Moving your household to another country is always an enormous undertaking. Doing it when you are living with terminal cancer is something few of us can imagine. All the Time We Thought We Had is a poignant memoir of how love carries us through the times when life throws us the unexpected and unbearable.
In this deeply affecting memoir, British journalist Gordon Darroch recounts how the experience of his wife Magteld’s diagnosis of breast cancer intensified their long held intention to move to her native Holland. The basic facts can be learned from the back cover of the book: Magteld is diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36 as they and their two young sons prepare to move to her native Holland from Glasgow. Despite surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment, they learn on the cusp of their move that the cancer has returned and Magteld has only a few months to live. But this memoir is much more than a recounting of the very real and powerful story of Magteld’s illness and its impact on their lives and plans. It is a reflection and a meditation on how life is often about the unexpected and what we do when we find ourselves in that place.
As the title suggests, Darroch’s reflections on the nature of time, and its relationship to how we make sense of our own lives, are woven throughout the book. While the main "events" of the book take place within roughly a two-year period, the span of the book is considerably wider. Indeed for much of the book, Darroch eschews a strict chronological order, and toggles back and forth between the past and the present.
Thus, sweet stories from his first encounter with his future wife as teens at a campsite in Italy, and their long distance courtship (between England and the Netherlands) are interspersed with recountings of biopsies and oncologists; their learning of their firstborn son Euan’s autism years earlier is related between Magteld finding a lump in her breast and the subsequent diagnostic mammogram.
This careful interweaving of past and present allows us to learn who Gordon and Magteld are, how events in their past have shaped them, and makes the discovery and progression of Magteld’s illness much more affecting. Resilience, determination, and vulnerability in their characters and relationship are foreshadowed in the way in which they meet the surprising news that both of their sons, Euan and Adam, are autistic. The qualities of tenderness and sensitivity in Gordon and Magteld’s first kisses appear again in the careful and compassionate awareness of their young sons’ fears and anxieties during the course of their mother’s illness.
In a similar way, Darroch alludes to how the future, or what we imagine it will be, affects the way we meet the present. Darroch recounts a scene in which his son marks the date on the calendar for a postponed visit to Hamley’s, the famous London toy store, to buy a gift for his new baby cousin:
“He opened his diary at 1 April and wrote ‘Mummy get better’. And then on 6 April: ‘Go to Hamley’s, find something for baby Tim.’”
Writing about people experiencing an unfathomably unjust illness such as Magteld’s is difficult; how can you be honest about the anguish of the struggle, yet not allow the frequently awful details to obscure the real people? Darroch navigates this beautifully. He recounts how Magteld approaches her cancer with a bold realism – not concealing her anger, fear, or struggles behind a courageous facade; there are many scenes of genuine angst where neither of them come across like a traditional hero or heroine. One particularly moving moment is near the end of Magteld’s life, where the sheer physical and mental toll of being primary caregiver pushes him to tell her he isn’t sure if he can take any more:
“She gritted her teeth and half closed her eyes. A molten core of anger rose in her voice. 'Don’t you dare say that’ she seethed.
‘I’m just being honest’, I said.
I was shocked to see she was crying. As I tried to explain she became more distressed. She began hitting me, frenziedly. I felt the sting of her fingers as her limp fists slapped against my chest. ‘Just don’t send me back to the hospice’, she croaked.”
The simplicity and pain of this moment are very powerful, and Darroch shares moments like these carefully. One of the most skillful aspects of this memoir is his ability to share many deeply private moments like this – between his wife and him, or Magteld and their sons, her sister, her father, his mother and so forth – without ever compromising their essential privacy and dignity. It’s an extraordinary balance to achieve.
The Dutch Connection
In addition to the deservedly more prominent relationships explored in this book, there is also the relationship between the author and the Netherlands. Through the lovely, young Magteld, Darroch meets another culture and people. Loving Magteld and making a life with her means all the compromises and thrills that come with cross-border relationships.
As many of our readers appreciate, the Netherlands is a distinctive place; reading Darroch’s observations on Dutch customs and culture is like experiencing my own introduction to this lovely and unique place. Falling in love with a Dutch person and becoming part of a Dutch family brings this distinctiveness very close up, but it is only living here that makes the relationship truly complete, especially in the midst of a crisis. Darroch’s appreciation for the directness, compassion, and lack of melodrama around the way the medical community here cares for patients and families at the end of life was unmistakable. After Magteld dies, he spends some time expressing appreciation for the simple directness of Dutch condolence phrases:
“Mothers I had only known a few days approached me in the playground and said ‘Gecondeleerd’ (commiserations), ‘Dat is jammer om te horen’ (I’m sorry to hear that) and ‘Veel sterkte bij dit grote verlies’. This last one has no true equivalent in English – literally it’s wishing you strength in coping with a terrible loss. I was grateful for it, since strength was the thing I needed above all.”
All the Time We Thought We Had is not a light read. It may well make you cry. But it may also make you laugh. It will certainly not leave you unaffected.
Amsterdam Mamas received a free copy of this book in exchange for our honest review.
Anastasia Drost is the Editor in Chief of Amsterdam Mamas. She lives in Amsterdam, returned after many years, this time with a Dutch husband and two children.