What sort of a birthday present do you give someone with a few weeks to live?
It seems cruel and a little pointless to buy a book, or a jigsaw that they will never finish. By that stage even a box of chocolates would be sitting uneaten in the chaos of painkillers, colostomy bags and industrial sized boxes of Immodium.
You have to do something, though. It has to be a good one. The last one. She won't be here next year.
She probably won't be here by Christmas.
Oh my god. Christmas.
"Jenny, I have to talk to you."
"Of course, dear."
"You know Christmas is coming up."
"I don't know if I'll make it that far."
"I know. I - look, I have to be blunt -"
"That's always best, dear."
"It's my birthday, right before Christmas. Then Christmas. Then Dazzler's birthday. Then AD's birthday. All together."
I took a deep breath and rushed it out.
"Look, I'm not having this on my birthday forever. You can't die on our birthdays. Or on Christmas. And I'm not having your funeral on our birthdays. If you don't die before my birthday, you'll have to wait until January."
"I'll do my best. You can always delay the funeral. I don't mind, I'll be dead."
I could get her a bottle of ridiculously good champagne. It doesn't matter, with all the drugs, she can drink as much as she likes. She's dying. But her tastebuds have gone funny, she says. Everything tastes weird.
There's no time or energy left to take her out somewhere. She has so many things to do, just getting through the goodbye visits. We laugh after the visits. The Christians amongst her friends are the least able to cope. They use euphemisms and platitudes. It upsets them when she speaks plainly and with finality. Die, dead, dying, death, done. Goodbye. Aren't you the ones who believe in an afterlife? Don't you sincerely believe that this isn't really goodbye?
Jewellery is out. She has spent the past month having her favourite pieces cleaned and valued, and giving them to us. I got a topaz pendant, a glorious orange-gold. She says it reminds me of my hair. She says it was the first gift her husband bought her after they bought a house together. It is deliberately chosen, because I have just bought a house with her son.
"Jenny, I don't know if we will ever get married. I want to. But he isn't ready yet."
"Yes, I know, dear."
"I will never leave him, though. I'll look after him for the rest of our lives."
Flowers are nice. She loves fresh flowers. She might outlast a bouquet. And I'd rather she had them now, when she can see them, than put them on her coffin once she is dead.
"Thank you for everything. You are the best mother-in-law I could possibly have. You taught me so much. I'm so glad you lived long enough for me to know you.
It's been eleven years. You would be seventy now. We would have had a huge party. Our son would have given you an excellent present - a Captain Underpants book, perhaps. You would have loved reading those. I would have made you a cake with elaborate sugar paste decorations in orange and gold and yellow. We would put seventy candles on it, and it would melt the decorations and be impossible to blow out without a fire extinguisher.
You are crying, I am crying, and you are hugging me. "You've never called me your mother-in-law before," you say into a tissue. "I love all three of my daughters." I count. That's one daughter and two daughters-in-law. We are sisters, we three, as much as if we were related by blood. That's the kind of family you have built. The best mother-in-law anyone could have.
You said grief would be like a horse kicked you in the stomach. Some days I can still feel the bruises. I miss you, Jenny. Happy Birthday.