In 2014/2015 my BFF told me that firstborns are their mum’s best friends. This was after I had confided in her some of the painful truths my mum would reveal to me, and my inability to process them as well as she needed me to.
I enjoyed a close relationship with my mum most of my life but after her stage four breast cancer diagnosis I became one of her best friends and it was both my greatest honour and my greatest burden.
I am a highly empathetic person. One of my bosses last year mentioned the same to me and I was surprised he noticed as we did not have many one-on-one interactions. Most people do not see beyond my tough exterior to realise that I feel things deeply. When I care about someone I carry their pain as if it were my own. I remember when my sister had her permed hair unfairly cut off in the third term of Form Four. My mum and I went to see her and the minute my sis entered the car she started crying. That set me the fuck off and I started crying so hard my sis ended up comforting me. Lol.
My empathic nature is the reason I am very selective with who and what I give a fuck about, otherwise managing my emotions would be too exhausting.
After my mum finished both her chemotherapy and radiotherapy she went to India for a PET scan. Her sister and I were to go with her, mpaka we got Visas ‘n shit, but then insurance backed down and said they could only afford to pay for one person to accompany my mum. I volunteered my aunt as tribute as I was certain I would spend most of the trip crying instead of being the proverbial shoulder for my mum to cry on.
The hardest part of my mum’s cancer journey was the pain. Also, now is the time to confess I hate the term “cancer journey”. The only reason I use it is because it is deemed politically correct compared to “battle with cancer.” But IMO the word journey gives off road trip vibes, which are fun, happy, excited vibes. So why the fuck say cancer journey? Why would anyone choose to go on such a journey? In fact I am not going to use that ridiculous term going forward. “Battle with cancer” depicts a truer picture because you put on metaphorical armour and literally fight for your life. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. But even the battles lost are still worth telling.
But, I digress. My mum is/was (497 days since she died and I still do not know which tense to use) the strongest person I know but in 2014 and 2015 she would get these pain episodes that were so arresting she no longer wanted to live. From time to time she would plead with me to please let her die. I am a firm believer in dialogue so one day I asked her if she really wants to die. Her response was along the lines that when she is in that debilitating, arresting pain, in that moment yes she wants to die. We then agreed that she would hold on at least until my brother finished his degree in South Africa. He is the last born and would not be able to handle her dying when he was so far away.
While she may have asked me from time to time to let her rest in peace, she never had such conversations with my siblings. I guess in her own way she wanted to shield her babies from that pain. But me? Nah fam!! She considered me strong enough to both hear and process the fact that she, the love of my life, wants to die. Hearing her say so always made me cry, sometimes right in front of her. Other times the tears would hold on till I left her presence. They would hold on long enough for me to give my mum an illusion of strength.
When my mum became paralysed in 2014 we did not have much help for a very long time. I will definitely get into details as I tell the story of JS kicking cancer’s ass, but for a very long time we did not have a night nurse (I bet Gregory Isaacs is now playing in your head. Lol). So being the firstborn I automatically became my mum’s pseudo nurse aide. That meant all evenings I had to be home sober and at a decent time to take care of my mum. I was in charge of giving her her medication, wheeling her from the sitting room to her bedroom, transferring her onto the bed, making sure she was positioned comfortably enough to sleep, turning her every 2- 3 hours each night so that she does not get bedsores. I would also help with her accounting and her Mpesa business, among other things that preoccupied her time when she was not in pain.
Sounds noble yes? It was. But there were days I hated it. And on those days I hated myself for hating it.
Damn that was hard to write. I have never said that out loud even to myself. But I started this blog to comfort and inspire and I have not lost sight of that mission no matter how many “fun” posts I put up.
There were days I was glad to be my mum’s helper. I was cognisant of the fact that the only reason she would ask me to do stuff for her was because she could not do them for herself. My mum was a fiercely independent woman before her paralysis so I can only imagine how shitty it made her feel being so dependent on everyone for everything. And I wanted to do those things for her because I knew she would not be around for long and I did not want to look back later and regret the night I did not want to get out of bed to put the TV remote control within her reach. But there were other days I would get home from work tired AF and I just wanted to sleep, but that was not possible. On those days I resented the fact that it was only me she would ask to help her with stuff. It was not like I was the only person in the house … It was just a shitty shitty shitty situation and even now I still hate thinking about it.
With time a battle started to rage inside me. A battle between wanting to take care of my dying mum and wanting to live my life. I know that to care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honours, but I am only human. To say I always felt honoured taking care of my mum would be to tell a lie. It was difficult to make after work plans because I had to get home early and sober. When I think about it now I guess that is part of why/how I became an introvert. Home was the only destination I could afford after work for a very long time. I remember my birthday in 2015, (we had gotten a night nurse by then but when they would not show up for work I had to step in) my boyfriend at the time took me for a lovely dinner at Caramel and dropped me home immediately after. There was no birthday sex for me as I had to go home and take care of my mum’s second turn of the night.
I am not a bad person. I do have some assholic tendencies but overall I am a good person. So it was exceedingly difficult to process that battle raging inside me. In addition to hating myself there were days I downright hated going home as I knew what was waiting for me. So I started decompressing between home and work. I would smoke up, have one glass of wine and go home after that. That was my unhealthy (as therapy last year helped me realise) way of shedding all the stress of my work day and “stiffening up my upper lip” before heading home. But it was important for me to be myself by my self for a bit so that I could go back home with nothing but positivity and good vibes. My mum was dealing with debilitating pain over and above her paralysis so she had no time for my shit. I termed it decompressing and was rather pleased to find out years later that it really is a thing.
But there were days I could not decompress enough. No matter what I did I was not ready to go home. So I had an honest conversation with my kid sister one day and admitted that I was drowning. I told her I will need some help on those dark days I cannot summon any positivity and good vibes. Days I just need to get drunk, pass out for a few hours and only do the final turn at 6 a.m. when I am getting ready for work. And bless her heart she came all the way through. We made a pretty good team, and I was able to enjoy my relationship with my mum more as the battle was no longer raging inside me.
I still had days I was overwhelmed by everything but once we got a nurse aide those days became less and less. But I remember a specific day in January 2016 my kid sister came into my room and found me bawling. That is the only way to describe it. My mum was admitted to hospital for 20 days that January and one evening my kid sis walked in on me crying like someone had died. I cried most of the night and some of the morning the next day. I cried so hard my body manifested the stress physically and I had to see a doctor the next day as I fell ill at some point in the night.
All that firstborn pressure was so intense some days I felt like it would kill me. Which is mostly why I want twin girls. I have, errr … written, my future twin girls into existence a few times on the blog and now you know why. I do not want any of my children to experience the suffocating pressure I did just because they are a firstborn. Yes I know even with twins there is a firstborn, but that is only if you want to be anal about it.
I have two nieces and one day when the elder one was about eight she was doing one thing or the other for her small sister. I do not remember exactly what it was but it was a chore of some sort that she had to take on double the responsibility as her sister was too young to do so. I will never forget the way she sighed so dramatically and said “being a firstborn is so hard!” I LQTM and stepped in to give my fellow firstborn a hand.
Being a firstborn is hard work on the best of days, but being a firstborn in dire straits came with personality-changing-pressure I never want to experience again for as long as I live.