Tuesday 24 November 2009

Aunt Maren

My aunt Maren first suffered from breast cancer when she was in her early thirties.
She had recently been through a painful divorce and was a busy doctor with two small boys, who went to stay with their dad and his new wife whilst my aunt received treatment.

I never met my uncle, but there aren't many stories that paint him in a good light.
Family rumour has it that he never wanted a wife who was as successful as he was. Although they met in medical school, he preferred a woman who'd stay at home rather than go out and have a career. So he started sleeping with his secretary, ultimately leading to my aunt seeking a divorce.

During her stay in hospital it was touch and go. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy and my uncle asked his boys to start calling his new wife "mum".

I don't know if they did. Both of my cousins are older than me so I was just a little girl myself, but it shocked me when I heard this story years later that it was just assumed that cancer meant a predictable death.

As it happens, Maren recovered and got her sons back and returning to her successful hospital career soon after. She always seemed a strong (almost stern) woman to me. Someone who didn't suffer fools gladly and didn't like bullshitters.

She was a tough cookie. So it came as a surprise when the cancer returned, almost thirty years after she'd been given the all-clear. It was really discovered by accident, when the hospital where she worked tested a new medical scanner. It showed up multiple lumps throughout her body: lungs, spine, lymph nodes...

Thankfully they'd caught it early. She wasn't having any discomfort at that stage and went back into treatment right away. Both of her sons were adults now: the younger one married to a lovely woman from the Philippines, the older one successful in a career as a city planner.

We celebrated her sixtieth birthday at the same time as her thirty year anniversary at the hospital - she was well-liked and respected, and friends and family from all over the world gathered to celebrate, eat and sing.

Maren wore a cool wig to cover her head, it looked almost better than her old hairstyle. She seemed to have boundless energy and a catchingly positive attitude towards her treatment.

Cancer wouldn't beat her, it had tried before and beaten a retreat instead!

She seemed to have left behind some of her toughness, and instead concentrated on having a good time with everyone who'd travelled to her party from around the globe.

The next time I saw her, for a fleeting visit with my mum (her younger sister) she had dispensed with the wig and wore a colourful headscarf instead. Maren served us a tasty home made soup and we laughed along with her daughter-in-law about strange foods people like to eat in the Philippines. We chatted and listened to classical music. I was still convinced the treatment was working and it would only be a matter of time until Maren got her energy back, but she seemed to be in pain and did things around the house a lot slower than usual.

I think it was a great comfort to her to have her daughter-in-laws support and company as she was going in and out of hospital for treatment.

In the spring, I flew back to Germany for a job. Maren was in a hospice by then, and I was unable to go and see her. My flights were booked at inconvenient times which wouldn't allow me to stay an extra day and make the journey and my elder cousin's work commitments didn't leave him any time to drive me there. My younger cousin was in Asia for work.

So I called her up instead. They were showing the new Pope on the television. I spent my evenings having dinner alone and it was nice talking to a relative. All the energy seemed to have gone from her voice however. She sounded weak and feeble, not like the strong, fearsome woman I was used to. Her breathing was laboured and I chatted on to try and take her mind off her pain-filled day, but I felt awful that I wouldn't be able to go and visit.

I got the impression she didn't really want me to. I know she had friends who came and supported her, but she was a very different person now from the together woman we had all known and respected. I ran out of things to say, it all seemed so meaningless.

"I love you, Maren" I told her before we said goodbye, and we hung up. I had never told her this before, and it's not something members of my family say to each other often. It was the last time I spoke to her.

Back in London, I was looking forward to a visit from my mum and sister a few weeks later - it was the day before my 28th birthday. My phone rang and it was my aunt Cathy, my mum's youngest sister.

"Maren has died" she told me, and I greeted my mother and sister in a strangely detached way. I wanted to be happy that they'd arrived but I needed to tell them the sad news.

"Come on in," I told them and had them sit down in my kitchen before I could say the words. I'd never had to tell someone about the death of their sister before, and I cried along with my mum.

Although this is a story with a sad ending, I think it is a hugely inspiring one at the same time. My aunt brought up her two boys herself. She beat cancer in the first round and saw her sons grow up and become respected adults. She now has two gorgeous grandsons who have never met her, but they are all still very much part of my family. My aunt's picture has pride of place in my grandma's front room, right next to my grandad's picture who died the previous summer, aged ninety.

Maren made the most of the years given to her, she still had a full life although she didn't live to ninety years of age. She was a successful doctor who treated many patients and touched the lives of so many people, all in the thirty years between her first and second diagnosis. Her toughness and positive attitude to life helped her recover the first time around, I am sure of it.

I loved her very much.

Sienna Lewis is the author of the new book, 'The Intimate Adventures of an Office Girl', out now in paperback. You can follow her further adventures over at http://www.siennaslovers.blog.co.uk

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