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“Do you remember when we used to do this all the time?” asked Joe last night. He was sitting across a restaurant table from me, we were having an early meal before our concert.

“Twenty years ago, before the children.”

For a moment both of us shared the same astonishing thought: that one day the children might move on.

It was a wonderful night out. It was the hottest night of the year, which brought it home that it was almost exactly a year since we’d had our last evening out – on the hottest night of last year.

Last year we needed a friend to come in and look after Julie, who at the time could not be left alone. This year she looked after herself, cooked her own dinner, put herself to bed. What a change.

We could go out all the time now. We’re just out of practice – it takes such a lot of effort to arrange and we have got used to our evenings at home in front of the TV. Once a year is not very good: we must practice!

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So I went to the clinic as planned and had a conversation about the biopsy results on my thyroid gland. Waiting for that conversation was by far the scariest part of the process: far worse than the conversation itself! I was spooked by the word cancer. And it really bugged me that they knew the results but wouldn’t post them to me or tell me over the phone: I felt at a disadvantage walking into that room, as the only person who didn’t yet know the test results. I wanted all the information as soon as it was available, not filtered and interpreted.

But the conversation itself was very straightforward and satisfactory. Nobody knows if I have cancer: the test didn’t give a simple yes or no. My thyroid is Schrodingers Cat: without further tests, I both do and don’t have cancer. The only way of finding out is to open the box: go ahead with the operation and remove part of the thyroid. (Which is exactly what I want to do anyway because it is so painful and uncomfortable.). The conversation passed the test: something will be done, I will probably feel better as a result, and I will not be left in limbo. As to the possibilities of cancer – openly discussed – I was given good answers to all my questions. The fear receded, the bogey man exposed in this case as a relatively weak opponent, known, named and oft defeated by medical science. If he is present at all, of course. (Such a weak opponent, in fact, that I will have to wait some months for the operation – which is a kind of reassurance, even though it is so hard to wait.)

This was the first of many conversations I must now have: with my husband, friends, colleagues, children, each of which will need their own version of the story. The conversation with Julie was one I particularly feared, knowing how raw she is after her illness, how easily something like this could feed into deep fears of abandonment. I felt that all this talk about cancer was unnecessary: if this word had spooked me, how much more it would spook her! So I left it firmly outside the door of the conversation: just said that I needed an operation to relieve my obvious pain and discomfort. Perfectly true, and probably the whole truth. But even the mere thought of me going into hospital did trouble her, and I had to agree to her telling her support team so that she can have extra support. Nothing can ever be private.

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I have been ill and in some ways being ill simplifies things. It becomes easier to say no, even when the demand is very pressing. It becomes easier to sit still and listen and watch the world go by.

I spent a day in the local hospital having some tests, and sitting there on the ward to which I was temporarily assigned, I watched the other patients; perhaps eight of us in all. The other patients were all very elderly, very frail, living from one moment to the next: a typical general emergency NHS ward. By comparison with these older patients I was young and, apart from this temporary suffering, generally in good health; I was fit enough to walk from the ward down the long hospital corridors to each of my various scans and tests without the indignity of a chair. I knew I would get home that night; most of my companions did not know exactly when they would see their homes again. I was not frightened by my condition: I was confident that whatever it was would be resolved somehow in one way or another. In all honesty I was enjoying the chance to be alone, to endure my pain in relative comfort without the constant demands of family. I was a tourist in this world of sickness, but the other patients, they all seemed to be natives.

Some of my companions had attendants, husbands or children, sitting patiently beside them, translating their needs, their vague discontents, to the nurses. Occasionally, voices raised for elderly ears, rang out across the ward: “She’s just going to take your temperature, Mum!” Some of the carers were elderly themselves, but they sat on on their hard chairs, holding hands with their particular old lady, sometimes chatting to the other patients, smiles and pleasantries lobbed tactfully between beds, conversations about the weather and the food. Staff flitted from bed to bed, fetching, soothing, attentive. Time passed slowly. The woman in the next bed offered me the lemonade which she, alas, could not drink. At the end of the day I was free to leave, and I left, slightly reluctant, slightly relieved to go.

The very next day I was back in the hospital and now I was the carer, the presence beside the bed. My daughter Julie had cut her leg again, deeply, needing stitches. She had been unsettled by my long absence at the hospital the day before. She was confused and disoriented, reciting the words from the notices on the walls. Her voices had told her to cut, and now they were telling her not to talk to us, it seemed. I translated her needs to the nurses, her vague discontents. I felt happier being on this side of the equation: not the subject of the conversation but from the safe “objective” perspective of the well; on the side of the nurses. After all these years of practice I can explain what my daughter needs with great precision. I had found it so much harder to explain what I myself needed when I was the one lying on the bed. But my daughter is quite at home on the bed: the world of sickness is her adoptive country.

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After two weeks at close quarters with my nearest and dearest by the seaside I have made the following lists.

Things of which my (teenage) children are afraid, although I have honestly tried to raise them to be confident and without fear:

Loud noises
Burglars
Fire
Nuts (although neither is allergic)
Blemishes in fruit
Having a bad haircut
Being shown up in public
Flying insects
Crawling insects
Speaking in public
Eating in public
Walking in public
Spots
Paper cuts
Being crapped on by a flying bird (note, with particular reference to sea gulls)
Not understanding something
Bones in fish
Boredom
Becoming like their parents
Thunderstorms
Being middle-class
Being mistaken for the opposite sex

Things of which my (teenage) children are not afraid, despite all my attempts to instill fear:

Deafeningly loud music
Roller coasters
Strangers
Flying a plane (my son)
Heights
Taking mind-altering substances (in theory, not practice, so far, to the best of my knowledge)
Conception
Starvation
Poverty
Old age (because it won’t happen to them)
Me

Things of which I am afraid:

Loud noises
Burglars
Fire
Death of my children
Heights
Roller coasters
Being poor when I am old
Serious illness
Terrible pain
Unemployment
Spiders

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I lost my temper the other day. Isn’t that a strange phrase? What is this temper that you lose? Is it temper like temperance: do you lose your balance, your equilibrium? It certainly feels like that after the event, when the red mist clears, and you survey the damage.

I lost my temper at my fourteen year old son, and I don’t think any parent really wins when they lose their temper with their children. Apart from the practical fact that no teenager on this earth looks contrite and answers, “Yes, sorry Mum, I was wrong.” And even if they did, it would feel quite wrong – as if you had broken their spirit. Naturally enough, my son is my son – he gave me back as good as he got – which now I smile about, but which I could not see the humour in at the time. I did not lose the battle, but I did lose my dignity, and, temporarily, my peace of mind.

The fact is that my son is vulnerable, but of course he can be annoying too. He has Asperger’s, and I know, more than anyone else, how much crap he has to deal with at school because of that (why do his teachers care so much about handwriting anyway?). But he is also a teenager, smart, cocky, always right, keen to sort the world out. It can be funny, it can be distressing, and it can, of course, be explosive.

The bread in the picture was pain viennois, from a recipe by Richard Bertinet. As he suggested, I split one of the baguettes while still warm, popped in some thin bars of chocolate, and gave it to the children for a snack. Teenagers are not too old for such treats. Much contentment all round.

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