I flinch from cancer stories, avert my eyes, turn my head. Avoid. If it’s on the radio I turn down the sound, on the TV, I change the channel. It is all too painful, I fear I will be overwhelmed. I frequently am overwhelmed. I have, we all have, lost friends, close friends, comrades, co-worker’s, family to cancer. It has touched us all, but still, I flinch. I cannot go to Gavan’s grave, cannot think of him lying there under that cold Ballymore Eustace earth, on the edge of the pale, swept by the sharp winds from the Wicklow mountains, So young, below the earth, with his long hair and gentle ways. It overwhelms me.
This is a photograph I took, many many years ago. The two boys, Gavan and James, enjoying breakfast in bed with Patricia. Gavan is the little fella. How old was he then? Six, Seven? There is no date on the photograph. Six then. We had him for another eighteen years before the cancer took him. Glorious years, happy years, teenage years, college years. He became a quiet young man, charming, with great wit, indomitable, he strode across life, skateboarded across life; he was into gaming, tried the guitar, he lived life, loved life, with his long hair and gentle ways.
He was 24 when the cancer caught him and almost immediately, he began to fade. It was terrible to watch. Each day he faded a little more. Degrees of fading. He went from striding three miles across town to Griffith college, to stumbling around his flat with a Zimmer frame, from a Zimmer frame to a wheelchair, fading, fading. We were lifting him now, all his faded bodyweight, lifting him form the wheelchair to bed, from the wheelchair to the bathroom, from the wheel chair to his computer, from the wheelchair into the car, from the car into the wheelchair, fading, fading. In the flat there were now grab rails and bandages, a hydraulic bed, a lift to help him sit up in that bed. Visiting nurses, doctors, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs. His hearing went. He faded a little more each day. But he didn’t know or didn’t accept he was dying. He talked of going back to college of seeing his friends again, of going to gigs, of the experimental drugs working. To the final day, he never believed he was dying. If he had asked us, we would of course have told him, but he never asked and only talked of when he would be well again, every day, each day, as he faded away.
He was in and out of hospital, scans, new drugs, chemo, radiation, James’s hospital, Mater hospital, Vincent’s hospital, hospitals in Scotland, hospitals in England, but there was no hope, he continued to fade, little by little, each day, with his long hair and his gentle ways.
And then, in a little room in Vincent’s, he just faded away for ever, and we lost him. He had wanted to come home, but he was too far gone, and we sat with him for, how many days, I don’t recall, we sat with him in that little room, for every second of every hour of every day until he faded away. His eyes would open every now and then, but I don’t know if he registered that we were there, we told him we were, but it was impossible to tell. Not all our love, not all those nurses, not all those doctors, not all the money in the world could stop him from fading away, with his long hair and his gentle ways.
We buried him in Ballymore Eustace, where he went to school, and after, we had to get away. We were physically exhausted from the lifting and care, emotionally exhausted from the horror of it all and we had to get away. Away from Ireland, away from the grab rails and wheelchairs, the drugs and the hospitals, from doctors and the nurses. We travelled, and Gavan was with us, everywhere we went, he was always with us, we lit candles for him in Rome and Venice, and Bologna, and Florence and Scotland and Yorkshire and London, he was always beside us with his long hair and his gentle ways.
He has been gone a year. And although I avoid cancer stories, cancer events, I must now go to his grave, mark his going, attend his mass. It is the Irish way. I must mark his passing.
We have our own ways of grieving. Patricia talks to him. In the kitchen, at the graveside, in the car, she tells him of her day, how we are all doing, of the cats, of his friends. I cannot go to the grave – my visits to him are rare but I see him everywhere. That lad getting on the bus, is that Gavan? At his computer, sitting in his chair, I see him. All the time. and then remember he is gone. In the doctors, only last week the receptionist said, “Oh we treated Gavan, how is he?” She, of course, didn’t know, how could she, she was just being kind.
“He didn’t make it” I said and began to cry. And she was upset but it wasn’t her fault and I was sorry for her. For the rest of that day I was lost, overwhelmed.
We miss him so much. His long hair and his gentle ways.