'Still, it ain't over till the
fat lady's thin. Or until her liver packs in. Or something. Watch this
'What hurts most is losing the future. I won't be there
to clap when my
beloved babies learn to write their names
or kiss their innocent knees
when they fall off their bikes.'
Happily married with one-year-old
twins, Ruth Picardie was only thirty-two
when she was diagnosed as having
breast cancer. With almost unbearable
intensity, she described the progress of her illness in a series of articles
the Observer. When Ruth died in September 1997, she was mourned by thousands
who had never even met her. Before I Say Goodbye brings together these
articles, e-mail correspondence with friends, selected letters from readers
accounts of her last days by Ruth's sister, Justine, and her husband
'Since I was diagnosed with cancer last October, I have never a) slept
so badly b) spent so much time at the hairdresser, and c) been so popular.
mean, my address book was fairly full before, but over the past nine months I
have been keeping several local florists in business. People I haven't seen
for years want to take me out for lunch. The phone never stops ringing.
Obviously, this is very flattering, though Matt complained in November that
the kitchen table was looking too funereal. I reckon this is an irrational
thing, since my friends are too tasteful for carnations. Lunch is my
meal of the day (apart from breakfast and tea) so that's been great, if
fattening. And it's always good to talk.
But it wasn't always this
way. Only last year, a close friend failed to
turn up for my birthday
dinner. (I got into a mild strop until my dish of
ice-cream arrived). There were also suspicious no-shows for the children's
first birthday party; I vowed never to speak to the missing guests again.
Dinner invitations were rare, but there were FRIENDS and ER and lots of, er,
quality time at home with Matt in between.
Then, in October, I got
sick. And in between all the mammograms, bone
scans, blood tests and chest
X-rays, there was a sudden rush of invitations to
book launches, weekends away, plays. My new popularity wasn't just a
wonder. Only last week I had two lunches (one fashionable), tea (cancelled)
one semi-fashionable dinner, and dinner at home in Elephant and Castle
(unfashionable) cooked by a friend.
Even total strangers are being
amazingly chummy. On a recent cab ride into
the West End (how else does a
terminally ill girl arrive for lunch?), the
driver started oozing - well, I would say flirting if a slug knew how to
- as soon as I sat down. Lived on my own, did I? Lady of leisure, was I?
When I eventually went for the subtle approach and said, actually, I was
married with two kids, had terminal cancer and, by the way, the hormones and
steroids weren't great for the libido (just kidding) my chauffeur got even
excited and started panting 'Cor! I'd go mad if I were you. No need to
about Aids or condoms any more!'
Why all this interest in sick people?
My experience is wanting to stay as
far away from them as possible. For my
first dose of chemotherapy, I was put
on the medical ward next to an exhausted, elderly lady attached to a tank of
oxygen, whose NHS turban kept slipping off her shameful, shiny head. When I
was having radiotherapy (every day for six weeks), I kept having appointments
at the same time as another elderly lady whose only means of communication
appeared to be a very wet cough, facilitated through a tube in her throat. On
really bad days, a listless young man would also be in the basement waiting
area, wheeled to and from the ward by orderlies wearing rubber aprons and
gloves, which I interpreted as cancer plus some God-awful infectious disease.
Unfortunately, all this suffering didn't make me feel better about my state
health, or fill me with sympathy for others, but made me feel sick, unheroic
and afraid. Mummy, please take it away. (I expect my children will say the
thing, when I am wheezing away in the hospice.)
I can't believe my
popularity is simply due to the fact that I'm not yet
looking as scary as my
fellow patients (though you should see me without pubic
hair). Nor can it be my former niceness, which never used to cut it when
turning up for birthday dinners. And it certainly isn't the company I
offer, since terminal illness is like PMT to the power of 10.
people, I think, reckon that cripples can help them get to heaven,
including my born-again former school teacher who this week sent me a book of
'true life stories of Christians who have all experienced tragedy of one sort
all of them have found hope in their suffering through
the God who suffered first'. In an accompanying letter, she urged me
the peace of God into my heart at this difficult time. To her, I say, sorry,
Miss, but I was the one who carved '666' on the desks, I'm still half-Jewish
(sadly, the wrong half) and no death-bed conversion looms, despite the scary
Virgin grim reaper ad.
Worse than the God botherers, though, are the
road accident rubber-neckers,
who seem to find terminal illness exciting, the
secular Samaritans looking for
glory. Hey, I met you once three years ago but can we do lunch so I can feel
really good about myself when I read your obituary? Yeah, I know we lost
four years ago, but can I be your best friend again so everyone will feel
for me at the funeral?
Enough, already. (Remember what I said about
PMT to the power of 10.) I
guess most of my friends simply feel desperately
sorry for Matt, me and the
children and want to help in some small way. And for that I'll always be
grateful. Your flowers, letters and cards have made me cry. And the
have sustained me more than I can say.
Everyone should read this
book. Achingly funny, poignant and utterly
heartbreaking. Ruth's story should
be read by everybody who thinks their lives
are stale. Do not read in public - even the most hardened cynic can not help
but be moved beyond words particularly as Ruth describes the mundane aspects
dealing with a death sentence when you have a husband, friends, a career, two
young children and the hoovering to do. This is not an in depth analysis, and
not a sentimental journey, despite the mawkish title. It will stay with you
forever - I wept like never before. Read it.
Reader from Norfolk,
England, October 2000
A book that was hard to read, but
glad I did.
Ruth had a wonderful way of expressing her feelings
humour and warmth.
I managed not to cry until I read her letters to her children. Being a mother
myself, I understood exactly what she was trying to say to them and it made
realise how lucky I am to be able to see my son growing up
reader from Buckinghamshire, August 2000
For anyone who
ever felt hurt or loss of any kind. It doesn't matter how
or where in your
life you were touched by hurt/loss/grief this book is a must.
With great difficulty, I read the first part of the book biting my lip to
the tears, and then got to one sentence and away I went. Ruth's courage and
bravery was astounding and this book will never rail to touch anyone with the
sense to read it.
A reader from Edinburgh, Scotland, January