It’s currently 10.50am on Wednesday 6th February 2019, less than two hours since Mags’ husband Martin called me to tell me Mags had died in the night. He was calling as he didn’t want me to set off, arrive at the hospice and find out from the hospice team. My taxi had just pulled up at the front door of St Gemma’s Hospice. “Ok” was the word that we ping-ponged back and forth in what seemed like a relentless extended moment of shock for both of us.
I suddenly got the urge to flee. As I had done in a different city the previous morning. As soon as I got the news that Mags was in a hospice, I had the need to leave London and to be in Leeds and so I went. This deep visceral feeling returned but now in reverse. I needed to leave Leeds. This is shock.
I missed Mags. I didn’t get to see her that one last time. I had things I wanted and needed to say. The previous night I had agonised over why I’d left it so late to say the things I wanted to say. It was painful. But sitting here now on the train from Leeds back to London, I understand why I held on to those words and kept them to myself.
I was with Mags the moment she got the news of her diagnosis. In fact, her battery died on her phone mid-call with the oncologist and so she borrowed mine to call back. We were en route to an open mic community event but that plan was very quickly shelved in favour of steak and chips on Wardour Street. What can you do when the life of one of your closest friends changes forever, quite literally in front of your eyes?
My doctor friend had just become the patient and that was not going to be an easy transition for Mags. She fought it, she relented and she resented it in interchangeable order. Eventually she embraced it and utilised it. Of course she did. Her blog was fearless.
I distinctly remember Mags’ horror and distain for the blasé way she was categorised for “palliative care”. Stripped of her identity, stripped of her agency, stripped of her freedom. Freedom, something we both valued highly. And on this we could bond, the frustrations we now shared with our very different but very incurable health conditions.
So that’s what I could do. Sustain the empathetic nature we circled each other with. Listen. Really listen and respond accordingly. Mags had an incurable and terminal cancer. That is a fact. It would eventually kill her. I don’t know when or where the following mantra sprung from, nor do I remember when it embedded itself but what we could all do for Mags was not “help her to die” but help her fully live the life she had left. That was our role. That was our job.
It was also really clear Mags wanted and needed some small place in the world where she was “still Mags” and not “Margaret Portman: mesothelioma patient”. She needed somewhere free from all the white noise. So I knuckled down and I hope I provided that space. Space for her to just be. A space where we didn’t deny the existence of her cancer but where Mags was always centred as Mags, my friend, everything else came second.
At times of crisis and when faced with unfixable problems the people who love us will hopefully sit with us, acknowledge that the situation is shit and accept that we might not have a solution or the answers to the difficult questions and hopefully they will remain with us and sit a little longer. Silent when appropriate , forceful if required, reassuring when needed but always ‘there’. It takes a great act of love to strip it right back and be THAT real with a person. Especially a person you care deeply for. To convey “I cannot offer you comfort but I can promise you commitment.”
And that’s why I held on to my words. They were words of farewell and gratitude. They would have offered me comfort but they would have signalled the end. It would have alerted Mags that I was checking out “thanks for the good times” and all that. That wasn’t our agreement. Our agreement was that “This is shit but none of us are going anywhere. We’re here and we’re with you. No matter where that takes us.”
I’m lucky. I’m so so lucky to have found Mags. Actually she found me, in more ways than one. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say I was quite lost when our trajectories crossed and aligned. I was lucky enough to have shared a huge part of her life here in London with PrEP. I was even more privileged to have been welcomed in a much more discreet and personal fashion to her family life in Leeds. How she did it? I simply do not know. A dynamic and very visible career in London and the most adorable family in Leeds. Mags didn’t split her life in two halves to be shared between Leeds and London, instead she seemed to live twice as much! Two full lives in two completely different roles. But actually, the roles were not really that different. I watched Mags with her boys and obviously her behaviour was driven by maternal love. I have never seen Mags consult with a patient but I can imagine it was driven by the same thing. Love.
Such a petite little doll of a person with the hugest capacity for love. That’s Mags, my friend.
I know a lot of people have a lot of love for Mags and will want to send a message of farewell or celebrate her life. I have created an email address specifically for this. You can send words to email@example.com
I will gather the messages and forward them to Mags’ family.
*I will post funeral arrangements when they are available.