Blog contains personal views, graphic descriptions and graphic images that might not be your thing.
Before the Beginning (ten years ago, Tralee, Ireland)
She woke between sleeps.
We were all there, beside her. As she had been there for us since the moment we were born.
The word Mum doesn’t do the role, the sacrifice, the pressure, the total belief in your children, justice. Even if they don’t believe in themselves.
She knew the end was near. We, I think, knew it too, but there was denial. A sense that she might escape, we’d seen miracles happen before.
We were losing a force of goodness, of love, of faith. Someone that had our backs, regardless of the failures or weaknesses we had. She still looked at us with wonder and awe, like we were small children.
We held back the tears as she told us she loved us. We looked everywhere but the room. We gazed out of the window at the jagged mountains cutting the cotton wool clouds. We watched the rain haze faraway, that rain coming our way soon enough. Pondered the communications towers, lonely, isolated but connecting others. Would we become a family lost, like a galaxy without a centre, drifting aimlessly in space?
Between winces of pain and discomfort, she asked us what songs we would play at her funeral. More tears. Despite the tubes, liquids, the toll of cancer being obvious—it was an awakening. The words making this coming reality real.
My home was the far east of the British Isles, but I found myself the far west, living in a hospital with my mum, dad, brothers and sister.
We found times to be scared, to exchange glances, to learn and grow. We found time to smile.
The end came. And I remember being told not to wish these hours away, but at the time I wanted to. It was too much, for her, for us. I knew I wished those hours away, and did it knowingly and willingly. And while I wouldn’t want to relive any of it, I sometimes dream of seeing my mum again. She visited me more than once. Said she was getting a holiday from heaven.
The Irish funeral system is intense. Open coffin viewings at a funeral home with hundreds of well-meaning people passing through. I didn’t know many of them.
I smiled through most of it, for the person that was in the box was smiling at us. She’d already moved on. Somewhere better. Her faith never wavered, even in the last moments. Why would we give in now?
Grief was hard to find in those days. Things to do. Times to be strong. Relatives, meals, consoling my own family.
And the day came. I carried her in, with my dad and brothers. My sister, somehow, read and paid honour to Mum in the most beautiful and strong ways.
The rest of the service was a blur.
We carried her out. We stopped at the stairs of the church on the way out. A place she had been every week. We looked across the landscapes where the Atlantic Ocean erodes the sand, only clinging on to life thanks to the swaying grasses. Then, there, in that single moment, a perfect rainbow.
We carried her to her resting place. Said goodbye, again.
Couldn’t cry. Too many people to stay strong for, and every time I needed to grieve the opportunity was always taken from me.
And there as no anger. No bitterness. She was never like that. We were not like that. So why start now? I opened doors for people, I said please and thank you, I smiled, I supported those who really didn’t have the problems we were facing—because that’s who we were raised to be.
Could have gone off the rails. It was tempting.
But this is where having love around you saves you. Being there for others somehow pinned me to the earth just when I thought I was falling off.
I left school at 17 and had never been out of work. No breaks for university, for gap years, no redundancy, or gardening leave, no sickness. Barring a low number of holiday days, I’d been working every day for 23 years. I’d worked when I nearly lost my wife and child. I’d travelled long and dangerous roads to work—where fatalities happened almost daily. I performed well. Coming home was hard, times were hard. Bringing up a child with a severe disability was a blessing, but it wasn’t until later that we really appreciated just how easy other parents had it. So, I had the opportunity to leave my work, to have a few months break. I took it.
I wanted to go contracting. Fate intervened. A dream job. An impossible job, out of reach.
But I got it. I suspect Mum had something to do with it.
And in the years later when I had my own private office, when I received an MA for my work and knelt on the floor of Senate House. I looked up and gave thanks.
Writing as a mechanism for dealing with grief
In the year after I lost Mum, I started to write on weekly flash fiction competitions. Flash Friday was the greatest place in the entirety of the digital world. An incredible place of writers who were some of the best, and still remain so. I threw myself into it. Others did too. And through this most magical of places, I met friends, became a better writer, channelled my grief into creativity and positivity.
I helped with the creation of flash communities online that tried to support and draw more people to Flash Friday and other competitions. We produced some anthologies. Raised money for children’s literacy charities in underdeveloped counties. More importantly, we published writers for the first time. We built an online family that still has ties and bonds today.
#vss365 was born. At one point it generated two million impressions a day on Twitter. It allowed writers that had never written before the space and inspiration to do so. Experienced and successful writers were drawn too. New characters, worlds, novels, music, even film were inspired by projects that first started on #vss365. It produced another anthology, an amazing book with incredible artists. The project inspired other daily writing prompts to be born. Which inspired more. There are now more than a dozen.
We influenced the tending words in the US and UK for a long time, and some days it still happens. That’s the power of writing, of community, of grief inspiring positivity.
I got more than sixty messages of overwhelming support when I decided to study. One of these was the most incredible thing I’ve ever read. Thank you, Aspen.
I wrote a novel; Metropolitan Dreams. I’m still incredibly proud of it. It as not easy to balance full time work with few breaks, life, and the challenges we had, and to finish a book.
I started a sequel. It turned into two more novels. I finished them during the pandemic, when everything else was semi-apocalyptic. Again, throwing myself into writing was rewarding and positive.
I won’t ever try anything like those books again. I don’t recommend writing a story about New York and starting it billions of years ago, incorporating a real city sprinkled with angels and demons, a cartographer who can map space and time, and more than five points of view. The definition of over-ambition.
I was fortunate enough to be included in the horror anthologies Infernal Clock and CalenDark where my stories were highly praised. Some writers from there went on to mega worldwide success.
I went on to study at Creative Writing at Cambridge, not having been able to study when I was younger. I adored the experience. I met so many brilliant and talented people who I would not have met before. I read some incredible books. It was an inspiring and magical time. I started the current crime novel I’m close to finishing now.
I was accepted to UEA on the MA Creative Writing course, the oldest and most prestigious in the UK. I joined the Crime Fiction strand, which has only been going for five or so years but is wildly successful. It’s a privilege to be following in these footsteps.
The cohort and tutors are truly amazing. Sure, there have been some rough patches, but we’ve written these books over two years of a pandemic, with very few chances to meet each other, working across the globe. But everyone of the cohort has strength, beauty, and talent in bucketloads. They are the future of the crime fiction genre, no doubt about it.
Above and beyond the pandemic
At home, we went through a rougher few years than most. Not only was I doing my MA, but our daughter was finalising her studies, it was the most extreme of journeys for all of us. She’s now finished. Has a job offer. She managed to learn to drive and pass. My son’s medical conditions have flared, but he’s stronger and more inspiring that almost anyone I know. My wife was studying for her own degree, full time, more intense than I can possibly describe. She also has a job offer and her journey is a world of perseverance, determination and fighting against the odds. I could not be more proud of my soulmate and the children we have raised.
I felt the need to get ahead with my course novel. I was also inspired by my amazing tutor. I finished the draft early November, almost a year ahead. Thank goodness I did.
Shortly afterwards I had several medical diagnosis come through – three life-changing discussions in one very strange week! Lifelong neurodiversity that had gone undiagnosed. Medical conditions that can cause severe debilitating pain. And, to top it off, head and neck cancer, which had spread to lymph nodes. Making me look like a chipmunk, or Kuato from Total Recall.
Radiotherapy five times a week for six weeks. Chemo once a week for six weeks, concurrently.
They said the treatment as brutal and would bring a professional athlete to their knees. It would get worse every week. It would be unbearable by week five, by week six nobody comes through unscathed, week seven and eight (after treatment) would be off the charts. Week One, I was in hospital Christmas night. One of the worst nights of my life. And other fun things happened that night. The following weeks were, weirdly, much easier. I pushed myself hard, harder than I should have. I ate what felt like razor blades. Drank when my mouth and throat were full of blisters and sores, burns the severity of which is hard to comprehend. Every day, we went back for more. Pinned to a radioactive table, the head mask so tight, that I couldn’t move, that even blinking my eyes was difficult.
I lost three stone in weight. I ate most of the way through, which they said was highly unusual, but would significantly help my recovery. Inspired by someone on my first day of chemo, who was at the end of his. He could barely move or talk, yet was trying to eat a sandwich (which it’s hard to describe just what an achievement this is). I watched him hunched over, eating like an animal, but he kept going, I wanted to be this guy.
Week six was horrible, on par with how I felt week one. Week seven was crushing. Unable to move. Radiation burns so bad on my neck that looked like things you’d see in horror films. I was tube feeding by this point.
Tube feeding – how lovely. Liquid slop you wouldn’t feed a dog. Gooey, the consistency of heavy cold phlegm, sucked into a syringe then plunged into a tube, a hole in the stomach the final destination. Oh, but you can’t just chuck it in and be done with it, no, flush it first, put a bit in at a time, repeat the process, three or four syringes later you’re there. Then the meds. The cleaning. The fact that each plunge took a psi pressure that would blow your tyres, when you could barely move, was an added bonus.
It was disgusting, a perpetual fight against nausea. But it wasn’t over as I’d have to get up in the middle of the night to syringe pain killers and intake water. A process that took ages.
I vowed to get off the feeding tube as quickly as I could, but I was in no position to do it. I couldn’t even drink a single sip of water. Saliva was ropey and glue-like. I couldn’t swallow it. Other times, no saliva. Mouth dryness like the worst hangover you’ve ever had, multiplied tenfold. I couldn’t even take the mouthwashes, as I had done all the way through. The pain was, literally, flooring. A single drop so painful I curled in a ball on the kitchen floor. This was totally normal, they said. Indeed, I was lucky to have had it for as short a period as I did. But it took my wife to drag me to have the first mouthwashes of nails and rusty screws.
Within a few days, I’d braved a sip of water. I will never again take for granted how incredible it is just to drink water. Seriously. The joy.
When your mouth is burnt, your gums peeling, your tongue a lunar landscape of craters and hills—all you want to do is drink some water, but you can’t.
A few days more, some jelly. By the end of the week, I was pushing myself with cookies and pies – anything that had high calorific density. Desperately trying to get rid of my feeding tube. The shortest I could come off it was four weeks after treatment. I did it in five. And I caught Covid in that period as well.
They say my recovery is rare. I’m doing as well as anyone that comes through this treatment can. Nobody really does better than this. Yet, it’s still a shadow. It’s still a different existence. Exhaustion is a demon stalking every day. Lymphoedema has changed how I look (not much fun losing three stone and looking like I’m six stone heavier than I am). Voice is often croaky. Meals take five times longer, have to be planned, and require 1-2 pints of water. Still, plenty of people have it much, much worse.
Today, I stand a very different person to ten years ago. So much has been achieved. Moving from one battleground to the next. But I am blessed. Truly blessed.
The book I’m about to submit has been born from all these things. In a strange way it started in a hospital room in Ireland ten years ago. This journey has been the hardest. This book is a product of this. We are all our own harshest critics. Any work, when you are this close, never seems good enough. But I know this book is special. It has been through infernos and battlegrounds. I read the words, and I realise every one of them has been through this journey with me. And, you know what? I am proud of them. I think it’s a world and story that deserves good things. But, I’m not in control of that. All I know is that I can’t give up on these words, or this journey. So, I send them out into the rough seas of agents and publishers, but they’ve been through all of this with me, they are strong, they’ll find a way through.
Writing is often difficult, but we are privileged to be able to do it. I try not to forget this. Try not to forget a single drop of water could bring me to my knees. Try to remember my mum, my family in Ireland, my family at home. My friends. My cohorts from Cambridge and UEA. My supervisors and tutors. The medical teams that made me promise that this book would make it. The beautiful and amazing writing communities online. You are all part of this book. This wonderful adventure. Thank you for being there the last ten years.
Much love – M x