Magteld had ambitions right until the end. On a shelf in my living room is a double box set of the last series of Breaking Bad, still wrapped in its cellophane. I’d ordered it on the final Friday, blissfully unaware her life had just over 72 hours left to run, and looked forward to watching it with her the next week, once she had recovered from her first round of a new chemotherapy regime.

We watched Breaking Bad at the rate of one episode a night. Perhaps it seems odd for a terminal cancer patient to become engrossed in a drama with a terminal cancer patient as its protagonist, but TV drama was one of her great passions, and one she could still enjoy in her wheelchair. She’d considered writing a blog about what it was like to follow Walter White’s Icarus-like rise from the point of view of someone with cancer, but time was against her. As an observer of both, I saw parallels between the progress of Walt’s illness and his burgeoning career as a drug dealer: a rampant aberration that consumed him from within, changed him essentially and ravaged his life.

When Magteld’s cancer returned in January she made it plain she had no interest in her prognosis. It was the only piece of information she refused. She gorged herself on the details of her illness, possible treatments and their side effects. She knew the chances of her surviving for long were small, but refused to think in those terms. What she feared most, I think, was fear itself: we talked a lot about the future, and how uncertain it had become, and always came back to the point that the worst possible outcome would be to linger for years, paralysed by the dread that her end was imminent. We didn’t know how much time she had left, but we knew how we wanted to fill it: with walks on the beach, glasses of Prosecco at Scheveningen pier, perhaps a trip in a camper van to the more picturesque corners of the Netherlands – a last summer filled with golden memories. As it turned out, even those hopes evaporated before they could hit the ground. But they were a source of strength while we had them.

Only once did she dwell on the impending eternal blackness – quite unexpectedly, as we sat having coffee in Glasgow. She accompanied the question with a disarming smile, as if she’d just asked me to pass the sugar. I wondered later how much time she spent thinking about it, and what conclusions she came to, and why she didn’t share them more openly. Was she afraid to give form to her fears, or was her instinct to protect us from the raw horror of it? Neither of us was religious or saw any merit in deathbed conversions. I maintained the best approach was to concentrate on living a good life so that if any god showed up for the final reckoning I could make a plea in mitigation. That was about as reflective as we got.

She knew, too, how she wanted to see out her last moments, with me and the boys at her bedside, once the rest of her family had been dismissed. She spent her first weeks in The Hague in a hospice, because she was too weak to live in our house. Generally a hospice is the final stop on life’s journey, but she saw it as a place to gather strength. She spent her waking hours at her writing desk, organising the children’s new schools, or chatting with the volunteers, so that by the time I first saw her, a week later, she could give me chapter and verse on all her new companions. And after five weeks she discharged herself from the hospice and moved into the house she had found for us, three months earlier, when she was still able to climb the stairs.


The end arrived with such blunt speed that we almost missed it. But even in her last hours her determination was undiminished. The duty nurse happened to have a supplementary training as a Reiki therapist and offered Magteld an energising massage. Despite her weakness Magteld shook her head vigorously. At lunchtime she was in a hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask and breathing coarsely, but alert and responsive. I told her father to take our eldest son home to have a break. Home was only 15 minutes away and she seemed stable. But soon afterwards Magteld began going downhill rapidly. She sent her parents away with another shake of her head. I came in and asked if I should fetch the boys. She looked up and nodded limply. I realised later that the look in her eyes, for the first time, was one of resignation tinged with horror. She knew.

I hung on for half an hour while my father-in-law performed an about turn. Then I led our younger son into the room. Magteld’s eyes were closed, her head tilted back, her mouth open. The dials and gauges all told the same story: the end was closing in like an offshore storm. I panicked. I had sent our son away just at the moment when she had decreed he should be with her. Her breathing became more laboured and slow until it was a gurgle. Spit bubbles formed between her lips. She was drowning in her own phlegm.

Her breathing stopped. Just then the curtain billowed open and our elder son appeared. I shouted at her: “He’s here.” And Magteld summoned the energy to suck in two more shallow, rasping breaths. Her eyelids flickered. “She’s looking,” whispered the nurse. And then, her final wish made good, she fell still.

6 thoughts on “Ambitions

  1. Een kaarsvlam flakkert nog even op, voordat hij definitief dooft.

    This is how my grandma explained to me that dying people have a bright moment, grasping life before letting it go.

    She had cared for several relatives until they died. I was there when she died and she seemed to give a message to her son (my father) and to me. It is indeed the look.

    Your stories about Magteld give me great insight in a partner’s view on deteriorating health. I am sorry life took such a sad turn for you, but admire your writing.

  2. Your description is vivid, I could almost see myself there, feel a part if what you might have gone through. Loss of any kind is not easy and as cliche as it may sound ‘Time is the best healer’. Stay strong.

  3. It’s amazing that as people we actually never really discuss the final few days, hours, minutes and seconds of life. Yet it is the one experience we will all face. It’s incredible to have such insight into Magteld’s last moments and that she still had her way right until her last second. Strength like that is so rare. It’s makes me see even more what an amazing woman she was. I am just do sorry you were cheated of your last few plans together. Life and death can be so unbearably cruel.

  4. Thank you for having the courage to share your experiences with us, Gordon. I hope it helps you to have recorded so faithfully the most painful and intimate of times. It is reassuring that your sense of humour does not desert you; when all else appears to have failed us, a wry thought can sometimes give us a finger-hold on life, can’t it? I’m thinking of: ‘…if any god showed up for the final reckoning I could make a plea in mitigation.’ You have summed up there what many of us have probably felt at some time, but never quite put into words. I shall remember that phrase. It will keep me going when times get tough. Thanks, mate.

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