People forget, when they die, that they have left someone behind. Someone who cared. Someone who loved them.
That was true for Jane Doe. Her mother left her. Her father left her. And then her husband left her. Those were the only people in her life. Their names were Susan, Albert and Samuel. Everything had been normal. Nothing and no one could have predicted the outcome. That they would all leave.
The only thing she had, in the end, was the baby boy she was pregnant with when her husband died. Cancer took them all. But not her boy. He would never leave her.
The strange thing was, he grew up feeling suffocated. His mother’s fear of the disease that took everyone she loved meant regular check-ups at the hospital. They were always there, even when the doctors reassured her they were fine, that they could go home. She only went because she had the doctor’s direct phone line home. Without that, she wouldn’t have gone.
She had called her son John, not wanting to jinx his life by using her dead husband or her father’s names. She thought that John, like Jane seemed anonymous. That death might pass him by, not noticing his presence because his name blended in. There are so many Johns – just take another mother’s little boy. Not mine. Please not mine. Not after everything I have been through. Not after everyone I have lost.
She knew it was cruel. But these were her private emotions. She would never voice the evil that she felt. But she could not bear to lose another one. He went from pre-school to high school and now university without a hint of the viscous disease that had taken everyone else she held so dear. The disease that had robbed him of a father and grandparents. But he didn’t mourn them like she did. His mother. She thought every day, what if they had a different name? as though it was that which took them.
He only thought about why she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – move on. She didn’t date. She rarely went out with friends. Her life was with her phone and the number to her Oncologist. His oncologist. Even though he was now legally an adult, she would insist on being able to phone on his behalf about every little mole or blemish he had. She would send in photos when they didn’t have appointments available in time. He almost felt sorry for the doctor. Still, it was him, John, who had to live with her paranoia. The same paranoia that lead to his name which when combined with his last name could mean anyone. He knew from stories she had told him as a child, that she chose that name with every intent of making him invisible. It was as though she thought of Death as something that lived and breathed. He thought it was bad luck and genes.
Sometimes he feared her paranoia would be too much for her. That her obsession of hiding them from Death would take her mind instead of her body. Who was it that took minds? Her paranoia wasn’t catching though. As much as he feared for her, as much as he missed his father and wished he had known him as well as his grandparents, he didn’t live each day watching over his back, alone and afraid. The stupid and cruel thing was that she was not alone. And she was not sick. But she couldn’t have felt more estranged from life and from the people in her life if she had tried. Even him, the son she saved by naming him John. He felt more estranged from her with every invasive phone call she made on his behalf – some of these accompanied by photos that were taken as he slept, a mole on his back or a blemish on his throat that could be from a hickey given by a long-term girlfriend. It was a surprise that she didn’t invade the privacy of the girls he dated. She thought that she was doing the right thing, detecting it early. With three deaths by cancer in the family, he should be grateful for her perseverance. But he felt only pity for her and embarrassment for himself.
He wondered what she had been like before. Before her parents, before his father. When they left they took a piece of her with them. Each of them. It was like she had a piece of herself for each person she loved. If the piece that was for him were to go – he didn’t think she would be able to live. That was why he humored her pedantic photo taking, the calls at unorthodox hours and alarming frequencies. He humored her questions, her cautions, and her snippets of new information and facts that she had read online concerning cancer. It wasn’t as though either of them had it. He thought, somewhat ironically, that they would probably be hit by a bus, despite all her precautions.
She cared too much. She had never truly gotten over the deaths. To get over them was to forget them, and that she would never do. It annoyed her sometimes how easily her son could talk of them to strangers and new acquaintances. Even the things he shared with his girlfriends would put her over the edge. These things were private. Those people didn’t know them. Even John didn’t really know them. He couldn’t miss them like she did. It irked her how little he cared for checkups. That she would have to resort to taking photos of the marks he found on his body while he slept on the settee, because he didn’t see the point of going in for a screening. Why didn’t he care? Why was it always up to her?
Samuel had also left it too late. So, had her parents. None of them had ever thought that they could have cancer. Her Dad had been certain he would go from high blood pressure because he didn’t obey the doctor’s orders when it came to diet and exercise. But the cancer took him instead. She remembered him making an ill-timed joke to that effect on his death bed. She couldn’t forgive him for the joke. And the dead laughter that followed. She hated that he could take his passing so lightly when it would plague her every day until her end.
Her mother joked less. But it didn’t lessen the pain. And then her own husband, the last of the lot. He told her to look after their little boy, told her that she could move on and remarry, though she promised adamantly and faithfully that she would never.
But sometimes John wished she would worry less and live more. He was certain his father would want her to move on. It had been nineteen years now, and her only date was her phone, her only calls to the oncology unit at the hospital. He even joked she should date their doctor. Even though he was single, she wouldn’t. She felt that it could only tempt fate. His name was Simon. It wasn’t common, like Jane or John. Joe would have been okay, but not Simon. Never Simon.
Her son laughed at her ridiculous assertions. He couldn’t understand that this was all very real to her. This was how she had processed the deaths of everyone she had loved. She had only been twenty and in the space of months she had lost everyone dear. She was waiting now to lose the son she had tried to protect so much. Waiting for Death to spitefully turn her way again, and say “sorry, bad luck”. All she would be able to say is “But I called him John.”