Poet and author Victoria Bennett has experienced countless loss from mesothelioma in her family. With her new poetry collection, she hopes to share her message of hope and healing with others.
The loss of her aunt and uncle converged upon Victoria Bennett, an award-winning poet, author, and founder of the Wild Woman Press in the U.K., pushing her toward the eventual devastating reality of losing her mother, Maureen. Bennett had become painfully familiar with the finality of death. Seven years before she lost her mom, Bennett’s eldest sister drowned at 48. In the seven years between the deaths of her eldest sister and her mother, Bennett also lost her sister-in-law to lung cancer and her nephew shortly after. Her sister-in-law was 49, and her nephew was just 17.
Mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the tissue that lines the lungs, stomach, heart and other organs, robbed Maureen and her two siblings of life in succession from youngest to eldest. The aggressive cancer is directly caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Bennett’s mother, aunt and uncle were likely exposed to asbestos fibers embedded in her grandfather’s clothes. He worked as a joiner, often chopping insulation boards that contained the dangerous substance.
Maureen was diagnosed with mesothelioma on Christmas Eve in 2014, after being misdiagnosed for a year. Bennett recalls the confusion and frustration she felt during that time—the sinking feeling she experienced when doctors deprived the pair of hope once her mother’s mesothelioma diagnosis was finally confirmed.
“We went and sat outside in the hospital cafeteria, and [Maureen] just said, ‘I don’t want to tell anybody just yet. Let’s do Christmas,’” says Bennett. She agreed to keep the news of her mother’s diagnosis private until after the holiday, which made the experience extremely difficult.
Having witnessed her two younger siblings battle the aggressive cancer, her mother decided to forego hospital stays and intense treatment and opted to instead spend her time at home with her family. “I kind of knew that we were in for the last part, really,” Bennett recalls. “There wasn’t going to be a cure. I think I decided immediately then that I would continue to be her companion through it as well.”
Bennett diligently provided care and support to Maureen. Although she was grateful for the time she was able to spend with her mother, she also juggled the struggles of being the primary caregiver while providing support to her father as well. From accompanying her mother to medical appointments to helping with chores around the home, Bennett tended to each of her parents’ needs.
“It’s unbelievably demanding, cancer care and terminal care,” Bennett says. “There were moments when I can still remember just not stopping from one alarm to another. It’s a different sort of constant movement, between medications for my dad, cleaning, looking after my son, dealing with his insulin alarms and homeschooling.”
For Bennett, the constant responsibility of caring for her loved ones led to feelings of isolation. She had little time to devote to herself and even less time to process her emotions. Eventually, she reached a breaking point and explained to her parents that she couldn’t manage everything alone. “I do remember one significant point where I thought, ‘I can’t actually manage this on my own,’” she admits.
Neither Bennett nor her parents wanted to rely on outside help at home, but Bennett convinced her parents to accept that she desperately needed assistance. “I think I broke down at that point,” recalls Bennett. “I said, ‘I need you to have this. I need you to accept this because you may not want them, but I do.’ That was a really hard moment.”
The three of them accepted their new reality and agreed to bring in help. For a time, Bennett was less constrained by her former responsibilities, but the time she had left with her mother was slipping away. Maureen died on Dec. 1, 2015, at the age of 83.
Reflecting on the uniquely intimate relationship she had with loss, Bennett describes losing her loved ones as life-altering in the most profound way. “There was a complete upheaval of who I was, what I was, what life was about, everything,” says Bennett. “My expectations of motherhood changed in an instant. I thought we were going to be on this wonderful journey, and suddenly it was thrown into this terrible grief.” Bennett was unable to find solace even in her writing—a sobering reality she grew to accept.
Following her mother’s death, Bennett rekindled her lifelong connection with nature through gardening. It wasn’t long before she discovered her healing was buried deep in the soil.
“It helped with finding an expression for things,” she says. “As I was digging and shifting rocks, and looking after my son, it was kind of like the saying ’Chop wood, carry water.’” Bennett slowly began feeling grounded. With every piece of earth she moved, she freed up the emotional space to start writing about losing her sister and her mother, and how it felt to be a new mother herself.
The collage of poems became the subject of her new book “To Start the Year From Its Quiet Center,” published through the award-winning U.K. independent press, Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd. Bennett invites her readers to become more familiar with love and loss, accept the despair that grief often brings and find the courage to keep moving forward. Bennett allows us to step into her world and witness the intimate moments of dying and loving that she shared with her mother while encouraging those who are beginning their caregiving journey or witnessing a loved one’s death to savor each fleeting moment.
Bennett also encourages caregivers to reserve a few moments for self-care. “I had a really nice teapot and a really nice cup,” she recalls. “And once a day, I would make myself a pot of tea, sit down with this teacup and drink a cup of tea.”
Drawing on the life lessons she learned as she loved through her losses, and with the support she’s received from her Wild Woman tribe, Bennett continues her mission to uplift and empower women. If she isn’t juggling a plethora of new projects or setting the pen to the page, you’ll always be able to find her where the wild things are.
“How to Watch Someone Die”
First, let go of all the plans he once had.
The casual ways we assume the right to live.
Create a box for all your future tense.
Catch yesterday’s in your upturned hands.
And from memories, learn to read code before long is to be dust.
Forget the clock and roll like a wave on dawns and dusk
that drip like morphine in days that feel like they could go on and on and on,
but never look away In case you miss the moment that it ends.
Learn to live between the punctuated hours.
Your ears are tuned like city fox, to spot an altered breath.
Your eyes alert to the paler skin.
Juggle everything and fail, and tell yourself this is your best and know this best will never be enough.
Accept, you cannot change any of this and break and get back up again.
Try not to let them die before they die.
Try to let them stay in this world, even as this world gets smaller every day.
Even if some days you wish an end to this, and when it comes, try to remember to stop to listen to assignments after the dying is done. Watch the morning come.
Try all over again to let go and live.