Hug in a Bag

When my mother-in-law attended hospital to find out the results of her recent biopsy, I went with her. Neither of this really had any doubts about the results; 15 years on from her primary cancer diagnosis, she had enjoyed being free from the disease, without ever feeling free from the disease. The consultant sat on the bed beside her chair, leant forwards and asked her whether she thought she knew what he was about to say. “Yes”, she nodded. The words afterwards were spoken slowly, gently.
They weren’t that important to either of us, the words.  We had talked about the decisions to be made and she was not in any doubt … Further scanning to check for metastasis, decisions to be made about treatment, arrangements to be made for respite care for my father-in-law,  chair bound and immobile and at home. In and amongst the blur of words  a canvas bag was handed to her. On the side, in large purple print, it read “Hug in a Bag”.
On the way home there was silence, but not of the awkward kind. More of that taking-stock type, where the earth has tilted slightly on its axis  and one needs to recalibrate from the inside.   We returned to the house to 3 sets of anxious eyes, my daughters and my father-in-law. She had a perfunctory conversation with him, matter-of-fact, explaining what happens next. The girls asked questions, they got answers that were clear and unambiguous.
And then.
And then what? Silence.  A kettle clicks on.  A space opens.  In the aftermath of days of anticipation and tension there is finally a peculiar relief.  Even when it is bad news it is news of some sort, it relieves the pressure built up through that waiting, waiting, waiting.  That afternoon, the living room looked the same, the view of the frosty garden out of the window was identical to the one we had left earlier in the morning. The television still blaring meaningless daytime shows on gardening, cooking, travel.  There arose a peculiar limbo space, it made me think about liminality (see my e-hospice blog on this).   There were days and days to wait before scan dates would be sent, each of these days following the same structure of the previous months; four visits from bright-eyed brash carers each day, to help Derek wash and dress and be hoisted from bed to chair, chair to bed.   But the clock that shaped those familiar days was different to the new one that had now been set in motion, a clock ticking the arrival and departure of scans, treatment, hope, anxiety, change.   We all shared a lost and aimless feeling that afternoon.
Then we remembered the  “Hug in a Bag”.  She began rummaging through it – she didn’t know what else to do.  It was packed full of gifts and business from businesses around the area for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. There were pamper sets and make up (quickly claimed by the girls), a scarf handed to me (“it’s not my colour”), lotions and potions (“Ooh this will be lovely, my feet have been SO sore”), a pretty notebook and pen (“I’ll write my questions for the doctor in here”), a teddy.  And a voucher for a family portrait session that led to a long conversation about photographs, ancestors, the future and the past (and a couple of weeks later to a chaotic photograph session, complete with dogs and children under instruction to tickle us seconds before she snapped our images – she even captured a grin on my teenage daughter’s face, by asking her to be as grumpy as she possibly could until the inevitable crack in her composure: “click”)
Since, I have discovered that “Hug in a Bag”  is a not-for-profit organisation set up by three women who met during their cancer treatment.  Their aim was to stop women feeling alone during that strange and difficult time.  The bag gave all of us a reason to congregate, to talk about stuff, for my girls to share their blossoming womanhood with their grandmother through talk of lipstick colour and the pros and cons of filing your nails and heels.  She is not a make-up kind of woman, and I do have to confess that many of the cosmetics goodies ended up in the hands of my girls, but the bag gave us an afternoon of grateful distraction, conversation, closeness.  We were struck by the kindness of those who donate – people who know that there is not anything to say in some situations, but that conveying compassion through acts of kindness goes a long, long way.  And those who realise that a woman is always a woman, however old her skin and however scarred her body.  It offered all of the family a moment to reflect on this.
On the way home in the car, my youngest stated that she was going to sort out all her old clothes and toys to seek and make money for “Hug in a Bag” so that “other ladies can have a pamper and feel happy and beautiful instead of worried”.
Thank you @HugBlackpool – find out more at or see their Facebook page at

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