There they were. Mum and Dad, their faces expanded on my laptop screen, nostrils looming (Dad), worrying about hair (Mum). A Wednesday. Two days after lockdown.
I had called via FaceTime to find Mum pottering in the kitchen. Is Dad there, too? I asked. Can he come?
He came and sat down, both of them shuffling to fit into the screen of her phone. For a moment, as usual, I saw half of each of their faces, a sort of reverse Janus, the space in the middle of them showing the wall behind.
Can you two get a little closer? I can’t see you properly.
More shuffling, the usual momentary scuffle (lean in, darling!), and then peace. Their faces.
I take a breath.
I have something to tell you.
Breaking bad news is a skill I have acquired through my job. We are taught how to do it whilst students, with actors playing the part of the bereaved.
Since then, I have told many people, many families the worst news they may ever hear, usually in person, rarely over the phone, never through a screen. It is something I believe I am good at. I feel compassion. I hold space. I don’t enjoy doing it but I do my best to be as kind and unhurried as possible, to make eye contact, to allow space for feelings. Feelings – others’ feelings that is – never embarrass me.
Without realising it, I found myself dropping into the familiar pattern.
Do you remember me talking about getting the pain in my leg looked at? (Check what they already know; let them tell you).
They did remember. They knew I had had some tests, a scan and a biopsy of lymph nodes in my groin. They knew I had not been especially worried – there were other, benign explanations. And I was, as I’ve said, fine.
Well, I have something to tell you. It’s not good news (fire a warning shot).
You know how they took a biopsy? (Build up to it, set the scene; by now they will likely have an inkling where this is going).
I have the biopsy results back (pause for a second to check they’re still with me. They are).
It’s not good news (repeat the warning, continue to build; they likely will have guessed enough by now. Breathe. Then deliver the key information in simple, concrete form).
It shows I have cancer.
(Pause. Pause. Don’t be tempted to fill that gap. Breathe. Wait for whatever they will say. Wait for as long as they need).
Their heads moved back, in unison. Humans always flinch when receiving a blow.
I loved them, then, in that silent second, more than ever. This is not part of my usual breaking-bad-news experience. I loved the people I was telling. I loved them. I love them.
If love is a pulse, then the screen was all I had to aim at. The waves of love. The wave of it.
Mum spoke first. OK, darling. Ok.
To my surprise, they stayed calm. They told me, voices cracking, they would do whatever I needed them to do. That they loved me. That they were here (there).
I so wanted to hug them. I so wanted. I reached my fingers towards the screen and stroked it, their pixellated faces cool beneath my touch.
I sometimes forget my parents are adults, that they, too have been on cliffs of their own. That cancer had visited our family twice before, once for my mother and once – briefly – for 10-year-old me; that for them this was a repeat performance, not a debut. It is an eternal cosmic joke that we grow up and start fussing at our aging parents, roles imperceptibly reversing. I know my parents find it wryly amusing, sometimes annoying and occasionally patronising.
That day, I was glad to be reminded of their adult-ness. There were no wild flights to see me, no unnecessary exposure to coronavirus or breaking of lockdown rules. As much as I wanted to see them, I couldn’t bear the thought that would mean them exposing themselves to Covid. They stayed put. We told each other, again, that we loved each other. They promised to stay and to shield, in case I needed their help down the line. I promised to find out what was happening. I promised to shield as well.
I promised them I wasn’t going to die. That it was not my time. That this was just another, rather unexpected, adventure.
Two sets of faces on a screen, each promising to stay safe. Each promise, a hug. Each smile, an I-love-you.
It was the best we could do.
Waves of love, as we waved goodbye.
The screen went black.
I exhaled, perhaps for the first time since I received the news, certainly for the first time since I broke it.
(When it is over, when you have finished breaking bad news. When you have taken them to see the body, if they choose. When you have answered any questions you are able to. When you have made them tea, listened to their cries, given time for their tears. When it is over.
You breathe in. You breathe out.
And you carry on).