When the love of your life is touched by cancer – not touched, smashed – by cancer, the response of those who know you best is telling. From the precious few who have chosen you to the mish-mash many who are yours by right, the reactions are somewhat varied and absolutely no general rule can be applied.
And so it was, that on September the 12th, I entered the Twilight Zone: A world where everything still appeared to be the same but that me and mine saw differently. It’s nigh on impossible to explain; that slack-jaw moment in time where realities collide and you see a whole future of hospital corridors, white jackets and stethoscopes stretching out in front of you. Understanding is everything, I’m told. Yet too much clarity, in my opinion, is terrifying.
On arriving home, the diagnosis is shared with the children. Although adults now, they are still children within the home and so the imparting of such ridiculous and heart-crushing news brought with it tears and hugs. Where one was filled with a disbelief buoyed with inner strength, the other stayed calm and collected with a glowing inner optimism. Both managed to fill the gaps within my own self as we resolutely stood together, prepared to face down all that was to come. It is little wonder, then, that I craved to keep my world within these walls for as long as possible. Everyone at arms length or, as it, turned out, at the end of a text message. With the exception of my mum (who doesn’t have a mobile), all communication with those we love was conducted via texts, WhatsApp or emails and afforded us all with breathing space to compose our reactions, our emotions. Thank goodness for Marianne! My oldest friend who instinctively visited and gave her arms to comfort me, her words to ground us and her tears to join ours. I never knew how powerful human interaction at such a time can be; how essential it is, in fact, to be in contact with others who do have a mutual interest in the one you care so deeply about. In just that time alone, on my 47th birthday, Marianne made me realise that the world still existed, spinning continually, witnessing all manner of scenarios, scenarios that, quite frankly, eclipse our own.
“Time to pull up your big-girl pants and get on with it!”
Over the following weeks I was praised by all who met me on my courage and strength. Friends who never expected to see me in this situation were amazed at my ability to show humour, patience and compassion. For me though, it was no surprise. I have forever been a practical soul, darkly funny with a massive capacity for compassion. What I have never been is wasteful. By that I mean I don’t waste my compassion on those unworthy – and I do have very high and exacting standards. Maybe that’s where the amazement from friends came from. Maybe they have just never been worthy of my softer side…
The awake craniotomy surgery was scheduled for October the 7th. Just me and my man for this part of the journey. He left my side at half 10 and walked to the theatre with his team. I loitered in and around Southmead, intermittently placing myself on seats situated around the Atrium and watched patients and visitors in various states come and go. I finished a book I’d been given by a friend and only when it was almost time for the surgery to be done did I make my way back to Gate 20. I sat with others in the waiting room; a middle aged couple talking continually on their phones and a heavy-set bloke who was clearly disgruntled. I guess we all had a story but no one wanted to share. Not me anyway. On seeing Dr Barua, no suit this time but in his scrubs, I was suddenly aware of my solitude. Whatever he has to tell me, I’m to hear it alone. The gravity of that thought didn’t pull me down quite as much as you’d think. I knew that to have anyone stay with me for the nine hour day (six of which was just me) was an absolute farce and so it followed that of course I was to receive whatever news was to come alone. I was okay with that. At just after 5pm he told me the surgery went “really well”. At about 6pm I was by my man’s side, talking and kissing and eventually feeding him a roast dinner. By 9pm I was home with the boys, talking and hugging and eventually sleeping. But somewhere in-between that something beautiful happened. Not to you well-adjusted lot, I’m sure, but to me it was beautiful: my big brother rang me.
As I left Dr Barua, my heart singing and pounding, my feet aching and flying as a descended the stairway, my phone rang.
“Hello Liz, how’d it go?”
Oh the joy to be able to share the news so quickly and to such a willing correspondent, I can’t begin to tell you my relief. The whole day I’d not spoken, except to answer medical questions or to confirm dates or times. And there it was, just five words to bring me back to the world of people. But that wasn’t all that phone call meant to me. You see Nick had no idea what the outcome would be. He couldn’t have known it was a success, it could’ve gone as bad as a brain operation could go – he could have got a hysterical, bereft little sister howling down the phone at him. I’ll let that just sink in for a while.
I think that phone call he made to me at that precise time was the most brilliant thing he has done for me to date. And that’s something.