real life

The call from a friend no one ever wants to receive.

The first phone call is the worst. If you are lucky, they give you a warning. “I’ve got some bad news.” You tense up, imagining something terrible – divorce, bankruptcy.

But it’s worse; “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. It’s not good.”

You never recover from that first brush with death, because it’s so unexpected. My GP says you don’t really face your own mortality until someone close to you dies. If you are lucky, as I have been, you reach your 40s with your parents and children around you. But around the 40 mark, bad things start to happen. That’s when the genetic weaknesses kick in – heart attacks, breast cancer, strokes.

The first time you lose a friend, you are overwhelmed. From the minute they tell you, you think about it constantly. You spend every spare moment on the internet reading about cancer – surely the doctors have missed something? Forty-two year old women with two young children don’t just die; this can’t be happening! All our lives we are told that virtue is rewarded. But it’s not true – in fact, we are all just one blood test away from oblivion. And it is completely random.

Author Margot Saville.

The second and third times are easier, because it is not such a terrible shock. Quite soon, you find yourself fluent in the language of illness – tests, treatment, hospitals. Chemo and radiotherapy. You know where to buy wigs – the best ones come from the Orthodox Jewish community – for religious reasons, they cut their hair very short, but their wigs are beautiful.

And, as you know what patients like to eat, you bring out the pots and cook – it’s as if you can cure cancer with food! Nourishing broths for the patient, meals for the family. And then, one day you take over a dish and realise it's the last time you’ll see each other. There’s only days to go, and this precious time belongs to the family. You give them a kiss and hold yourself together till you get to the car. That night, you crack open a bottle of wine and weep.


The first funeral is horrendous. Up to that point, the human bodies you’ve known have been a source of joy; sensual pleasure, making and nurturing babies. Now, you see a body, one you’ve embraced and loved, wither and decay. And then it’s the funeral and the grieving.

I believe that there’s no hierarchy of grief and no death is more important than another. With one exception – the death of a child, including an unborn child – is one from which no-one recovers. But there is an accepted narrative of death, including a timeline which includes the point, sometime in the future, at which you are supposed to “get over it.” People are rewarded for appearing to reach this point – “she’s bearing up well” and “getting on with her life”, it is said, approvingly.

After someone dies, the expectation is that time will heal all wounds and that your life will go back to normal.

Margot and her dear friend, Lisa, on a trip away 1984.

Except I don’t want to go back to “normal.” I don't want a life which doesn’t include my lost friends and family members. I have to live on without them – there’s no choice – but I can’t forget them.

Twelve years ago I lost a friend to ovarian cancer; hardly a week goes by when I don’t think of her. Someone tells me a great story and I think, “Lisa would love that.” When I go to the beach, I go to the rock where we stood when I was in labour with my first baby, while she timed my contractions. Sometimes I sit on the bench where we held our babies, born only 10 weeks apart, and talked about our dreams for their futures.

I’m sad that she’s not here, but I’m not wishing that sadness away. Remembering her feels right – she was once part of my life and nothing will change that - I don’t want to get over her death and move on. When someone grips your hand tightly, it leaves a faint imprint when they let go. I’m not holding her hand any more, but Lisa has left her mark on my life. I look out at the waves and think, “hello, old friend.”

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