Daughter's Dilemma

Elsa Halling

(2150 words)

Read it to me (11 minutes)

Mother had always enjoyed the luxuries of life, and when living in the old home after Father died became too much for her, she had to think what she should do.  The house was a large Victorian gentleman's residence and even when I had lived there as a child and young adult it had been far too big for the three of us.  The house had been sympathetically renovated, especially bathrooms and the kitchen area, without losing any of the Victorian atmosphere.  The rooms were all spacious and elegant with expensive china and antiques tastefully displayed.  I couldn't imagine Mother in a small house, let alone an old people's home, so that is why Sandringham Towers had seemed such a good idea.

Sandringham Towers advertised itself as 'Luxurious Independent Living' and had in a former existence been a cottage hospital built at the turn of the nineteenth century.  I decided to have a look at it before broaching the idea with Mother.  In its new incarnation it looked more like a five star hotel than a residential home for the elderly.  The bedrooms were large and expensively furnished in the style of the period in which it was built.  There was a splendid morning room and a comfortable sitting room with armchairs grouped around coffee tables.  The scent of fresh flowers floated through the rooms and the dining room closely resembled an up-market French restaurant.  In the early evenings dinner was served by uniformed waiters and a choice of wine was always available.  Light lunches were served at midday and residents could have breakfast there or in their rooms if they wished.  It was the ideal place for Mother to pass her last few years.  I told her about it and took her for a weekend 'taster'.  'It's quite marvellous!' she pronounced, 'Just the place for me, I shall enjoy living there with all those delightful people.  Lady Spencer was so friendly, she said she would be looking forward to me joining her for a hand of bezique when I move in.'  Sweet as she is, Mother always had been a bit of snob at heart.

The only aspect of Sandringham Towers that was not ideal was the cost, a cool thousand pounds per week!  Mother had got an excellent price for 'The Beeches' and had been delighted at the prospect of not having to part with her most precious objet d'art, and some small pieces of furniture.  The capital from the house sale enabled her to move to Sandringham Towers and pay the fees without having to worry.

She had been at Sandringham Towers for ten tears before her bank manager phoned me to make an appointment for a 'quiet chat'.  It seemed that the money was beginning to run out and despite cashing in most of her investments there would not be enough left to pay the fees at Sandringham Towers for very much longer.  Managing money had never been Mother's strong suit, but I hadn't been concerned as there seemed more than enough to see her through.  What I had never known about was her passion for the horses.  It had been her 'little secret', a small indulgence to while away the time and give some excitement to her life after I went to university and Father still spent long hours in the city.  She had never put huge amounts on a horse, but then wasn't very good at reading the form books, so had never won much either; just enough to keep the sparkle of anticipation alive.

After my initial shock, and I must admit, anger, we discussed the situation with Mother.  Despite her eighty-seven years she was mentally very alert and fully understood the position she had put herself in.  She was very contrite and it was not difficult to persuade her that her 'phone calls to her friend William Hill would have to stop.  I was earning a comfortable salary as a senior partner in a law firm and could contribute to the fees, so with what was left we felt that Mother would be able to remain at Sandringham Towers for the foreseeable future.  Mother was very relieved and grateful.  She had never been a particularly demonstrative person but she embraced me fiercely and cried a little, 'Thank you my dear,' she wept, 'you're too good to me; the best daughter a mother could have.'  Not the kind of expressions Mother normally used, but then she wasn't used to the prospect of being short of money!

It was soon after this arrangement had begun that I went to see Dr. Jamieson for a routine check-up.  We went through all the usual procedures, then she asked
'Have you had a mammogram recently?  I see you missed the last one we called you for.'
'No,' I replied, 'the reminder came around when I had a particularly difficult case on, and I was just so busy I didn't get around to making an appointment.  Should I make one now?'
'It would be a good idea, but in the meantime I'll give you a quick check over.  Just climb up onto the couch and lie on your back with your arms above your head.'
I did as I was bidden and felt her hands gently probing and pressing my breasts.
'Do you check them yourself from time to time?' she asked.
'I never think of it,' I replied, 'always much too busy.' 'That's a pity.' she said.  Something in her tone of voice sounded warning signals in my previously relaxed mind.  'There's a little something around the lower area of your left breast that I would like a second opinion on.'  Suddenly the warning signals became screeching sirens, and I felt icy cold.  Not me, God not me, I'm never ill. 'Do you mean you've found a lump?' I breathed. 'Well, there's something there that doesn't feel quite right.  We'll get a biopsy done and then we'll know what action to take.'

Why do doctors always say 'we'?  Is it part of the bedside-manner training, as if they are sharing the experience with their patient?  If so it doesn't make me feel any better about it, I thought angrily, but said nothing, only nodded dumbly.

The biopsy was done in a matter of days, then came the agonising wait for the result.  I went through the motions of life like an automaton.  I didn't want to share my worries with anyone; somehow talking about it would make it seem more real.  I was at home when the surgery rang, thank goodness.  I was worried they might ring me at the office, which would have set tongues wagging.  I had to make an appointment to see Dr. Jamieson.  The receptionist would tell me nothing and this seemed to make it worse; it was bound to be bad news.  If it had been a benign lump she would have told me, surely?

'The good news is that it is operable, and you won't have to lose the breast' the consultant was telling me.  Dr. Jamieson had managed to get me an appointment to see the consultant very quickly, and he seemed very breezy about the whole thing.  In my own anguish I couldn't see anything good about the situation at all.  Later, at home with time for reflection I began to understand that it was actually 'good' news.  I had dreaded the thought of a mastectomy followed by a hideous prosthesis, the idea disgusted me.  I would be spared that, at least.

I had the operation done privately.  Of course people had to be told, and colleagues and staff were all very supportive; my room in the hospital was crammed with flowers and gifts from friends and clients.  I hadn't told Mother about any of this, just lied about having to go to a conference for a few days.  There seemed to be no point in worrying her.  'Do have a nice time,' she said, 'it will do you good to get away from that office for a few days.'

'Of course, there will be a course of chemotherapy, followed by drugs, but you have come through this very well and the prognosis is good.' Dr. Jamieson smilingly told me.  I knew from research on the internet that a 'good' prognosis, and a cure, meant that you survived for ten years.  In ten years I still wouldn't even have reached retirement age.  I had expected more from life than that.

Why is everybody so bloody cheerful about it, I wondered angrily, thinking of all the arrangements I would have to make.  'Your hair falls out when you have chemo doesn't it?'
'Yes, but you'll be able to get a really good wig, no one would know.' the doctor consoled me.
'What about the drugs, will I be able to get that new drug that improves life expectancy after breast cancer?' I queried.  Dr. Jamieson looked rather grave.
'Tamoxifen,' she said, 'I think it unlikely.  It's only approved by the NHS in this country for people with later stages of breast cancer; it's not given to women in your situation.'  She paused, and before I could interrupt her went on, 'I know there is a case of a younger woman being given it, but she had to appeal to the High Court on the grounds that she has young children who will be dependent on her for many years to come.'  She smiled gently, 'I don't think we can say that of you, can we Miss Barratt?' 'What about getting it privately?' I asked hopefully.
'That we might be able to do,' she said.  'But it's terribly expensive.  It could cost you upwards of twenty thousand pounds a year.'

My brain whirred, that would be more than the cost of my contribution to Sandringham Towers each year.  I couldn't pay both, not even on my good salary and using my investments.  It wouldn't work.  I spent a sleepless night, figures whirling round in my brain.  How much longer would Mother last? Then felt disgusted with myself for having such a thought.  Could I persuade her to move to a less expensive home?  Then thought how happy she was, happier than I ever thought she would be after my father died.  It would be cruel to upset her now.

The following day was a Saturday and feeling remorseful, I bought some flowers and went to see Mother.  'Did you have a nice break, dear?' she asked, then scrutinised my face carefully, 'But you're very pale, I don't think it did you much good.  You work far too hard you know.'  I was spared from replying as she went on, 'I was only saying to Lady Spencer that it was a pity you had never married and had a family, I should so like to have had grandchildren.'
'Oh you know me Mother, committed to my career; marriage and motherhood never appealed to me.'
I kissed her gently on the cheek when I left.  She stood at the window and waved as I walked across the drive to my car.

On my way home I called at the farm shop to replenish my depleted store of fresh fruit and vegetables; I had been advised that a healthy diet would assist my recovery.  Then I treated myself to a visit to the hairdressers.  I might as well make the most of it while I had some hair to have done.  I enjoyed the sensation of having my hair washed.  The massage effect was very soothing, and I found myself telling Kit all about my situation.  He's been doing my hair for more years than I care to remember and occupies a sort of neutral place in my circle of friends and acquaintances.  I find the hairdresser's chair has replaced the confessional or psychiatrist's couch as a good place for getting things off you chest without any repercussions, just a sympathetic ear.  Normally Saturday nights would see me at the theatre or a concert, or dining with friends, but I had no arrangements for that evening.  A decent bottle of Chardonnay and a good book would be my entertainment; I might even watch the DVD of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'.  I had bought it months ago and always been too busy to watch it.  I anticipated the prospect with some pleasure.  I unlocked my front door and ferried my purchases from the car to the kitchen.  It was only when I had put the car away and taken off my coat that I noticed that the light was blinking on my answering machine.  I made myself a cup of tea before finding out who had left me a message.

'Miss Barratt, this is Sandringham Towers, could you call us back as soon as you can, please?'