Slow Motion by Ellie Slee
By Wasafiri Editor on August 16, 2021 in
It was my fourth birthday and we were moving into the house that would become our home of twenty years. The heat was arid, and the road — the same road where I’d learn to ride a bike, run races with my sister, walk back from exams down, break up with my boyfriend at the kerb of — was glittering.
My mum was helping the men unload the van. In my memory, then, everything falls away, so it’s me, in the middle of the cul-de-sac, my sister standing just behind me. Even the pavements split and the road widens and this girl — this girl — comes cycling towards us, in slow motion somehow, with her little brother behind her to compound the weird, magical symmetry of our first meeting.
She’s got long blonde hair, the longest, blondest hair I’ve ever seen, and it’s wavy and billowing out behind her as she stands astride the bar of her bike. I think she looks like a princess, a girl from a story. I think she’s easily the most beautiful person in the world.
Your name was Laura and you lived next door.
It was 2017. I was working as a thesis tutor in Manchester, walking from the train station to the university to start a day full of essay feedback.
I’d started a WhatsApp group with you and another close friend, your cousin Georgina, to show you photos from my scans and share what size of pastry my gestating baby was that week. I’d inventively called it ‘Pastries’.
A message flashed up on the screen.
i’ve got some bad news. nothing serious, i’ll be ok. but i’ve got cancer.
At the time, I was on strong anti-depressants that didn’t let me feel. So I didn’t feel. I just stared numbly at my phone and ran over the sentences again and again. but i’ve got cancer. nothing serious.
Sometimes, at night, when I can’t sleep, you’re there in my mind. I see us, you, me, and my sister, each of us cradling a glass of wine, arms knitted around a tiny table in my local pub in London, and you, always my cheerleader, are telling me I can do anything. Anything.
I see us sitting in Hyde Park, right before we went to swim in the Serpentine, and you are pushing a blade of grass around your palm. You’ve met a guy, you say. You roll a cigarette. You’re going to freeze your eggs.
I see us two days before I first went to university, in the old house, the one I met you outside of, the one I grew up in. You are making The Sandwich. Ciabatta, halved, toasted, a silken slick of olive oil. Roasted vegetables. Goats cheese. Balsamic. Rocket. Heaven.
I get your letters, the ones you sent home from university, years before the Sandwich, your neat, round writing in purple pen. I used to bring them to school with me in my inside blazer pocket and read them, hoping they’d give me an air of mystery and intrigue, because nothing says you’re special like a letter from a person who’s left home. I see a different letter, which arrived just after I had my daughter. In silver ink on slubbed brown card it says, ‘being a mum is so hard sometimes, but I am always here for you.’
I see you in the hospital, whisper, I will never meet the love of my life.
I see your two boys: white haired, hilarious Milo, shy, ginger Oisín. And I make deals. What if I could kill a bad guy and give you his vitality? Sap the life from him, smother him, stab him, slit his throat, and hand you his health. Would I do it? I think I would. Or what if I could swap you for another person with the multiplying evil in their body, swap you for my Dad, with his cancer that is slow growing and benign. He has had a beautiful time on earth, and he’s older now, and you have so much left to do. Would I make the switch and put him on the wheeled bed in his sitting room, his skin paper, his organs failing, his hands unable to lift a glass to his mouth, his nerves eaten by a tumour the size of a mango?
What’s the point? It doesn’t work that way.
I wonder, what if I hadn’t intervened at that point? What if you’d done something different, there?
What if you’d married the guy I advised you not to? Would he have insisted you go to the doctor sooner? Would he have sat with you, and advocated for you, and told them to just have a look anyway, even though it’s probably nothing? He was mean; I don’t think he would’ve. I remember that day, sitting on my sister’s bedroom floor, and you told me you weren’t sure about marrying him, and I said, then don’t. And you asked me why you couldn’t find a nice guy. In that moment, I wanted to give you my nice guy. I didn’t need my boyfriend, the kind, sweet, careful man, not like you did.
Again. It doesn’t work that way.
And anyway. Anyway. These are the things you only start to see as a mother. You realise that if there was one different turn you took — not just with men, not just relationships or jobs or houses, not just great big, life changing turns, but tiny, incremental ones, turns on the street, so you miss a bus or catch an early one, so you swerve the shit or step in it and have to go back home to change your shoes; so you were late, or early, or right on time for once — then everything in your life would be different. Meet a different guy, have a different baby. Fuck for one split second longer or less, have a different baby. So it had to be this way. This way, you got your children.
‘You have to sue them.’
I told you this early. You have to sue them. But that’s not you; you’re staunch and stolid, and if you have rage, it is not brimming on the surface like mine is, it’s buried deep, calm at the bottom of the well. You are not going to sue the NHS you love so much. Would I?
Because I want that doctor, the one who told you it’s nothing and it’s IBS and you’re too young to have cancer, I want him struck off, forever. I want him to lose his home, and his wife, and I want him to be ashamed, for the rest of his life. I want to make it so that he can never, ever do this to anyone, ever again. I want to rip the faces off the people who told you you can’t have a colonoscopy when you’re pregnant and you can’t have one when you’re breastfeeding either because those were lies, both of them, of course you can, and I want to shove their you’re young, we’ve caught it early, you’ll be absolutely fines down their throats. And when I’m finished with them, I want there to be money. So much money, we can’t even fathom it. When I’m done, I want your children to be gilded.
But if it was me?
I would. Probably would. Probably. No, I probably wouldn’t.
I would not.
I’d sit on the sofa, every waking minute I had left, and breathe in my little girl, suck in her smell until it was imprinted on my nostrils, kiss her head, kiss the little secret spot of skin between her scalp and her neck, not waste a single second of the rest of my time on earth in courts of law claiming back money for the life that doctor took from us.
I get it.
I wonder, was it there with us? When we had that conversation, when we talked about this, when we laughed our heads off at that, was it there, in your bowel, decimating you, already?
When did it move? When did it travel? When did it make its voyage to your lungs? Was I sitting with you? Was there some tiny, imperceptible change? Should I have known, it is moving now?
Should the doctors and nurses have known? Could they have known?
I text my mum and sister sometimes and I ask them. Why.
she told me she can’t walk any more 21:54
the tumour is affecting the nerves 21:54
when are they going to get her booked in for that treatment 21:54
there’s still so much i don’t understand 21:55
why didn’t they do something 21:56
the doctors 21:56
they said she would get through it 21:57
in 2017 21:57
At some point, in passing, I told my daughter that Oisín’s mummy was sick. She draws pictures of you — globe head, a giant blob eye beside a squinting dot one, legs splayed and growing straight out of your face — and she says, ‘This is Oisín’s mummy. Oisín’s mummy is dancing. She is not sick in my picture.’ She asks me questions, nervous energy radiating from her, about the medicine you need. ‘Oisín’s mummy will get better,’ she tells me confidently, because if it isn’t true, her world order will crumble. If Oisín’s mummy doesn’t get better, what’s to stop anyone else from getting sick and never getting better? The truth is, I don’t know how to prepare her, because I don’t know how to prepare myself.
Emma Ashru Jones writes that ‘anticipatory grief is the feeling of deep grief that can happen before an impending loss. You can feel it when someone you love is dying.’ She seems to be speaking straight to me when she says that anticipatory grief is like a wind and ‘some days, you might feel totally blown over by its force. Others, it will be a breeze that gently grazes your cheek.’ It’s been four years, and I still don’t have the measure of the storm.
We’re in lockdown. I’ve been sending you long rambling voice notes when I go out to walk the dog; I try to keep them succinct but more often than not, they clock in at fifteen minutes and encompass all manner of subject matter, from potty training to the weird emails I get at work. I don’t want a reply, I say. Please don’t feel like you have to expend any energy responding to these. I just want you to have something to listen to.
The past few years have been so weird, not just for you and me, but for the world. You are sick, and so is this planet. I remember in 2016, the day after a violent, unplanned C-section, you crept unlawfully from the confines of your hospital bed to vote to keep the UK in the European Union. The next day, I went to a wedding and my stomach was stone fruit: exocarp, mesocarp, central pit of dread. Why hadn’t I talked to my family about this? Why had I just assumed we were all the same? What if I got to the venue and they were passing round champagne, not to toast the brides, but to celebrate the erosion of our basic human rights?
My mum came to meet me from the train and as it pulled onto the platform, I saw her in the hot white light: best floral dress, wide brimmed woven sunhat, grey outlines of grief around her eyes. Thank fuck. I was right. We — our silent thoughts, our crosses in boxes — are the same. Still, I told myself, I won’t allow the things I need to say to go unspoken again.
As I write this, I realise I haven’t kept that promise. Early this afternoon, your school friend sent a Facebook message, a thread of second-hand information that she’d been given, and asked to share, by your mum. This is how it’s always been; stories are passed along a silver web of people, we don’t know what to believe, you’d rather pretend it isn’t happening so you don’t tell us anything, but this time,
the hospital has told the family to come
We can’t go. It’s just family. So I text you,
I love you so much. Xx 12:57
And I wish — with every shred of muscle, every strip of skin, every drip of blood — that I could tell you, and that I had told you more often, how much I love you, to your face. My sister says
We have loved her all her life. She knows that. 15:55
That’s what she’s been fighting for the whole time 15:56
Cause there are so many people who love her and need her to be alive 15:56
It isn’t enough to know that you know. We are not your family, but we are your sisters. And we will miss you, and miss you, and miss you
and the next day, as if we’ve been heard, we are told we can come. My sister drives for seven hours to be beside you, but I go before she gets here, walk into your sitting room, painted sea blue, punctuated with starfish and rays; so typical of you, the decorated marine researcher, bringing your work home with you.
‘I love you,’ I say, and my eyes are burning and my flesh is cold, and I can’t control the spiralling feeling of bitter sorrow, can’t hold in the hot, plentiful tears, so I cry into your halo hair and kiss your lovely head.
‘You, too,’ you whisper.
Lockdown does not exist in this house. Your children, your siblings, their children; they’re all here, upending the shelves you’ve curated in your nine years of parenthood, reading the books and playing the games you’ve lovingly plucked from shop displays or ordered online. The joyful sounds of cousins tearing up the stairs to hide, or to find important toys, are a constant warm buzz, the kind you love.
Your carer tells me not to be shy, that you can hear everything I say, even if the morphine means you can’t reply. I think of the comfort you must feel, hearing your babies, your favourite beings, careening through the house in their bright, organic, imaginary worlds. I wonder if you asked to have your bed placed alongside this wall, so you could listen better.
The next day, we arrive together, my sister and I. The nurses are there, so we sit in the kitchen with your family. It’s the first time I’ve ever met your sister-in-law outside of weddings or family parties on the beach; the first time we’ve ever spoken without myriad children—hers, yours, mine—between us. She is exquisitely beautiful, with huge dark eyes and an infectious smile that somehow sits alongside the grief without competing for space. Her French accent is barely discernible after so many years with your brother. She is talking quietly, happily, about you.
‘I remember the first time I saw Laura,’ she says.
Her husband laughs. ‘The Arrival.’
‘They had flown in to meet us in France. I was super worried, because I was pregnant. So, waiting anxiously in the airport. And the doors begin to turn, and people are emerging, and Laura and her other brother come through, with their hiking backpacks and white gold hair that makes them look like angels. And in my mind, everything falls away, everything slows down.
Like slow motion, somehow.’
‘Slow Motion’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Life Writing.
Ellie Slee is a freelance writer who focuses on film, feminism and motherhood. You can find more of her work here.