The first thing to say about my Mum is that she is utterly, unreservedly selfless. She’ll put anything off to help you out, when in a group she has an inability to make a decision just in case her preference doesn’t match with someone else’s, and she always makes sure she gets the burnt end of the lasagne. (Not that Mum ever burns her lasagne – it’s the stuff of legend – but you know what I mean.)
It’s probably also worth noting a few of Mum’s other qualities: like how she’s THE person you need around in a crisis to get things in order, yet has been known to descend into a full-on meltdown when she can’t lock the patio door. More than that, she’s dependable, almost embarrassingly kind, and I’m lucky enough to call her my very best friend.
One thing for which Mum has never taken credit – nor have I ever publicly given her credit – is that, for as long as we’ve been alive, she and Dad have surrounded both my brother Jamie and I with only the most excellent, upright, wonderful people; whether in family members, or the kind of friends that might as well be family members: something I like to think each of us has taken with us in our future choice of mates. And, by ’eck, it hasn’t half contributed to a happy life.
One such friend is the other Jane in my life – the Jane who sends funny cards on every possible occasion, who once warned the doctor investigating her piles that she might fart in his face (‘Why do you think I’ve got a swept-back hairstyle?’, he said), and who has – particularly over these past few years – become a cross between the daft-as-a-brush, filthy-joke-texting mate that everyone should have, and a surrogate mother on supply-staff hours. (Seriously, you should read one of our text conversations – you’d have yourself an immediate sitcom.)
While spending time with my lovely fam back up in Derby this week (part of the holiday from treatment and blogging that I’ve been enjoying so much I’m this close to crowning myself the Judith Chalmers of Cancer [see previous post for details]), I spent an afternoon with Jane and her gorgeous, soon-to-go-to-uni daughter, lapping up the sun in their garden while eating my favourite cob, crisps and cake (okay, cakes) from my favourite local bakery, Birds. (If ever I decide to move back to Derby, Birds will be the reason why.)
The night before, I’d wondered whether Jane might let me have a look at her wedding photos from 1983, when she married Russ, with me as one of her bridesmaids. Jane and Russ and my Mum and Dad were really good mates. They met through the cricket club my Dad played for and – given the many, many happy stories Jamie and I were told as kids that involved them – it was clear to us from the get-go that Jane and Russ weren’t just especially dear to our folks, but were bloody special too.
A perfect example of their mutual daftness was the night before my Dad was due to have a vasectomy, when there was a knock at the door. When he answered, he saw Russ driving away, then looked down to find two bricks and a note that read: ‘Save yourself 80 quid, mate.’ There was the time Jane and my Mum went to see Paul Young and a security guard searched Jane’s handbag to find six pairs of knickers with her name and number written on the gusset (all Russ’s doing); and the brilliance of Russ calling his parents to announce that he and Jane were coming round to announce ‘something important’… only for the expectant grandparents to open the door, ask ‘Well, what’s the news?’ and Russ to answer ‘Jane’s made a trifle.’
They had such fantastic time, the four of them, all at an age with which P and I can identify – that poignant pre-and-post-30 time when everyone’s attention seems to be switching to weddings and babies and settled futures. The stories of their good times formed my earliest childhood memories – alas, I don’t remember many specifics; more the sheer joy that was in the atmosphere whenever this fantastic foursome got together, and the residual warmth that passed, osmosis-like, onto their children. Until Russ died suddenly, aged 30, leaving 28-year-old Jane with their 12-month-old son.
What happened next isn't my story to tell, but surely anyone with half a heart can attempt to fill in the horribly life-altering gaps. Rather, what I want to try to get across about my ‘other Jane’ in this post, is just how brilliantly, reasonably, admirably – and continually hilariously – she has continued with her life; much later marrying a wonderful man: a man who loved and appreciated and respected her so much that he simply couldn’t not make her his wife. Jane was taken completely by surprise, perhaps to a point where she didn’t really want to at first. ‘But I’m still married to Russ,’ she thought – a point she made clear to her soon-to-be fiancé: ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I will be your wife. But only if you can appreciate – and be happy – that I’m Russ’s wife too.’ And, of course, he did. And soon a daughter came along, completing a family that’s a normal and happy and brilliant as any family could be.
Once our cobs and crisps and cakes were eaten, we headed back inside, where Jane immediately produced her 1983 wedding album – without me even having to ask (something that tends to happen spookily regularly with the two of us).
‘Do you fancy?’ she asked, holding up the album.
‘Hell yeah,’ I answered. ‘But are you sure it’s okay?’
‘This is happy stuff, Lis,’ she said. ‘Why shouldn’t we remind ourselves of it?’ Damn right, too.
As we tearily and teasingly looked through the images of Russ, typically handsome in his suit, and Jane, pretty as a picture in her wedding dress and yellow bouquet, I clocked the yellow roses on the mantelpiece. ‘It would have been Russ’s birthday yesterday,’ she said. ‘I don’t like to take the flowers anywhere else, cos he’s not anywhere else. He’s here.’
I completely got it, of course: though our stories are very different, Jane and I understand each other in a way that nobody else can. Granted, she doesn’t know the details in full like Main-Jane Mum and the rest of my immediate family, but nor does she need to. Because Jane appreciates the acceptance one must begrudgingly come to after a tragedy. And – better yet – she appreciates that it’s perfectly possible to live a very happy life thereafter.