Indeed I haven't, nor have I always responded properly to the enquirers, so today I'll attempt to put this right.
Firstly, thank you to those of you who still keep an eye on me, and take the trouble to wonder where I've gone. I'm touched that you do this, when you are so poorly rewarded, and sorry that you had to ask.
It's been a challenging and unusual year so far. Suzi, the friend whom I have mentioned in earlier posts, whose cancer diagnosis in February 2017 caused so much heartache, died in July this year, and I wanted to write about her final days. I wrote several draft posts, and abandoned each one. I was looking for a way of commemorating her, but also to help me to understand what they meant to me, to The Gardener, and to our friendship with her.
But this proved surprisingly difficult to do. Was this to be a post about her, a memorial of how we met seven years ago and became unlikely friends, or was it about me, and how I became unexpectedly drawn into the last stages of her life? It feels like it should be more of an account of her last days, and how we had drawn closer than ever envisaged.
I had gone to visit her for a couple of days, and ended up staying with her, at her request, through her final month of life. She lived alone, although she had many friends, but her independent spirit and sense of privacy had stopped her from exposing her fears, her increasing weakness and the ravages of cancer to almost every one of them. She presented a positive, cheerful face to the world, carried on working in the job that she loved, going out for meals and shopping trips, and hid the grim realities even when she had emergency admissions to hospital, refusing visitors and communicating mostly through that most misleading medium, texting. And as a result, no one really understood that she was approaching the end of her life and deteriorating rapidly.
But she let us know, and witness, her true state of mind and body; she called our home her safe place, and was able to be her real self here, brave and unflinching at times, but also terrified and openly vulnerable. Other than nursing staff, I was the only person permitted to to see and assist with her ever-increasing dressings. Eventually she was no longer able to travel to stay with us, so we went to her, and at her request, I stayed on, while The Gardener returned home to hold the fort.
The team of wonderful District Nurses, who called twice daily to change her dressings and monitor her condition, welcomed me into their midst, relieved that someone could remain with her at night and look after her sensibly. They relied on me to be watchful and realistic, and in turn sensitively supported me as well as Suzi. I learned surprising things about myself; I could cope unflinchingly with messy physical situations, and Suzi learned that she could accept physical help without relinquishing independence or autonomy. We recognised that we loved each other more than we had really acknowledged before.
That month, during the heatwave, was an extraordinary experience for us both. Suzi allowed herself to be looked after, and I felt privileged to be allowed to do so. She said she loved how I didn't need to talk all the time, or expect her to talk; she understood what many people don't, namely the value of silence, of reflection. Although she was still rather keen on background pop radio, which is always a sore trial to me, she learned to turn it off, along with the audible alerts on her phone, when she needed to rest.
At one point, knowing that her time was short, I summoned The Gardener, who, ever practical, helped with the conversation that she had always avoided, sorting out her will and her funeral wishes, which until then had existed only in her own head. Together, we sorted her affairs, worked discreetly and successfully at reconciling her with her family, and had astonishingly frank conversations about death and dying, all matters that she had put off or avoided as she clung on to life and a determination to live it as fully as possible.
I stayed with Suzi. The tiny daily outings in the car petered out. And slowly, slowly, this feisty, stubborn, strong-willed woman began to let go, to surrender to the inevitable, quietly and with her habitual dignity. As she slept more, relied on pain relief more, ate less and began to inhabit a smaller, more immediate world of physical care, all that seemed to matter was having a reassuring presence to fetch and carry, watch and wait, hold her hand and not be afraid.
We lived quietly and just waited. And then the day came when she felt ready for the hospice, and within a couple of days had slipped away as she had hoped, quietly and surrounded by friends and family.
I look back at those last days, hot sunshine flooding her tranquil apartment in a converted mill, with its trees, its quiet pond and its wildlife, as almost a magical time; people said to me repeatedly after her death that it must have been emotionally difficult for me to undertake these end of life tasks.
But that is not how it seemed to me, then or now; I feel privileged, in a way that is hard to articulate, to have helped ease a dear friend through those days to slip away quietly with few of her worst fears realised. So many deaths are unexpected, or in a hospital setting, where we can feel helpless or excluded, and I appreciated very profoundly being trusted to stay to the end.
As her Executor, I stayed on in her rented flat until her beloved cat could be re-homed with a friend as Suzi had intended, and the family could clear her possessions. It was very painful to let him go, and that was when I really felt the impact of her loss, weeping in the empty flat and feeling utterly bereft.
I was oddly reluctant to leave the mill after a month of a most intense yet uplifting experience there, but after Suzi's well-attended funeral was over, The Gardener and I came home, to mourn and miss her, to accept that we would not be seeing her again, but to know that we would never forget her.