As a nod to the Mexican Day of the Dead, this piece remembers my beautiful cousin, Suzy Barratt, who died of breast cancer in 2007, aged 43. Not a day goes by without loving and missing her.
This shitty, shitty thing.
When I was told the cancer my cousin Suzy had recovered from five years ago had returned in the worst possible way, one of the first images that flashed into my mind was that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining; the axe smashing through the protecting door, Jack’s evil, demented grin chilling us out of our complacency, our security shattered, our belief in Things Being Better suddenly in pieces. Then it was Arnie the Terminator growling ‘I’ll be back’. Good old unstoppable Arnie. I don’t know why the film analogies came like that. I’m not a film buff. Perhaps it was because the feelings on hearing this sort of news were ones of terror, helplessness – and a sense of it all being too ridiculous to take in. Make it fiction, for Christ’s sake, bring back the happy ending, the tissues, the Oh Thank God, she’s going to be ok. Sorry, my mistake. Hahha, as you were. Tea? Lovely.
The exact words my girlfriend used, gently, carefully, were, ‘Sweetheart, your sister called. Suzy’s very ill.’
It was early August, and I’d just returned from three fantastic days at Womad festival, and, ironically, was waiting for my own test results from two breast biopsies, a mammogram and radiogram. The festival had helped to take my mind off thinking about my own possible cancer, how I might have to break bad news to my family, and, doubly ironically, I was looking forward to calling Suze on my return to talk about how shit it is having lumpy tits, how the biopsies and aspirations hurt, how all my consultants were men, how one had had an allergic fit whilst feeling me and spent five minutes trying to breathe; how another couldn’t read my notes and I had to, teacher that I am, take him through the crappy biro drawings of my breasts and their corresponding surgical noughts and crosses and show him the target zones. How they looked like the graffiti tits men spray around toilets and railways, and the thoughts I’d had about all that.
And how inspired I was by her and her recovery. Suze had had a radical lumpectomy, 32 lymph nodes removed, chemo and radiotherapy and was eventually given the all clear two years previously. She and her husband Joss had a fat, noisy daughter, Connie – a sister to Elmo, amidst all the good news. She was better. She had been written about in the press. It was official. She was better.
I lay in the bath, soaking away festival grime, alternating between numbed silence and panicked sobbing. I called my brother and sister. We quickly realise we don’t have the words, other than confirming horrible medical lingo. Secondaries. Three in her brain. Going blind in one eye. Spine. A cough. Liver. Then more silence. I bury my head in my girlfriend’s bosom. I want to smash plates.
The world spins differently. Things don’t make sense like they used to. That shoe on the staircase – it needs putting away somewhere. Er – run that by me again? The food in the fridge needs eating? Remind me what eating is – oh. What a strange thing to do.
To say that cancer is unfair is like saying having an atom bomb land on your house is kind of inconvenient. The words to insult cancer aren’t nearly sweary or profane enough. I bellow stream of consciousness swearing mingecocking arse faggotfanny shitcunting fuckingfucking fucking bitchhole cunting cancer into the pillows, to the ceiling.
Grief does that. Makes you angry, makes you full of hate, and I’m paralysed with anger at cancer, and at this particular cancer that is daring to steal Suzy’s life from her, right under our noses. What is the point of cancer? How dare it exist? Doesn’t it know Suzy has two beautiful young children, a husband, family, friends who adore her; a vast, technicolour life which needs to be lived for a long, long time, not 43 piddling fucking years? Can’t it hear any of us screaming NO? Not Suzy, not Suzy?
Back to the universe, then, and the beginning of much plea-bargaining. I walk by the Thames and study life with my camera. As fate would have it, I now live just half a mile from where Suze grew up, in Richmond, and these paths I follow I know have her, and my, childish footprints trodden into them. I glue myself to grass and dust.
Tiny life – a weed, a midge, tiddlers on the water’s edge. The astonishing shift of shoot and root. Unstoppable life. Spectacular life – kingfishers, horse chestnuts, herons; human beings flying kites, or jogging, or just sitting. Being human. Look, I reason to the skies, I don’t have kids, make it me. Make it me but if you do, actually make it not really, really serious. Make it me and make it just bad enough to have, say, a year off work, full pay. Make it me but make it something like cancer of the fingernail, or the eyelash, or earlobe, cancer of the armpit hair, cancer of dandruff, a cancer which can be cut off and thrown in the bin and then Suzy can get on with being her wonderful, amazing self and our family can breathe normally again. Give it to George Bush or Bin Laden or Robert Mugabe, make a rapist get cancer of the cock, make it be someone, anyone, who deserves to suffer. Just don’t make it be Suzy.
The universe remains resolutely silent. Midges keep biting and couples sit on benches in the sunshine eating sandwiches. There are no bargains to be made, of course. Cancer like this belongs to the tangible, the intelligent, the ones who took their A levels, the nerds, the swots, the visionaries, the dedicated: doctors, scientists, the animal experimenters, the very mortal and human. Cancer treatment is mathematical in its doses and measurements, it is physics and engineering in its machines, it’s Latin and Greek in its language. And it’s Gladiatorial and space age in its simple, surgical violence. Cut it out then kill. Kill cells with radiation. Kill cells with chemo. Kill, kill, kill. Here comes Jack. Here comes Arnie again. Terminate the terminal. Kill the baddies. Please?
Next step, then: God, and more appeals. I think seriously about going to church. I actually like churches. I was in my village church choir as a 12 year old – loved the singing, the ancient building, the devotion, the rituals. The extremely creepy yet thrilling knowledge that there were real dead people lying in the ground outside. I was fascinated by the torture of Jesus, the blood, the nails, the crown of thorns. I rather fancied him, for a pre-pubescent while. Good looking, skinny, arty type, nice beard. But a moralistic and judgemental God? I don’t think so. In time I got sacked from the choir for letting off a stink bomb, one Christmas morning. An accident, I swear to this day, I really was just showing it to my friend; we broke it and nearly passed out, along with the vicar and the rest of the congregation. But I still loved the singing and the skeletons.
So, a problem – having been taught about miracles, how then to beg for one, a big one, pretty please, from something you can not believe in. What’s the protocol here? On your knees with clasped hands and a muttered, embarrassed ‘Our Father’? Is there a waiting list of prayers, in terms of the prayee’s credentials and sincerity? Does the quality, the passion of one’s prayer affect the rapidity to which it will be attended? Is there a queue? Is there a kind of ‘Prayer number three, please’ system operated by a tired, underpaid sub-Deity in a Top Shop blouse?
Of course there isn’t. Prayers are the actions of the frightened, the deluded, the brain-washed, the innocent, the last resorters, the desperados. My prayers, to midges, herons, old footprints and horse chestnuts, of course, do absolutely fucking nothing. It’s our human doctors who have the skill here, not a contrived, convenient, half-remembered, cure-all 24 hour drive-by Jesus.
Suzy emails me, almost daily. She’s had radio on the three tumours in her brain, a final time. They’ve gone. They’ve actually gone. Three tumours, gone. But after a week in hospital, in isolation, away from Joss, Elmo and Connie, and enduring dreadful, punishing chemo, the liver tumour – it’s grown a centimetre in six weeks. She doesn’t mention her lungs, her spine. She can’t bear the needles.
Is there anything after death? Heaven? Well, seriously, is there?
We all go into freefall. It’s called ‘anticipatory grief’, apparently. I found that out on the internet. I also found out about triple negative breast cancer; liver, brain, lung and bone secondaries; treating depression in terminal cancer sufferers; the poetry of Julia Darling; a website for dead pets; a website for dry-freezing your dead pets; a book by someone who has recovered from ‘terminal’ cancer, how much a juicer costs, and page after page of scientific data about enzymes, white blood cells, survival and mortality rates, help for families, hospices, how to tell your child that mommy’s gotta say goodbye, going to live with the angels, eco-funerals and wigs.
Suzy Barratt. It’s a lovely name. Barratt comes from Joss, her husband. Joss is a film photographer. The posters you see on the Underground? Possibly Joss’s photos. Our Christmas cards resonate with Suze and Joss’s art and hilarity – a bony dog and child skating over a snowy frozen pond; a child and dog wrapped in tea towels, blinking over a fat cherub in a twinkling crib. The baby Jesus, a shepherd and mother Mary are their dog, their daughter and son. Suzy’s out of shot, undoubtedly laughing her head off. Her spiky handwriting fills the cards with love and kisses.
In true style, Suzy wants to say goodbye to us all while she’s still well enough to do so, and in September she organises a Celidh in her Dorset village for her lifelong circle of friends and family. There’s a lot of us. We arrive en masse: tents, camper vans, sleeping bags – some of us are sleeping at various farms in the village: her loving neighbours give up their bedrooms to our grieving tribe.
No crying, we are commanded, which is utterly impossible. I hug her, my cousin, a year and a bit younger than me, but so much bigger in so many ways. I say ‘What a shitty, shitty thing’. It’s snotty, and Suze cries briefly into my shoulder. I keep hugging. Two minutes later she’s off, mingling, joking, adjusting her wig.
It’s an extraordinary occasion, quite unlike anything any of us has experienced before. Suzy is an actress, and many of her friends are theatrical or TV types, used to pretending and putting on a variety faces. Not so here. Emotion is raw, and despite the wild dancing, ample drink and genuine laughter, the river of grief is flowing hard and fast, and there are frequent walks taken into the dark fields to sob and hug, not least by me. The universe stretches up and away above our heads and batters home one simple truth: death is infinite.
Suzy is exhausted, but talks and dances with everyone. She jokes about her ‘footballer’s wife’ wig (she is unusually pale but looks beautiful), and eventually takes to the stage with Joss and the children to make a thank you and goodnight speech. It is simply the most moving thing I have ever experienced and once again I break into useless bits of myself. My cousin Charlie finds me and we go back out into the dark fields and weep.
Winter comes, and with it all the conflicting darkness and festivity. Suze and I continue to email and reminisce. Suze writes in detail about her treatment, experimental now, the exhaustion, her depression, her fears for Joss and the children. How in desperation she visited a ‘crystal healer’ who attempted to charge her sixty quid for a bottle of vitamins and how she told the thief to fuck off.
The practical worries: food, homework, birthdays. She asks me to write stories for Elmo and Connie, stories of our adventures, escapades, and to exaggerate them. We remember our glorious childhood exploits, the stuff that family legends are made of: The Jellyfish Traps of North Wales, The Day of the Pug Painting, and our appallingly tasteless Jack the Ripper play. (I was, naturally, Jack, and Suzy, aged seven, was a spread-eagled wanton woman with a plastic bag full of tomato ketchup hidden about her person. At the crucial moment, I used a long carving knife to stab and explode the bag of ketchup which resulted in our great-grandmother walking out of the playroom in disgust and a bewildering lack of applause).
I sit at my laptop reading her emails over and over again, knowing that time is the king of everything. My girlfriend is patient and absorbent.
Suzy was born on April 1st, a date we have all revelled in as being perfectly appropriate for one so full of tomfoolery and spirit. Her 43rd birthday coincides with the Easter holidays, and I drive to her mum’s in the Banbury countryside for the long weekend and a small family celebration: Suze, Joss, Connie and Elmo, plus both of Suzy’s sisters and their children. It’s a beautiful spring weekend. The children are frolicking idyllically in my aunt’s vast, sprawling garden, there’s the happy mess of buckets, teapots, books, cake crumbs and abandoned socks. There’s a huge amount of chocolate in the form of Easter eggs, Easter bunnies and Easter chicks, much of which has been hidden around the garden by Suze and devoured relentlessly by the seemingly sick-resistant children. It’s important to keep this tradition alive.
Suze spends most of the Saturday lying in the sunshine. We laugh and chat, tell stories. She’s as bright and funny as ever and just doesn’t seem to be that ill. True, she looks very changed – she warned me that she looked like Judith Chalmers crossed with a North London lesbian therapist. She has a persistent cough, her hair is short and grey and when she does walk, it’s slowly and carefully. But she’s still so very much Suzy, she makes me roar with laughter and I just adore her company, as I always have done. I have a video camera with me and ask if she minds me filming the weekend – of course she doesn’t.
That night we all sleep together – Joss has gone back to Dorset. Me, Suze, baby Connie, Elmo and Lola the dog, all squashed together in two single beds. It would be just like old times, sort of, except there’s the cold oxygen tank and mask Suzy needs, and Elmo is noticeably anxious. I calm him down with a revolting story about South American spiders hatching out of a woman’s arm whilst she’s back home in London in the bath. Suzy apologises in advance for any chemo farts. As it happens, there are none that I notice, but I wouldn’t have minded anyway.
Around three in the morning I wake up and look at the ramshackle sleeping mess of us. Elmo is literally upside down, his head almost off the end of the bed; Connie is sideways across Suze, and I can see only one of Lola’s legs. We look like we’ve been dropped from the sky, or that we’re making alphabet shapes for some well-meaning children’s programme. I listen to their breathing – apart from Lola’s, whom I trust hasn’t actually suffocated. The puff puff puff of breath, the regular up-downs, in-outs; the softest sounds of life. The universe is just beyond these beds and these breaths.
The following morning we venture off to Bourton on the Water, an old childhood haunt, and manage a walk around a bird sanctuary and pub lunch. Suze is exhausted, and something inside me slips into a dark, dreadful place as I know, properly know, she is actually dying now. As I drive back home, with Suze in the front and Connie in the back, we take in the beautiful English countryside: it is truly, truly beautiful. Old Man’s Beard is filling the hedgerows, hawthorn is just beginning to bud; it is spring, and spring should be hopeful, the days are warmer, the evenings longer; the darkness of winter is going now. Surely, there must be hope for us; this is much too beautiful to leave.
I say to Suze that the world looks like it’s being coloured in – she smiles. She and Connie both fall asleep, and for fifteen minutes I drive, carrying the most precious passengers in the world. I send out another hopeless prayer – I can see the tsunami coming, I can see Connie and Elmo having their mum taken away from them, I know it’s going to happen and there is nothing, nothing I can do about it. I boil with impotent rage. The fields look so fucking beautiful. The innocence of Connie’s sleep puts another crack into my heart.
That evening I say goodbye to Suze. There aren’t any words other than goodbye that are possible to say. We hug, kiss, hug and kiss. It’s a sort of back slapping bravado. A few miles down the road I pull into a lay-by and stay there for I don’t know how long.
We continue to email. I do a Race for Life run and raise some money for cancer research. I go to work, and instead of working I write stories. I email them to Suze and she says she loves them, and they’re going into the children’s memory books. In early June Suze writes that she’s looking forward to going to Spain with Joss and the kids, to his brother’s villa. She’s looking forward to gin and tonics by the pool, to sunshine, to the view. Loads of love, my lovely cuz, speak soon. A line of kisses. They fly out.
During the flight, Suze became very ill . She was moved into Business Class. An ambulance was called, from the plane, and it waited at the airport for her. She was taken to hospital. It became clear very quickly that she couldn’t be treated. She was discharged and driven to the villa. Later that evening, early June, in the cool of her Spanish bedroom, my cousin Suzy died. Her husband and children were with her.