Lychees are my favorite fruit. They have a very short season in January and February. Chris bought up big on them, and I put them in the fridge – they are delicious chilled. So I was standing at the kitchen bench peeling away a lychee, and it suddenly occurred to me that this is my last lychee season and next year I won’t be around to enjoy them.

My reaction to this was not particularly dramatic or profound. I just kept peeling away. I do think about it a bit though, but not with any sense of overwhelming grief. When I was still well enough to take our little pooch on his morning walks, enjoying the beautiful purple displays, I thought to myself, “Well, this is probably my last jacaranda season.” But possibly I was secretly entertaining the thought that there might just be one more. But now, the lychees have made it clear. Last lychees, lady! Enjoy!

At Christmas, I said to my mother, “Well, it doesn’t matter to me if I don’t finish my novel.” She said, “Well, it matters to me!” So I finished my novel.

I sent it to my agent, Grace, hinting that they might need to hurry up if it was in any way a goer. “I will read it straight away!” she responded. That was a couple of weeks ago now. For the anxious author, this is very concerning. Okay, it is 100,000 words and she has a literary agency to run. Also, I imagine other authors are making their pesky demands of her. But if she sets herself a daily task (hardly a task, surely a great pleasure!) of ten thousand words a day, then she should romp through it in ten days. (I suppose we must grant her the weekend off, although really…)

“It’s not that bad!” I cry to Chris. (Or is it?)

I imagine various scenarios in my head. She keeps sighing and putting it down out of boredom, and after a while and a bit of prodding from her colleagues, she picks it up again. Then her phone rings so she puts it down and forgets about it. Finally she tells the work experience girl to read it, and then write up a potted review. Unfortunately for me, the work experience girl has just done a course in some radical new-guard of literature. My novel seems very tired and old-fashioned to her. All this she tells Grace. Grace sighs. How to tell her dying client that her last work, years spent labouring over, high on steroids, will never be published. I am very gracious about it, and then promptly die. Grace must live with this guilt for the rest of her life – she gets counselling.

All this in my head, of course, and none of it the slightest bit fair on my beloved Grace!

Because my legs are now so weak, I have increasing difficulty rising from a seated position. So we hired what is commonly known as a Smoky Dawson chair – a bulky armchair that tips you gently forward, very slowly while making a low whirring sound (you would not want to be in a house fire trying to get out of it in a hurry) till finally you are in a position where you can rise with relative ease. Or you should. However, (legs so weak) I am now terrified that it will just dump me on the floor or propel me across the living room into the television. I have to have Chris nearby ready to catch me.

Speaking of Chris, he puts up with a lot. I sit trapped in my Smoky Dawson chair, too scared to get out, barking orders at him (maybe not barking, but he is continually having to get things for me, which he does with unfailing good grace.) Sometimes if I have gone back to bed and he is having a moment’s peace, I will ring him up from the bedroom. Yesterday, in my anxiety that he would be late picking up Mum from the airport, he had several cranky phone calls from the bedroom. He was late, but it didn’t matter because the plane was late. What a cow I am turning into, I thought to myself after he left. I think (small excuse) that it is borne of frustration. Every day I can do less and less.

I find myself sometimes thinking of the book What Katy Did, which I read as a girl, where the lively tomboy Katy is felled by a swing breaking and becomes a bad-tempered invalid. Her saintly Cousin Helen (also an invalid) comes to visit and teaches her that she must face her illness with “patience, cheerfulness, hopefulness, neatness, and making the best of things.” This is all well and good, Cousin Helen, but you feel so crappy a lot of the time! Mostly I am horrified by what I look like in the mirror. Bald, puffy-faced, bloated belly, stick legs, arms covered in angry red spots from the steroids. I find it is best not to look.

One would think that you would spend these last lingering days, leaning gently over gardenia bushes, inhaling their intoxicating scent. Or índeed enjoying the gentle sunshine on my shoulder. But no, I have been spending my last lingering days in my Smoky Dawson chair watching endless ancient episodes of Grand Designs on YouTube. Kevin McLeod has a good head of hair, that’s how old these episodes are. I cannot quite picture Katy, lying wanly in her neatly-turned out bedroom, employing her last hours similarly, even if all that stuff had been invented yet.

Anyway, after about fifteen episodes back to back (I am very slow on the uptake), I began to detect a pattern. An architect husband, anxious to build a statement house with which to at last convey to the world his vision, buys a piece of pristine land in the picturesque English countryside. Then he proceeds to build an oversized box with zinc cladding and oddly-spaced windows “I didn’t realise it would be so big!” cries his wife. Nor did the husband apparently, nor indeed the neighbours. The couple take out a big mortgage, sell their little cottage and move into a caravan. Mild prodding from Kevin reveals they have neither the time nor the budget to pull it off. Things go wrong almost immediately – unforeseen problems with the land; swamps, flood etc. Also nothing measures up – the beams won’t fit. Cut to exasperated local tradies sawing bits of wood off. Money running out, the architect must now do a lot of manning the tools, even though he has no experience whatsoever. This exasperates the tradies even further. “ I wouldn’t want to live here,” mutters the head tradie ominously. Kevin makes periodic visits in his gum boots and puffer jacket, shaking his head grimly. His job at this point is to be extremely pessimistic about their chances of pulling it off. To complicate matters, the wife insists that the family be installed in the house by Christmas, and on this point , she is unwavering. Finally, after two or three condensed minutes of anxious appeal and gazing dourly at plans, the bank gives them more money. But now they must spend an unforeseen yet huge amount of money trying to stop the house from flooding every time it rains, which it turns out is all the time. The wife cries. The marriage is looking very shaky.

And then…and then.. in the last five minutes Kevin comes striding up the path, his mouth agape in wonderment. The house has been completed and could not be more perfect and statement-making. Okay, it is a blot on the landscape in its picturesque rural surroundings, but no one mentions this. Inside it is all cathedral ceilings and complicated staircases, which one imagines the children plummeting down.

So now I ask myself, why am I watching this, let alone spending forty minutes describing in detail what any other viewer would pick up after one viewing. Is this the way to spend one’s last days? But what else does one do, I ask myself. I pick up the classics: Dickens, Austen, but they are so spectacularly good, it’s just demoralising!

There is no manual on how to spend one’s last days!

Had my new novel been entitled “My Bowels: Daily Battles with the Demon Sphincter”, perhaps it would have been read by now and on its way to being battled over by several high-end publishers. After all, in its own way, it is quite exciting, fraught with the possibility of the dreaded “accident”. Every day, my digestive system throws something new at me. I am either constipated or the absolute opposite. The worst part is this: I ensconce myself deep within my Smoky Dawson chair, legs up on leg rest, ancient episode of Grand Designs ready to go on my tablet, when suddenly I am beset by the urgent call to get to the bathroom asap. I must now dismount from the Smoky Dawson chair, which does not do anything quickly, especially since in my panic I keep stabbing the wrong buttons. Slowly, whirring softly (“Don’t panic, don’t panic,” it is telling me in its passive-aggressive fashion), it moves into its dismount position and Chris, standing by fretfully, hoists me up out of there and I bolt to the bathroom. Such are the daily humiliations of having cancer. Chris, the great romantic love of my life since we were both nineteen, is now intimately acquainted with the torrid ups and downs of my digestive system.

I have started taking a lively interest in planning my funeral. This is an interesting exercise since of course I won’t be there to enjoy it. A slide show might be nice, I thought to myself, so I have started asking all my friends to share their photos of us together, which I then censor to ensure that only the more attractive photos of me end up on the screen. It will be set to the beautiful Supremes song “Some Day We’ll be Together”, which my friend Simon and I know word for word, including all the “Mm-mmms.” We once spent a memorable five minutes, driving around the Domain, crooning it together.

We have a beautiful church in the suburb that I live in, but because I am a non-believer, I am not permitted to use it. Fair enough, I said to Simon. Not fair enough, he responded crossly. They have a nice old community hall next door which I could use, though it is all a bit scout hall. Does one want to be sent off in a scout hall? When the girls were in primary school, the class made a little horror film with my help entitled “The Forbidden Door”. The community hall was the scene of our big set-piece, the Halloween Ball, where the kids turned up in all their ghoulish dress-ups and danced together while the evil teachers mocked them. My daughters (nepotism at work here) played a great scene together where they squabbled with each other (borne of years of experience, even at that tender age). I can’t remember what they squabbled about, but I know that they re-wrote the scene because they thought my attempts at “young person’s speak” pathetic. Such are the memories of the community hall!

It has been fun, asking old friends to dig out their photos of us when we were younger and much more attractive. What fun we had, I think, as I gaze at the various nonsenses we got up to! But then I mention it to the girls, and I don’t think they see it as such a fun exercise at all. I realise with a jolt that my conscientious organising everything is perhaps not fun at all for them, and they are dreading, dreading, dreading what lies ahead and wishing, wishing, wishing it wasn’t going to happen. In their mid-twenties, they are too young to lose their mother. I sometimes think in my own self-absorption and preoccupation with my illness, I forget about what they are going though, and will continue to go through, year after year, without their mother.

“I wish you wouldn’t go,” Chris said to me one night, which broke my heart.

For a while there, having cancer is like having a demanding casual job. Your diary fills with medical appointments which mysteriously give you a sense of purpose. You become very attached to your doctors; your appointments with them feel like lunch dates with old friends.

But then… but then…it gets to the point where you just can’t do it anymore, and I am at that point now. I just want to fade quietly into oblivion. My girls wrap their arms around me and weep. There’s no way to make any of this better for them, and that’s the hardest part.

Shirley Barrett, February 2022
The Guardian