This is the picture that leads the article. It shows Steve Shaw 20 to 30 minutes after he died of liver cancer. I have not wanted to put this part of my artistic and personal life on the blog until now, when the time is right. This is briefly what it is all about.
Steve Shaw was my partner who died suddenly of liver cancer in 2007. On the 29 November, at 9.58 am. In late August, he and I were on holiday in Wales, fishing and swimming and having a perfect time together. On September the 4th he was given the diagnosis that he had cancer in his liver and on December the 4th we had his funeral.
We were not together more than eighteen months. I met Steve after raising three children on my own for ten years, and could not believe the miracle of meeting Steve. We both fell for each other at first sight. I can remember every moment and every feeling. Steve was an engineer but understood my art instinctively. His reaction to being in the studio was pure joy, and I could tell whether a painting worked or not by his expression. Being very good at DIY he was excellent at fixing the frames and hangings on the back of the finished works, and so practical at hanging the paintings at exhibitions.
He was in remission for bowel cancer when we met, had been given the all clear and was so happy and grateful to live his life, be strong and active. But in late Spring a shadow was detected on his liver and though the word Cancer was not mentioned at this point, we both knew what it was. His consultants were anxious but would not use the word Cancer, and Steve asked for the Summer to come to some decisions about his treatment. Of course, with this kind of cancer there is generally only palliative treatment but Steve was full of hope and determination. He would beat it. By September the shadow would be gone.
But it wasn't. Once we had the confirmation that it was cancer in his liver, I knew it was only a matter of time. He refused to accept it, and fought on with all sorts of alternative approaches - aided and abetted by me. I agreed to anything and everything that offered us hope, even of a stay of a few months. We even flew to New York to visit with the Dalai Lama's own doctor. I think then I saw real death in Steve's body. It was very sad. He was too ill and exhausted to get out of the train to Grand Central Station to get the taxi to the appointment. We stayed with my ever patient ever loving relatives in Connecticut.
We travelled to Croatia to stay with and say goodbye to his life long friend there. We went fishing and chatted and Steve began to suffer from crippling pains in his stomach, the cancer had spread to his pancreas. Still he did not complain and told us he would recover, he could not leave us. But in the photos of that holiday, Steve's eyes are haunted, his skin is yellow and he is getting thinner and thinner. I was in deep deep distress one minute at the hopelessness of it all, and full of hope and optimisim the next after he spoke so reassuringly of his recovery. He wouldn't leave me he said.
Later, he changed that to he would always be with me. A big difference. I hated that, I said I didn't want that, it was no good to me. What good was that kind of thing if I couldn't hold his hand or touch his face, or hear his quiet voice telling me not to worry? I wasn't in the least impressed with his memory being there for ever. Stuff that, I said. Poor Steve, it wasn't his fault.
So eventually, more stays in hospital. My cousin and her three children came to stay to see him (they always all got on well). Being direct and medically trained herself, my cousin told me he had only weeks to go. As they left, the children came in one by one to shake Steve's thin tired hand and say goodbye and thank you. My strong wonderful cousin embraced Steve and kissed him and said goodbye and cried all the way home to Kent. That evening, Steve lay down on the bed, and I lay down with him. Steve had found nights very difficult, he was so thin and in so much pain. He would lie on the floor, on the sofa, wonder around trying to find some peace. We found a position where we could hug each other without pain, and we laughed and giggled as it was so like the old days and stayed like that for about 2 hours before the pain started again.
While Steve was in hospital, I took the decision to put him into a hospice. It was clear he was not coming home, and still he would not accept he was going to die. I went into the hospital and took him his food every day. He would only eat a bland diet of foods that didn't hurt his stomach or strain his body. Eventually, all he would eat were orange segments, with the skin removed from them. I prepared dish after dish of these segments and in the hospice, they filled the fridge. He could only mutter Segments from time to time then, and maybe manage one or two before falling back into his fuddled state. So, I told Steve that I had arranged for a Hospice for him as soon as possible. All his family were with us then, his two children, his ex wife, his mother and four siblings. He was philosophical about the hospice, he said it would give him some recovery time.
Steve in the hospital after agreeing to go to the Hospice to get his strength back. A very beautiful man.
So. The doctors agreed that Steve could go home for a while, and I would nurse him. A district nurse would visit, and the hospice would be in touch with me as soon as a bed became available. As soon as someone died, we thought. Steve's family took him back to his place, and after a while we were alone. That night was the worst ever. I simply could not cope being in the bed with him. He was dying beside me and I was so lonely and frightened. He was absorbed in trying to find some comfort, he was agitated, and muttering to himself, and being strange. It was the dead of night and silent and dark, and I couldn't handle it. Steve's mind started to ramble. He began to be unable to get to the toilet, and he began to discharge the most awful matter. I went into the spare room to try and rest and was so distressed and frightened, I couldn't sleep and I couldn't cry. I could hear him trying to get up in the night, falling over, getting lost, mumbling and trying to get to the loo. Every time I would get up to help him back he looked furious. Turned out, I had never left the bed before, and he couldn't understand why I was in the spare room. I couldn't begin to tell him, he was not coping with reality very well.
After the district nurse had been, and some pain relief supplied I packed Steve into my car and drove him the hour long journey to my house. There, my dear friend Eileen had made him a bed on the sofa he loved to sit and work on, and had filled the room with candles and flowers. By then Steve couldn't walk and we had a wheel chair. This only went as far as my front steps, when Steve put his arms round my shoulders from behind, and I dragged him in. He was so thin his trousers fell down at that point, and he was so amused by this he laughed and laughed. I will always love the memory of the old joking Steve being so amused at himself.
When Steve saw how Eileen had created a fairy tale place of peace and beauty, his face was so so happy. We put him to bed and I hit on an idea to try and contain his incontinence. I had some trainer nappies from old upstairs, for the kids, and because Steve, 6' 2" and once so bonny, had shrunk so drastically, they fitted. He wore trainer nappies and was amused by this too. I think that night was the best and last we had together. He was so at peace in the room Eileen had created for him. She and I took it in turns to do night duty that night. At 3am Eileen came and said Steve had asked for me. I went downstairs and found him barely able to speak. He said that he wasn't getting any better. He was tired and it was time for him to go. He would go at the weekend. This was Thursday. I said OK. That sounds good. When your family have gone home. Then we kissed and hugged and I went back to bed. I felt there had been angels in the room. He was so happy and joyful. He was radiant. I felt relieved and went back to bed calmly. Steve had agreed to meet his own death. He had accepted it and had even made the decision when to go.
When I came down later in the morning, Steve was different. He was desparate to go and settle his affairs concerning his boat in Brighton. He needed to cancel his Yacht club membership, his mooring arrangements and sell the boat. He was very agitated to have this done now, I think he knew his mind was wandering, and he had decided to die in the next few days. We met his brother at the boat yard, and his lovely red boat and all the paper work was handed over to his brother. Steve couldn't move from the car. All the officials came out to talk through the window to deal with his business. It was a day when the natural order of things was suspended. I practially drove into the reception areas of the boat yards and clubs so that he could tell them what he wanted to do. Eveyone was calm and professional, and no one commented on how this living yellow skeleton with death written all over him had once been the bonny funny talented and dedicated man with his chartered trips of like minded fishing enthusiasts out in the sea in all weathers at weekends. At this point the Hospice called and said they were ready, a bed was free and waiting. Steve just sighed with relief and said he wanted to go now to the Hospice.
I cried on that journey. I told him how much I would miss him. He just waved his hand and smiled. He was long past that kind of talk. At the Hospice (Steve's brother's sat nav took us into the local police station at first), oh such a relief. They took one look at Steve and said let us take him now. I howled and howled then. It was done, he was there, his job was now to die and I didn't have to do any more. Needless to say, they looked after me wonderfully as I lost the plot, and I will never forget how perfect those Hospice staff are. Uttely perfect.
Steve died a week later on the Thursday. I didn't get to him until just after. That is when I decided to paint him as we had decided I should, and not be afraid. He was so keen that I should. I was less keen, as I was going to have to gaze and my dead lover and that seemed not only a bad idea, but completely stupid. It would just make me cry and howl all over again. But as I sat with Steve just after he died, I held his hand and talked to him of how I would do it. It would take me some time, but I would celebrate his life and more importantly, his death. I was so stunned by how death is not fearful. Steve died with dignity. He showed me how to do it. When I die, Steve will be there smiling and waiting for me. He promised.
If anyone wants to contact me about this or the proposed exhibition of Steve Shaw's death and last few months, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks.