When I was seven, eight, I can’t remember exactly, my fish Bubbles died. He was my first pet – at least I think he was a he. I shared him with my brothers, but he was mine. He aged well, Bubbles, lived a long time for a fish. I forget how long now. Do I wish I’d given him a more original name? Perhaps.
When he died, we went down to a river at the bottom of my garden, and we dropped him in, so he could float away to… who knows where. Fish heaven? Another fish’s mouth? Hades? He could have been a bad fish for all I know.
I remember weeping. I was devastated. I remember my chest hurt and I wanted to jump in after him, follow him down to where the river ended. We walked along the river and tried to spot him. Again, I can’t remember if we did or not. The emotion has stayed with me (and his unforgettable name) but not a lot else.
He’s the only fish whose name I can remember. There were others. There was the one who, I later found out, accidentally died, maybe fell down the plughole, when my mum and dad were cleaning out the tank on a school day. They ran to a garden centre and bought another one and got away with it. I was half livid when I found out as an adult and half the most impressed I’ve been in my life.
This was all ages ago – probably twenty years ago. Christ. The shock of realising I’ve even been a conscious being for over twenty years has just made me urgently reach for a bottle of red wine . It’s the first time I can remember feeling really sad. Not sad as in crying over the end of Stranger Things (it broke me) or missing a train on a big day or just feeling generally miserable when you remember Hedwig died. Sad like when your body aches and you don’t think you’ll ever get over it. Heavy – like a bag on your back full of packets of sugar and bottles of squash (welcome to Emma’s weekly shop. Jokes.)
But of course you do get over it. And this has happened a lot of times since. There were more pets. And then there were people. My grandad, who got motor neurone disease, a hero forever in my eyes but because I was only a teenager, already harder to trace in my memories. Followed fairly swiftly by my grandma, who drew no luckier a lot in life. Witty, strong, fiery, and so well-dressed I find it hard to believe I’m related to her.
It hurts when people die before their time. A lot. It’s traumatic and strange and scarring. That was over 10 years ago now though and time, as they say, moves on. Life does get that little bit easier. You can’t believe how long it’s been in some ways. Wounds heal over and scars feel softer. It’s easier to think about, talk about, even laugh about.
Today though, it’s only been one year. A lot can happen in a year. So much has happened. So much has changed.
I’ve learned to run.
I’ve not given up.
I’ve changed my mind and I actually quite like red wine now.
I’ve become the proud mother of two cuddly sharks.
I’ve turned vegetarian.
I’ve performed my first play.
I’ve finished my improv training.
I’ve gone off tampons and got back into them again.
I’ve lost my dog.
I’ve experienced week long itchy nipples for the first time.
I’ve realised who my best friends in the world are.
I’ve seen Celine Dion in concert.
I’ve gone to new places, like Dublin, Cyprus and Harry Potter World.
I’ve (not for the first time mind) stopped biting my nails.
A year ago today my uncle Malcolm died. Diagnosed within the month he didn’t have time to begin a battle. And neither did we. The battle started after. For my dad and my family – and double as much for his.
I think of Mal every time I go running. He liked running. He was fit and healthy and only 52. I decided to get into it because why wouldn’t I look after my body more after all that? And every time I think I might give up running up a hill because my forehead is sweating into my eyes and I’ve got a wedgie and I think I hate exercise more than war I think of him.
Yesterday evening I went on a run – even though it was dark and cold and drizzling and I would have rather cracked open the bottle of red earlier and settled in for the night – and as he came to the front of my mind as he often does when I think I might be having a heart attack mid-hill climb I started crying out of nowhere. I stopped myself pretty quickly because it turns out the one thing that makes running up a hill really hard is crying at the same time. But it got me thinking about how far we’ve all come in twelve months.
I used to not be able to run up hills at all. I used to not run more than once every six months and even then it was only to chase a departing ice cream van on Clapham Common. I used to give up more easily and more often. I’ve got stronger.
Losing someone you love sucks and watching your family suffer is all kinds of rubbish. It is never a good thing and there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to change what happened. But good things do come out of it.
Things like having an opportunity to recognise how lucky you are to have loved and be loved (exactly like Moulin Rouge.) To bring you even closer to your family. To have an epiphany about what it means to feel good about your body, to not take it for granted, and to live in the moment. To do something perhaps you never thought you’d do, precisely because they can’t.
Which brings me to my parents. Who’ve had one hell of a year and who take my breath away. Today they have announced a fundraising bike ride in memory of Mal. Over 1000km down the length of France – one of his favourite places – to raise money for BowelCancerUK and the hospice that looked after him in his final days. This is unexpected. They’ve only been cycling just over a year and there’s a big difference between a casual bike ride to the pub and over 80km a day. They are fiercely determined and I’m so proud of them.
A year ago today it felt like part of our world had shattered – and it will still never be the same. But we’ve got work to do. In raising awareness, and fighting causes, and preserving memories, and making new memories, and laughing until we cry, and doing it all over again. We have a long way to go. And the problem with growing up is memories don’t disappear quite as easily so it’s hard, really hard. Bubbles is a blur now – and, let’s face it, as meaningful he was to me as a seven year-old, he was just a goldfish. Malcolm was – and is – a legend.
But the good thing with legends is – they live on.
If you’d like to donate, you can visit the fundraising link here.