My mum was married for 22 years, widowed for 6, married for 10 and widowed again for the last 16 years of her life, 15 of them spent living here, in the annexe next door. It was not particularly successful, she never adjusted to it, mainly because she felt at a disadvantage. People were being friendly when they greeted her “You must be Zoë’s mother!” but she disliked it because she felt it made her an appendage to me. She made her social life revolve around new Norwich friends on the whole so that, when I met them, I was Jane’s daughter rather than she my mother. She had, of course, loved being a wife most of all and never stopped missing the married life she had lost.
The last few years were particularly difficult because she was unwell and, in addition, had a damaged replacement hip joint. The damage having been undiagnosed by a very experienced surgeon who should have known better, she suffered repeated dislocations. She went to various specialists who were unable to diagnose her illness. It was concluded by everyone except her family and her own doctor that she was attention-seeking, had psychological problems, even that she was deliberately causing the dislocations and that, as she became thinner, that she was cutting out various foods because of faddiness and obsession. None of this was the case. She was difficult, yes, and she did become quite obsessive, but this is entirely understandable. When you’re ill and you’re told you’re not, when a food makes you sick and you’re told you’re picky, when your hip dislocates, which is total agony and requires total bed rest and then recuperation with all the precautions of having had a new hip, yet it’s clear that the nurses have no sympathy at all (uncaring nurses are nothing new, there were plenty of them over twenty years ago and they are the dark side of a wonderful profession), it doesn’t do much for your peace of mind. She became convinced all her problems were caused by abdominal candida (thrush) and told every doctor she saw all about it, ignoring my suggestions that she didn’t sidetrack them but let them come up with a diagnosis first. It misled them, not into thinking that was what was wrong, but into the belief that anything wrong was in her mind. Tests didn’t show the cancer already somewhere in her intestines, and they never tested for an ulcer, not until her last visit to hospital.
It wasn’t surprising that she turned to alternative health practitioners and she certainly received sympathy there. She was paying enough for it, after all. Some years previously, she’d gone to an acupuncturist for help with her migraines and he did help a bit for a day or two at a time, but there was no cure and, at the start, he’d told her that, if it was going to work, they would be greatly alleviated after a few months. So, since they were still as bad as ever except in the days after she visited him, she stopped going. In those last few years, she tried practically everything else. I’ve forgotten most of them, I drove her to Diss monthly for a couple of years but I can’t remember what snake oil she was being sold there. The woman 30 miles down the A12 was a nutritionist and we went there for years, my mother coming away with small bottles containing things I’d never heard of, to measure out, drop by drop and take religiously every day. She visited health food shops – the most dubious seemed to be liquid oxygen (because you apparently don’t breathe enough of it). The most shocking charlatan was the kinesiologist who held her arm, said the name of a food and pressed the arm. If my mother was unable to resist, she was allergic to the food. Thus, she cut out most of the foods she had been able to eat. Kind and reassuring was the reflexologist she tried last of all, whose foot massages at least relaxed her. Then there were the healers, including a faith healer she sent money to.
Some of these people acted in good faith, but not one of them said she really should go back to the doctor, because she was getting worse instead of better. I remember the shocked and sympathetic look on the face of the nutritionist, the last time we left her house. She knew very well my mother was desperately ill and was sorry for her, but she still took her £35 for the consultation and sold her the little bottles too. The reflexologist assured her she had a kidney problem and could be helped by the treatment, only a few days before she was diagnosed with her advanced pancreatic cancer, the secondary cancer that had developed from the one that hadn’t been spotted during many tests and that had probably been present for seven years.
Once it was proved she actually had something seriously wrong, she couldn’t have received more kindness. The nurses in that ward were lovely. And she had a wonderful last six months in the circumstances. The only treatment was palliative – she had a stent fitted to open her bile duct, constricted by the growth on her pancreas, she had a blood transfusion and treatment for the ulcer. She came home and became surprisingly well, weaning herself off her painkillers, able to drive again and eat well, though she wasn’t able to stand and cook and I prepared all her meals, as I’d often done anyway over the years when she wasn’t up to it.
You can see, perhaps, why it upsets me that she was never offered sympathetic professional help for the distress she was in, why I’m deeply sceptical about alternative health remedies that have no proven benefit at all, and about practitioners who keep taking your money without ever admitting that they’re not actually curing you or even doing much to alleviate the symptoms. And the effect on me and my family was dreadful too.