Wendy Looker

All my writing has been in some ways a journey. I always had the story but I lacked the grammar and structure. In 2014 I attended an evening course at York University to improve this. We were set weekly writing projects that had to be submitted to the course tutor, or even worse you had to read them out.

Separately, learning of Wendy’s illness I had contacted her to go around to see her in Sherburn-in-Elmet. Wendy had been one of my managers back in the day when I worked at Moores and was a director. It was a profound experience and I was truly amazed and inspired. Now in 2019 Wendy has just passed away after an eleven year struggle with breast cancer. This started as Stage 3 and ultimately became Stage 4 with secondary cancers.

Dave (her husband) and her attitude was something to behold. Despite being the ‘former boss’ I have none of her strengths of personality or resolve. I went with some dread but I came away so impressed and uplifted and thought that I must write this up. I submitted the piece below as course work but with different names.  I’ve now changed things back for this blog.

I hope it captures what I feel about Wendy. She taught me a lot about looking after and owning the issues to do with my health. It’s clear many others thought the same as me and will and have benefitted probably to the tune of living longer by weeks or years.

 ‘Life Goes On’

“Oh they’re lovely! What a wonderful surprise. Have you seen these, Dave?”

It was clear to me how pleased she was by the way she fussed about the kitchen looking for a vase with a smile on her face. I couldn’t help but notice how her walk was stilted and that she looked much slimmer than when I last saw her. As always, the make up was immaculate and the greeting kisses on each cheek were the imaginary ones that women blow in order to protect their newly applied lipstick. Her clothes were chic but understated and comfortable for someone still sporting bruises and stitches from surgery.

Standing in the doorway was her husband who watched her every move with one simple goal of ensuring that she didn’t fall. 

“Careful, Wend go slow now and be careful with that glass in your hand,” his pleasant Wearside singsong accent belied his pained expression. Like the engineer he was, he looked at her angles and trajectory when she was rummaging in the kitchen cupboard.

“Don’t worry, pet,” she chirped back. She caught my worried gaze to make a comment: “He’s been my rock, always looking out for me and you can’t imagine what a cook he’s turned into!”

I sensed the love between them and knew how the disease had ravaged part of his life. He was possibly a more helpless victim than she was. It was her body and she had some small control, whereas he could only ever be the chauffeur, cook, breadwinner, confidante, and liaison officer. His life was also on hold – although his lot was not hers.

As I looked around the kitchen and into the hall I saw contemporary furnishings, organisation and cleanliness. It seemed in stark contrast to the messy, demanding and uncontrollable disease that led to her surgery. Everything in the house had its place and even her prescription pills were not sitting loosely on a work surface but had been corralled into a small plastic bowl that served no purpose other than to make them look less disorganised. 

At this point Dave made his apologies and slipped away to grab the late winter sunshine with his camera, lenses and some birds at a local reserve. I felt as if she had been passed into my hands for a short time whilst he took a much-needed break.

My friendship with Wendy was one of an employee and former boss. She had managed the selection of mums, plodders and stars that made up Customer Services with a personable, efficient and energetic approach. Wendy was popular, in a male dominated management, where her good looks and an eye catching figure helped assuage frustration when tempers rose. This could arise when other departments had to correct the errors made by our customers or her staff.

She had won me over with her dismissive sideways glance in my direction when a colleague was discussing the potential recruitment of childless married women in their twenties or young mothers into the Department. The future problems of having vacancies and coping with an increasing workload whilst staff took maternity leave made her a practical operator rather than a champion of equal rights.

However her own attendance was an issue when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had over 12 months away from the company. During her time away from the company, we the management, were made redundant and apart from odd chance comments between the diaspora then regular contact was lost over the six intervening years. I found her some years later on social media. She did return but the organisation had moved on without her and she was also quickly discarded, finding new employment at a large bank in Leeds. 

There were other changes in her life and it seemed to me that she had started to tick items off the ‘bucket list’. Life appeared to be for the living, with a new sports convertible, holidays in South Africa and Vietnam, a trip to the Grand Prix in Italy, a landscaped garden and a new kitchen.

My knowledge of this came from her posts on Facebook, which told of a grand life. But tell-tale signs that life needed to be savoured came from her level of intense emotion. This might be over a football result or a family wedding and the endless appearance of the poster images of bon mots of fortitude and resilience that ladies of a certain age seemed to share. 

There are timelines for those who have cancer and then go into remission. Wendy and Dave were not going to squander the quality time that may be left and so the chequebook remained open and pleasure and fulfilment were sought. 

She had been feeling fine and then she felt a persistent pain in her chest. What with ageing and the reconstruction after the previous surgery then it could be anything. She told her doctor who thought that is was probably nothing to worry about. However, he arranged some tests just to “tidy matters up.” She went for the tests and they revealed some problems. 

So amongst the Facebook holiday images, the celebration of a League Cup Final and the latest grand daughter’s fancy dress costume came the stark information that the cancer was back.

The outpouring was truly touching and there were 106 comments exhorting her to tackle the disease with the same fortitude again. I, of course, made a ‘comment’ and tried to be deadpan about her simply having another ‘project’ ahead of her.

A week later she returned to the hospital for the tests and the consultant wanted to meet her on a different floor in the block. Alarms were raised as she speculated on the new location. There were more investigative scanners and kit on this floor. She tells her story of cancer’s return in a matter of fact way with the level of frustration that I might use in finding someone had taken my parking spot at work. 

I am thinking that this is life and death.

I note that surgeons are often referred to with reverence for their wisdom and skills by their patients and she was no exception. But he is described as overweight, “I said to Dave that he needs to do something about that belly!” However, this man in a dicky bow, who calls her Mrs Looker, told her straight and the timescales for treatment were so rapid that there was little time for feeling sorry for herself, not that she would. 

Back in cyber space she told her well wishers that she was to face major surgery: we now knew it wasn’t a skirmish but a battle. We received images of her in her hospital bed and the blow-by-blow account of dates and times for various movements between Wards. I am sure carrying this large audience with her on the journey was as vital in any recovery plan as one of the drips attached to her arm and neck.

Later she told us that the cancer was in the bone and that some ribs and the sternum had been removed. This may explain the waif I met.

After this came the diet of anti-oxidants, endless tablets and further trips to the hospital whilst the body was left to heal and decide whether it had expelled the disease.

In her time between appointments I had volunteered to see her and drove the twenty miles to her home on a sunny winter’s afternoon. By our exchange on Facebook I knew that there was something ‘special’ about an old boss making the time to see her and make the trip. 

What would I say? I had sought advice from other friends who were in remission. Asking ‘how are you?’ was quickly discarded as facile. Any person in contact is at pains not to pass across their anxiety and private conclusions on how this disease might progress. I felt this acutely and I felt deceitful with a concerned but smiling face. However, I know that every person I have ever talked to with a difficult disease knows that this is a process you go through. 

I was greeted with too much deference and after the flowers were placed in water I was handed a cup of tea and a plate with cake on it and led into her immaculate sitting room. We settled, she talked and I listened.

As she chatted I suppressed my methodical mind. I like to see the fuller picture, seeking clarification of certain details on the type of species of buck on a South African safari or the age of a rude Russian in a hotel lift in Ho Chi Minh City. I felt my listening was in some way the least I could provide as a gift to her process of coping and so I simply acknowledged my attention occasionally.

What would I now say I learned about Wendy after our re-acquaintance? I would say that she found joy in the everyday moments of people and things she saw or met, a delight in the unusual or different and a doting love of her family. 

Slowly but surely it dawned on me that she is getting on with her life and that she is simply doing it with a handicap – a rather heavy rucksack on her back. I, wrongly, defined her by the illness and immediately granted her the excuse to abandon or abdicate any responsibility for her current and future life.

Nothing could have been further from her mind as she ran her elderly parents’ life from 80 miles south by iPhone and iPad. With laughter she repeats a conversation:

“Now Mam, what did the doctor say at the hospital about Dad’s next treatment?”

“We have to return in two weeks time. I have the appointment card.”

“But they must have told you what they found on the scan?”

“Sorry Wend, but he talked very quietly and I left my hearing aid at home.”

Maybe her pivotal role in the life of her family isn’t a burden. It is clear that she is good at playing this role and managing those around her. It is done with care, love, patience and responsibility. 

Life goes on.

I hear her story yet I am in a different place attempting to process what I am feeling.

What am I feeling? There is life and nothing is over. Why do I anticipate the worst?  

Her attitude to her condition is one of facing a competitor rather than an enemy. Words like “focus”, “no energy wasted”, “fighting mode” and even “feeling blessed” with her support network are her language.

Her spirit is genuinely positive and indomitable. She is not attempting to keep her spirits up.

Whatever the prognosis then her immediate life will be a programme of future events and stages. There isn’t an end, ever –  it is all positive.

I leave reflective and feeling less worthy that I didn’t arrive with more faith. I leave with strength and belief. 

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