A year ago I welcomed 2014, with a mix of hope and trepidation, at our home in Glasgow. We had returned the day before from spending Christmas in Norfolk with my parents and our attention now turned to our prospects for the impending year. On Hogmanay a young couple came to view our house, which had been on the market for more than four months and was now the main obstacle to our long-held ambition of moving to the Netherlands. With a fair wind, we would be celebrating the next New Year in our new house in The Hague.
Magteld had developed a troubling, nagging cough that, but for her medical history, would probably have been dismissed as a mild flu. On Hallowe’en she had been to hospital for her six-month check-up and been told there was no sign of her cancer having returned. Early in December she had taken a card and chocolates to the staff on the chemotherapy wing who had nursed her through her treatment just 12 months earlier. She was saying her goodbyes to her friends and colleagues in Glasgow, in preparation for the anticipated move. Remembering how she was then, so vibrant, considerate and full of hope, it seems unthinkable that she would live just five more months.
Her cough grew worse during our stay in Norfolk. Occasionally Magteld would retch up speckles of blood. She blamed the draughtiness of my parents’ house, the winter colds that thrived in the damp west of Scotland climate, the stress of being told again and again that our house was “in the wrong area”. Once it was gone, she could look forward again. Sometimes it subsided for a few hours and she would sit in a chair and declare defiantly: “My cough is gone.” But never for long, and it became harder to banish the thought that there was something more sinister at work. It’s easy to wonder why, when she saw the doctor in early December, she didn’t press harder for a scan. At the same time I can understand Magteld’s reluctance to have her worst fears confirmed. Who desires to peek into the abyss when a new branch of life is dangling tantalisingly overhead, drenched in sunlight?
The young couple who visited on Hogmanay came back a week later, and shortly afterwards we’d agreed a price for the house. In the meantime Magteld went back to the doctor and had the scan. On a Monday morning in late January we were in an estate agent’s office celebrating the sale, which finally cleared the way for our epic voyage. Things started to move rapidly now: she would go to The Hague on a house-hunting mission in February, I would organise the removal van and ferry journey, and on April 25th – less than three months away – we would be on deck toasting our new life.
But we couldn’t move as fast as the cancer. Magteld would not catch that ferry, and by the time April 25th came by she would be living in a hospice and confined to a wheelchair, having undergone an emergency course of radiotherapy to stave off the tumours that were erupting up and down her spine. The day after we sold the house, her doctor told her that the scan had revealed ‘quite a few lesions’. Within a few weeks, the bad news was confirmed: her cancer was back, and would kill her, probably within a year. Her oncologist took me to one side and warned me that our life together in The Hague, which we had been planning for months and thinking about for years, may only extend to a few weeks. And so it proved.
I was warned that the first Christmas spent without Magteld would be tough. In the event I celebrated it warmly among her wider family: her parents, two sisters, their husbands and six children running the place ragged. Thirteen of us in total, and though the absence of the fourteenth cast a shadow, the house was full of life. Compared to that, the end of the year is a far more brutal milestone. The topography of our lives 12 months ago is unrecognisable now. Magteld’s health deteriorated with bewildering speed in her last five months. She submitted herself to two courses of radiotherapy and a new round of chemotherapy – which, cruelly, alleviated the symptoms of her cancer by reducing the inflammation in her lungs, but couldn’t tackle the cause. In every purported dawn was the glow of a nuclear explosion. Yet the more she went backwards, the more determined she was to look forwards. Right up until the final week of her life, when she was trying to walk again with the support of a zimmer frame. I’ve drawn on that spirit in the seven months since in tacking the challenges of living in a strange city, in a foreign country, where the children and I have both had to settle into new routines of life, school, and work. And it’s an attitude that will, I hope, continue to guide us and give us strength through 2015.