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What losing family to cancer did to me?

Having lost his uncle to colon cancer, Serge shares how he dealt with his heartbreak. He found out about this uncle’s passing in the middle of a presentation at the University of Salford. An avid photographer, Serge would, later that year, take photos at a cancer fundraiser in his memory.

From Death, Comes Life

A Lost Star

Antoine Ribanje, 49 years young, a beloved husband, inspirational father, exemplary brother, caring son, and overall role model. Truth be told, these descriptions will never do justice to a man who has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember.

My father (left) with Antoine (right) shortly before he passed from cancer
My father (left) with Antoine (right) shortly before he passed from cancer

He’s one of the reasons I returned to blogging and created this platform. One of the reasons my favourite colour is blue and I support Chelsea FC. One of the reasons I’m always able to see the bright side of life and can see the good in people. An optimist and an inspiration, he was there when I was born in Almelo, schooling in Paris, maturing in London, and living independently in Cardiff, and now Salford. This icon passed away a month shy of his birthday. A birthday that he would have shared with my father, his lifelong friend, as they would have celebrated their 50th together.

“Passed away after losing the battle to cancer.” That’s what you often read when somebody dies from cancer, right? Why portray him as a “loser”?

Yes. Cancer sucks. There’s no denying that. Having seen my uncle live life after being diagnosed with kidney and liver cancer last year, these descriptions couldn’t be further from the truth. He didn’t let his cancer prevent him from enjoying Chelsea play. It didn’t stop his grandson from spending time with his “gwandad”. It didn’t prevent him from congratulating me when I (finally) passed my driving test. Even when he was laying in bed in an intensive care ward, he always gathered up the energy to smile.

Yes. He battled through without ever letting this son a of bitch of cancer diminish his smile. That man will always be a winner in my book.

End of the fairy-tale

I never considered that somebody close to me would ever leave me. That thought never crossed my mind. I always thought that everybody around me will live till they are 500 years old. I would never have thought I’d have to stand in a field with a shovel lifting dirt and throwing it into a hole in the ground. Of course, the conversation has come up throughout my 23 years, but it has always seemed pretty far-fetched. Like, let’s say, being able to swim through lava… Or me being able to do the splits.

May 4th, I’m stood in front of a class of people, delivering a presentation that I’ve kind of prepared for that morning. Poorly prepared presentation but prepared nonetheless. Throughout what felt like the longest 15 minutes ever, my phone is buzzing throughout.

Busy tone engaged. Hopefully this should let them know that I’m busy. Rings again. Mum, I’m busy! (Sends template text message, “I’m busy, I’ll call you later “). Dad calls immediately after. Are they not together? Repeat procedure.

Crowd gathers at my uncle's funeral as we bury him.
Me (centre) at my uncle’s funeral

The presentation ends, now I’ve got time to try and call back. Huh? My calls aren’t coming through! They literally called 5 minutes ago! So I’m just going to wait till they call me back. This has happened before. They usually call me when I’m either at work or lectures, asking if I’m at home or cleaning the house or if I’m behaving (what could I possibly be doing?).

Moments later, the news broke on the family WhatsApp group… Never have I ever needed to get out of a lecture room before. Never have I left any room so quickly. I couldn’t get hold of any family members. Never have I felt so stranded and alone in my life. The fairy-tale was just that; a fairy-tale. Death was very much a real thing.

Picking up the pieces

The last month was probably among the darkest that I’ve ever had to go through. It made me realise certain things. Such as, that my optimism was unfounded. I’ve always tried to be an optimist for others and encouraging others to achieve their dreams, inspire for more, and be the best they can be. But had I been taking my own advice? All this time, I’ve only really achieved anything when I’ve been propped up by my family and friends. Being reactive and waiting for things to happen to me, rather than being more proactive and achieving through my own volition.

Antoine with his family while going through cancer treatment
Antoine with his family while going through cancer treatment

I felt a lot of regret during this period, going through short phases of depression, anxiety, and lethargy. Regret. Regret because of all those times I had promised to go watch Chelsea games with Antoine. Because of all those times I should have visited more often to help with his fight. For my inability to take advantage of the opportunities and make something more of myself. Truth be told I was scared. The hourglass had now flipped. What had I done up to this point?

If not for my friends around me during that point, who knows what state my mind would be in. Those that helped me pick up the pieces. Those of you who have tried to pick up all the parts of a broken glass, know just how difficult that can be. But, to the people at SUDS to the French Connection living up in Manchester, to the friends down south in London and Cardiff, not forgetting those of you in different time zones. To those of you who dirtied your hands helping me pick up my broken pieces. Thank you.

Legacy & Rediscovery

Thus, on May 23rd, the day of the funeral, we added a star to the sky.

This was the day that I rediscovered the direction in which I wanted my life to be heading. It was time to take command of this ship and start steering it in the right direction and avoid those icebergs. I want my funeral to resemble even half that of my uncle. A building filled with people, spilling out of the church out into the streets. A graveyard full of people, some donning colours of Antoine’s favourite football team. People sharing their fond memories long into the night. Many more people worldwide that couldn’t make the journey still made their presence felt through messages, photos and videos. This by no way means that I am looking forward to going.

Burial site of Antoine Ribanje
Antoine Ribanje’s burial site

But if I do, I want to leave something behind that people could be proud of. Leave a legacy behind like Tonton Antoine did. So, there is just no way that I’m not going to achieve that by sitting on my hands now, is there? Yes, the hourglass is in full effect, it’s now time to stop feeling regretful and pity myself.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start grabbing life with both hands, my friend. Who cares if you got poor grades. Or that relationship didn’t quite work out. Enjoy life and make the most of it, you never when it’ll end.”

I’d imagine that he’d say something like that before we then go on to complain about another poor Chelsea performance. He lived life to the fullest. He faced his own adversities and had to overcome his own hurdles. Most of them were a heck of a lot higher than anything I can imagine.

Lessons Learnt

It’s funny. Even through death, he continues to teach me lessons. I’d like to think that these are also lessons that you guys could take away. I know some of you have gone through your own adversities, whether that be losing your best friends, family members, work-related. So, if you can take anything from this post I guess it would be; make the most of those around you and the opportunities that you have been given. What do you want to be remembered for when the ink dries on your story? Life will almost certainly kick you in the bollocks (or enter female equivalent here, please excuse the innuendo). Still, it’s never too late to steer the ship back in the right direction.”

Or something like that, you get the point really.

Family together with a framed photo of Antoine, who passed from cancer

I hope that this account can help those of you that are grieving. That same year, his daughter Eden, hosted a live music fundraiser for MacMillan Cancer Support. Here she tells us how she wanted to create this send-off for her father.

Serge Kabanda
Serge Kabanda

Serge is a content producer of Rwandan heritage, with expertise in social media and video production. Born in Almelo, his travels have taken his through Paris and Angers before ending up in London.

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