As I empty the green powder into the glass the smell alone turns my stomach. Each swig is accompanied by a specific action that turns the downing of wheatgrass into a kind of ridiculous dance routine. First I hold my nose and take two big gulps, prompting an involuntary, primal cry of revulsion (generally accompanied by the sticking out of my tongue). Next comes a clumsy prancing from one foot to the other whilst shaking my left fist. The final swig is preceded by a silence; I know this will be the worst bit. All the leftover powder thickens the water into a paste and I can feel it sticking in my teeth. Occasionally I’ll retch. I continue to hold my nose and reach for some fruit juice to wash the taste away but it always remains, like the stench from an old person’s foisty slipper!
Everyday I go through this rigmarole and it’s not for show; this little performance takes place with or without an audience.
“You’re so brave in so many ways and then you behave like this!”
While Tom was away my brother John was staying with me. He’d been reading up on cancer preventative diet on the internet and after an expensive trip to Holland and Barrett the cupboards were stocked with linseeds, multi-vitamins, turmeric, green algae tablets, and of course the dreaded wheatgrass, or ‘the green shit’ as we renamed it.
Living together again we reverted back to our old relationship. We share the same sense of humour, me often trying to impress him with some quick remark, him teasing me or the pair of us ganging up on whoever is with us at the time. But in his capacity of big brother he was as stern with me as he was playful; he knew that occasionally I would conveniently forget to down my wheatgrass and every day he would prompt me, “Have you done the green shit? Have you done the turmeric? Have you done your chemo?”
I think John’s focus on diet was a way for him to play his part, to try to help in a situation where people ordinarily feel useless. The cancer doesn’t just ‘happen’ to me it happens to all those who are close to me. I’ve never lost someone or had the threat of losing someone very close to me so I simply don’t know what my loved ones are going through. Sometimes I think it’s easier for me than for them, once I’m gone I’m gone, but they’ll have to carry on, feel the pain, pick up the pieces and reassemble their lives.
During the hours I felt unwell my brother would sit with me, watching TV and researching the internet. John could have left to go out and enjoy the sunshine but he never did, he just stayed with me, telling me about all the positive stories he’d been reading about.
After a visit to a research centre I said, “I’d love to be that first person, the person who lives with cancer but doesn’t die from it.” My brother replied, “I think you’ll be disappointed. There already are people doing that.” There was no sign of defeatism and his confidence bred the same in me.
He took a perverse pleasure in watching me drink the repulsive green shit; it was like entertainment to him. It reminded me of a time when I was about six and he would have been twelve when I’d fallen over in the street and scraped the side of my hip. With no parents around to complain to I found my brother bored in the kitchen and I showed him my bloody graze. “I know what will make it better,” he announced with authority. I remember him opening up the fridge door and reaching for something that I couldn’t quite see. As I stood waiting, from behind his back he produced a plastic Jif lemon and handed it to me. “Squeeze the juice over it, it’ll take the pain away.” My trusting, six-year-old self followed his advice and predictably, it was agony.
What a little shit! A child psychologist hearing that story wouldn’t recognise the responsible, caring adult who had flown across the world to help look after his younger sister. Twenty years on there were no cruel jokes to be played. My brother was making me drink the wheatgrass and swallow the pills because he wanted me to get better.
My illness had changed our relationship. Like many siblings, for us hugs were always reserved for hellos and goodbyes and even then it would be an awkward stilted embrace. A few days into John’s stay, however, I woke up feeling unwell from the radiotherapy and I must have looked particularly pathetic. He grabbed me for a hug and we stood there holding onto each other in silence, both desperately wishing that this wasn’t happening. The cancer, that is, not the hug.