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David Bowie: Keeping Schtum About Cancer

20/01/2016 18:29 | Updated 20 January 2017

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Well. That was a week of very sad news.

David Bowie.

Alan Rickman.

Dead. Cancer. Aged 69.

Like many people at the start of last week, waking up on Monday morning, to the Bowie news. It affected me.

All day I felt.... What's the word?... Discombobulated.

But not, I think, wholly for the same reasons as most other people.

Yes. Undoubtedly David Bowie was extraordinary.

A genuine artist and innovator.

And me being a child of the super-70s, I'm sure that in many indirect ways, his impact on my childhood cultural landscape - and beyond - no doubt influenced my weeny world.

But, nonetheless, I can't say I was ever a true 'fan'.

Bowie posters did not adorn my walls. His music didn't 'speak to me'. And on hearing Monday's sad news, I had no recognisable urge to paint a lightning bolt on my face, or plan a trip to Brixton, Bromley, or Beckenham.

But I was upset.

It was the headline:

'David Bowie dead at 69 after secret 18-month battle with cancer'.

Because for me it was far too close to home. Maybe it sounds selfish, to be thinking of yourself at a time of others' loss and misfortune. But all I could think of was my Mum, I couldn't help it.

And, no, it's not because she was a world famous singer-songwriter, although, truth be told, she did do a cracking rendition of Ethel Murman's There's No Business Like Showbusiness.

But because of that headline, the one that seemed to appear everywhere I looked, on my phone, in the papers, on my newsfeeds.

The facts were identical.

Every time I saw it, my mind played dirty with me.

The letters of David Bowie's name began to melt. And before I knew it. It had morphed into my very own space oddity:

Geraldine de Laubenque dead at 69 after secret 18-month battle with cancer.

It was exactly five years ago this month she'd been told. January 2011.

Lung cancer. Inoperable. Incurable.

Eighteen months later - July 2012 - she was dead.

26 November 2012 would have been her 70th birthday.

Hearing last Monday's news. That Bowie's son had confirmed his death. I imagined how it must have felt for him. To be announcing, what was to others, a sad and shocking revelation. When to him, it had been part of his reality for long enough to become normal. Abnormally normal.

A dark and sticky shadow that he could finally wash clean from. Free, at last, to tell the truth. It was over.

Okay, so, maybe his son felt nothing like that.

But that's what I saw. What I remembered. Breaking the silence. Working my way through Mum's address book.

"I'm afraid I'm calling with bad news"

"She'd been ill for 18 months"

"I'm sorry, I know it's a shock. She wanted to keep it private"

And there it is:

Wanted to keep it private.

There's a lot of talk in the press and online about David Bowie right now. A deluge of journos. Jumping on the bandwagon. Giving us their theories on why he chose to keep his diagnosis 'a secret'. One even said it was Bowie's definitive snub to our culture of over sharing and social media. That he actively chose to 'buck the trend' by doing so.

I know journalists always have to find an angle, it's their job. But what an absolute crock of sheisse. Okay, so he may have been Ziggy Stardust, other-worldly and iconic. But do we really need to interpret absolutely everything David Bowie did as an artistic statement?

Being told you have cancer, terminal cancer, it can be the ultimate removal of control.

Managing how we respond to our own mortality. Deciding what information to give others. Maybe it's our last opportunity to take back some of that lost control - to end our lives with some level of choice.

My mum's decision to keep it private wasn't artistic. But then as I mentioned she wasn't a world famous singer-songwriter.

She didn't have millions of fans worldwide to be concerned about or press to intrude on her and her family's lives.

Mum's reasons to keep it private were because she didn't want to be defined by cancer. She didn't want people to look at her with pity. To talk sympathetically about her behind her back: "Poor cow".

She wanted to keep positive, to live normally. She didn't want cancer to take over her life anymore than the constant hospital appointments, blood tests and tablets already did.

Sometimes she'd admit to me some of her fears. How she worried that maybe she was in denial. And perhaps should be more open. Tell people. I told her not to worry about that. After all, how many people in denial ask themselves if they're in denial?

My Mum spent her last last 18 months actively taking steps to improve and extend her life, to counteract the cancer. Evaluating who she was up until that point. Choosing to do the things she wanted to do.

Of course she found it difficult. More difficult than I'm sure she ever let me - the daughter she always wanted to protect - see. But she did it. She navigated that terrifying minefield her way and I am immensely proud of her for it.

When I heard the news about Bowie and his 'secret', that he'd chosen not to tell people, I wanted Mum to know. You see, Mum!? David Bowie! Probably the last person anyone would associate with the word 'denial'. He did it too!

I have no idea why Bowie decided to keep it private and frankly it doesn't matter. It was his business.

But I'm pretty sure it wasn't to do with either denial or bucking the trend. To me, it was his personal decision to end his life the way he chose. Not as an artist or an innovator. But as a human being. The way we all should.

So, David Bowie and Mum, I salute you both. For making the decision that was right for you. I wouldn't have expected anything different from either of you.

And to Alan Rickman. Another great loss to the cancer 69 club. Thank you and goodnight.

Now, let's dance. Truly madly deeply.

***

To read more from Angela Brightwell, visit: www.funnymatters.co.uk