When my daughter, Bec, phoned me to ask me to go to a hospital appointment with her, it didn’t occur to me it could be anything serious. Everything was good in her life and she was about to fly off to America to promote a book she’d written about L Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. We went to the hospital and, after lots of tests and prodding, the doctor sat us down and said, “I’m so sorry, we’ve got to make a plan.” The lump Bec had found was breast cancer. They asked if she wanted children because, if so, they’d need to go through a cycle and harvest eggs. She said she didn’t and they said, “That’s a very good decision because we need to get on with saving your life.” She had her first chemotherapy session on the day her book came out.
Life changed very dramatically and it was devastating for Bec. She couldn’t write. My husband, Tony, and I looked after her at our farm in the Welsh mountains and took her into Oxford for chemo. We’d have to stay there for a couple of days until she was strong enough to travel. It was heartbreaking to see her in agony and I would have changed places with her in a second, but I just had to knuckle down and get on with it. I took her temperature to make sure she wasn’t getting an infection and made endless bowls of chicken soup that I’d mush up. We’d do crosswords and we watched the TV but avoided anything sad. Bec couldn’t really have visitors because of her immune system. Poor Tony had to manage the farm and the lambing on his own.
When Bec was well enough between sessions, we would walk in the fields and look at the birds, and Tony said, “I’m going to make you a bird feeder and put it outside your window, so when you wake up in the morning you can see them.” He went down to the workshop and came up with a splendid bird feeder that had a little crooked house on the top so that little birds could get inside. That sparked Bec’s interest in flight.
After the agony of three chemo sessions, they scanned Bec to see if it was working, but the tumour hadn’t shrunk at all and she needed a complete mastectomy on that side. I walked to the lift with her and then they said I couldn’t go any further. Bec looked at me and she said, “Of all the things I don’t want to do, I really don’t want to do this.” Poor baby. She was very brave. I went to see her that evening and she was healing well, but she hated being in hospital. I used to get there really early and they’d have to chuck me out. Then she had radiotherapy and then had to wait a few months for another scan.
In learning to fly and in writing about it, she had found a way to navigate the chaos
Bec had read up on it all and I think she knew she might not have much time left. She wanted to fit in as much as possible. She’d lost 4st, but her hair started to grow back and she was walking more. On one of those walks, she was watching the gliders at the local club and decided to have a go herself. She loved it. She said, “The sky is so big, it’s got space for my grief.” I think her grief was the realisation that she might not live long, that such life as she might have would be full of scans and tests. And then, one day, she said she was going to start writing again. Legally, she had to make entries in a logbook and she kept wanting to write more than there was space for. The words started to flow out of her and she became this glowing, extraordinary woman who was so excited to get up and out into the world. In learning to fly and in writing about it, she had found a way to navigate the chaos.
Life seemed so full of possibility for a while. Bec had a clear scan and spent the winter as writer in residence at a gliding club in the Southern Alps in New Zealand. She had a wonderful time. There was loads of big open space where she could be herself. Flying and writing were entwined. She was filling notebooks and had found a publisher she loved for a book about her experiences, Skybound. She was exploring flight and fear and also teaching creative writing to children with dyslexia. She loved sharing the sky with birds and went to Nepal to fly with vultures.
Then everything changed again. She’d been feeling unwell for a couple of months, but the doctors thought it was irritable-bowel syndrome. She went off on a writing residency to finish Skybound but was so poorly she had to come home. More tests followed and we were in Hay on Wye, standing outside a bookshop, when her doctor rang to say that her cancer markers were off the scale. The cancer had come back in her abdomen. A specialist said, “She’s young and we are going to throw everything at it.” She had a radical hysterectomy and then they gave her six weeks to recover from the surgery before starting on the dreaded chemotherapy. I’d sit beside her as they pumped it. It took seven hours and made her feel so awful.
She was too ill to do it herself, so I wrote emails to keep all her friends up to date. I’d write about what was going on at the farm and the birds we were watching. We got replies from all over the world, from all the people she’d met in her before- and after-cancer life. People so wanted to do something. I had the idea that if everyone could knit me a square I could make them into a friendship blanket. I made two lovely blankets – so colourful and beautiful – and they reminded Bec of how loved she was.
If you are going to lose someone, you need to know you did everything you could, that you turned over every stone and knocked on every door
After six rounds of chemotherapy, they gave Bec a bit of a break and then they were going to give her another six rounds. There were tumours on her lung and on her liver. She was supposed to go for a scan one day but couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor came and could feel the ridge of the tumour all around her liver. He wanted her to go to the hospital, but she couldn’t bear that, so he organised a ripple bed for us and we set it up in the sitting room and carried her down. He also organised a hospice nurse to come and help at night. I’d curl up on the couch next to Bec’s bed and try to get a few hours' sleep.
We were sitting by Bec when she slipped away. It was very peaceful at the end. I rang the district nurse and she helped me wash Bec, and we dressed her in favourite clothes and surrounded her with candles. Her friends came in to hug us. We had Bec at home for two days and then the undertakers came and took her away. We had a beautiful humanist service for Bec, with poetry and things she’d written. We played Somewhere Over The Rainbow and a film clip of her flying in Nepal. So many people came and we felt so surrounded by love. Bec always said the only thing that matters is love.
Bec was cremated and we still have the ashes. We’ve got a few ideas of where to scatter them, but I can’t do it yet. And she left me Skybound. She’s such a beautiful writer. Her wonderful editor, Sophie, came down here and we looked at everything Bec had written and put it all together. It’s not the book it would have been if she’d been able to finish it herself, but it is beautiful and I’m so glad people will be able to read it. I can hear her voice so clearly. I often can. She sits on my shoulder and tells me to stop crying. She’s a part of me and always will be.
Being able to care for Bec was such a privilege and gift. If you are going to lose someone, you need to know you did everything you could, that you turned over every stone and knocked on every door. It feels against nature to lose a child, but I do feel lucky that Bec died at home. And that she knew she was loved, not just by us, but by everybody.
Tony and I are very dear friends. Since we first met, we have done everything together. We’re very close. We talk about Bec constantly; she needs to wander through our conversations. Every New Year’s Day, we go down to the Gower and draw pictures in the sand and we tell Bec how much we love her. Then the tide comes in and takes the pictures away and we go on into another year.
As told to Cathy Rentzenbrink
Skybound, out now, is published by Picador