  She has clearly been able to compensate incredibly well with significant disease burden, but in these last few weeks, she has fallen off a cliff. 

The speed of symptom progression has been both stark and startling.

It has been strange and discomforting, counselling mum from a cancer path already trodden, the parent-child roles suddenly reversed, and I’ve not been entirely sure what role to play…

Doctor or daughter…

As the only medic in the family, there has been a need, right now, to be doctor, and to be honest, it is emotionally a much easier role to play.

It has been hard seeing my mum, these last few weeks, struggling for breath, limiting what she says and how loud or long she talks for, because anything more than short sentences tires her out or induces coughing. 

I talk to my mum every day. 

I always have. 

My husband often wonders what on earth we have to talk about given the short interval that has elapsed since our last conversation, but these last few weeks, hearing her struggle on the phone, has made me think a lot about how we communicate with each other…

Not just my mum and I, but as human beings.

We breathe in and breathe out.

Day in and day out.

An automatic reflex.

And at times we modulate that breath with sound.  We create speech.  We convey messages in that invisible breath.  That act of exhalation carries those words to the receiver. 

Each breath and its cargo hold potential. Sometimes that breath and the words it carries, may be as fine and flimsy as a spider web strand blowing in the breeze, barely landing with the receiver. 

Some words barely land…

At other times, that exhalation lands as heavy as a hammer blow, the weight of those invisible words so heavy it feels it might floor you – sometimes it physically can.  

Certain exhalations have the power to wound in a way far greater than any physical injury.  And yet that assault leaves no physical evidence. 

In a similar way, that single breath can convey such love, such healing.

We have the ability to infuse these exhalations with great emotion.  The words we choose to stream may show love, care, anger, frustration, hate…

Or perhaps nothing more than function – imparting “need to know” information from speaker to receiver.

But these words can change lives. 

These words or emotions colour our speech just as a dropper of dye colours a jam jar of water.

Our words colour our exhalations with emotion, much like colour dye infuses water…

With mum and I, our conversations may seem nothing more than trivial banality to an outside observer (or listener). But it isn’t just about what we’ve done on any given day, but more a sharing of our understanding of the day-to-day events each of us have encountered.

As humans, we share our experiences through speech.  It creates and consolidates memories. 

Just look at oral tradition – we help create our history through these invisible exhalations.

We don’t just share our own experiences with each other. We also share those experiences others have shared with us.

I am acutely aware that time is marching on.  As each breath becomes more laboured, each uttered word seems to carry so much more weight – these are precious exchanges.

These last few weeks have made me treasure these exhalations, no matter how trivial.

We have no idea how much time any of us have on this earth, but these last few weeks have made me realise the potential of every word we utter, and the need to listen…

For me to listen…

Not just to my mum, but to listen in general – especially to those close to me, with far greater care and attention. 

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