We’re less than ten days into lockdown when the news comes.
It’s not coronavirus. It’s cancer, coming to steal another person from us. The news comes like a game of whispers, from my grandad, to my dad, to my stepmum, to me, passed along like a poison apple. It loses detail as it moves, so by the time I sob it into my partner’s chest, all that remains is cancer, not long. And really, isn’t that all that matters?
My heart aches with every single mile stretching from London to Troon to Paisley, keeping my family grieving in separate bubbles. I write a letter. I want them to touch something I have touched, to see the strokes of my pen and where my hands folded the paper. I don’t know what to say. I drink. I cry.
I tell them that I’m sorry, small words shrinking even smaller in the face of grief. I tell them that I love them and that the happy hours I spent with them make even an atheist like me feel blessed. I’ve never had to write something like this before, knowing that this could be me saying goodbye, hoping that it isn’t. I think about going to Troon in those empty days between Christmas and New Year, how I could have overslept or flaked out and never seen her again, and my heart tightens. I did go. I saw her one last time, without ever thinking it could be the last time.
I ink a wildflower at the bottom of the page, a child drawing pictures for her grandparents’ fridge, trying to make my letter beautiful, as if that makes any difference at all. I press a cherry blossom and slip it between the pages. I seal the envelope with a kiss. Little touches of magic, little wishes that I hope will succeed where my words fail. That I hope will allow them to hold my letter in their hands and hear my voice. I love you, I love you, I love you.
I wait. My dad tells me that they got my letter, that it made them happy.
We lose her just a few short weeks later, the day before my grandad’s birthday. I think of her daughters, and their daughters, and I have to bend double and breathe through the ache. I think of my sisters, stuck in separate houses, less than five minutes from each other. I think of my dad and my grandad, who have been here before, who lost my granny to cancer when she was just 54. I wonder if anyone could be strong enough to survive that twice. Please, I whisper to no one, to myself, to god, please.
My dad goes to stay, and my heart lightens, just a little. He brings tomato plants and fry’s creams and beers, just like my papery blossom and flowery sketches, little talismans to say I love you, I love you, I love you.
They look at old photos, unearth old treasures, hold a glittering past up to the light, banishing the shadows of the present, just for a moment. The family chat fills with snapshots, not because the ducks look different in London or because my plants are especially interesting, but because we’re feeling each other out, pulling each other back into our lives when we’ve been forced apart. I’m here, our pictures say, I’m thinking of you.
Words aren’t enough. Words can’t fill the gap of taking someone’s hand, of pulling them into your arms, of smoothing away their tears. And so I send beautiful letters, so they can touch what I’m touching, photographs, so they can see what I’m seeing, recipes, so they can taste what I am tasting, music, so they can hear what I’m hearing. I present tiny scraps of my life like offerings, drawing my family close to me until we can be together again.