There has been a great deal of writing about cancer, from those who perished from it, those who survived it, and those who have studied it. From John Diamond’s C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, to Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, to Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude – or even the remarkable The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor Of All Maladies – cancer, that horrible Hyde to life’s Jekyll, growing and subverting and terrifyingly prevalent, seems to fascinate us.
Gordon Darroch’s book can proudly take a place alongside such studies, not least as it is as much about surviving the grief of loss as how that was compounded by being left – and bereft – to bring up the two children he and his wife Magteld had. Both his sons, Euan and Adam, are autistic, raising further questions about how best to explain to a child with problems about interrelation and language that Mummy just isn’t coming home.
This memoir manages to avoid the sentimentality of much of the genre while being brave, honest and seething with anger. The jacket conveys this with immense subtlety. On the front there are four pairs of wellingtons, one of them shocking pink. The back cover has three. On the spine is the pair of missing boots, putting Magteld at the centre of the whole memoir.
Grief is a thing without language. It is howls and groans and sobs and tears. Darroch manages to write around the silence and unknowable nature of pain with remarkable honesty. The myth of the brave sufferer is dismissed almost out of hand: the equal and opposite cliché of “speaking the truth” is far more evident, and usually done with eloquence. Sometimes the words are not his own.
On learning that the initial treatments have been unsuccessful, the doctor says “I’m sorry I can’t cure you. I’m sorry medical science isn’t the miracle you needed it to be. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you you’re going to die young. I’m sorry you will be a dim memory to your children. I’m sorry they’re going to watch you suffer.” This is startling in its brutality, and made even more so by the fact that the author is uncertain whether the said children even have the capacity to understand how dire the situation is.
Although the book sometimes lapses into readymade phrases – a mist is dense, flesh fragile, the dawn glows, the landscape of the body is scorched – more often than not Darroch makes the visceral experience of grief absolutely real.
He is excoriating of himself in describing how the marriage was not an idyll, and is resolute in not denying his own guilt at aspects of the couple’s time together. There is a scene where he throws a glass against the wall which is unfakeable.
He admits to saying that he doesn’t love his wife to his wife, and yet the same sincerity illuminates the point where he talks about the intimacy of lying next to a dying body. It is a book in which tiny details carry more weight than philosophical musings. A poached pear might mean more than a diagnosis; in his bereavement Darroch feels his wife’s lingering memory is “a mixture of guardian and ghoul”.
The almost preternatural awareness of the children that there is something not right is done with tact and with kindness. Given that the boys one day may read the book, they can be immensely proud that their father has written something that is true more than sensitive. He writes very well about how their diagnoses were an almost physical blow to him, because all middle-class parents want perfect children, and the passages about learning to love the child you have rather than aching for the child you wish you had had are among the most affecting in the book. They are almost a Greek chorus, saying the things that should and should not be said.
In any book like this there is a danger of catharsis; a hankering for a neat closure and the “we finally got over it all” moment. This one does not provide it, and is all the better for it. We all have narratives of illness, death and grief, and it is all too easy to shape them into some kind of parable of redemption. There is no redemption here. Darroch has been frank to the point of pain throughout this book, and, as all writers of good non-fiction should be, is harder on himself than anyone else.
Reading this work, I had a strange sense of wondering whether I would recommend it to someone in a similar situation. I think, on balance, I would. It ends on a kind of caesura, with the author still sleeping beside his wife’s ashes and amongst her handbags and with a pillow next to where she would have slept. One can forgive almost anything given details like that. - Stuart Kelly
All The Time We Thought We Had, by Gordon Darroch, Polygon, £9.99