Monday, 18 May 2015

Roses for Lisa


From Lisa's friend Antonia.

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I recently started working my way through every episode of The Sopranos ever made. Having never watched it before, I couldn’t believe how fast the character of Tony Soprano took up residence in my head. Even my thoughts started talking in a New Jersey accent as the voice of Tony narrated everything. It said “fancul” a lot. And my favorite: “I wipe my ass with your feelings”.

Only a third of the way into 86 episodes, I had a lot of questions.

“Why doesn’t Tony kill Richie?” I asked Tillie on the phone. “Why is Janice a bonkers psychopath?”

But even as Tillie cheerfully explained the symbolism of all the raw meat and the significance of the ducks in Tony’s pool, I was thinking about Lisa. I was remembering her driving me around the one-way system in Camden the summer before she died.

“Mother******r!” she shouted at a Fiat Punto. “Sorry”, she glanced at me. “Pete’s taken away my Sopranos box-set because I can’t stop talking like Tony Soprano.”

“Oh. OK.” I said, shutting my eyes as we swung a right onto Hawley Road.

Watching The Sopranos now, I couldn’t believe I’d waited too long. How could I not have shared this experience with Lisa? Suddenly I understood the Tony-Lisa connection too: Tony’s wry smiles in the face of terrible emotional pain; his sardonic wit when life turns on him, his crisis and then the way he pushes on in the sure knowledge he’s being hunted by killers.

Over the years Lisa’s Massive Love Of Television™ meant she’d save up episodes of Geordie Shore for us to watch together when I was home from the US. She’d Skype and WhatsApp me with blow-by-blow accounts of Made in Chelsea. We’d discuss the genius of The West Wing and she’d plead with me to hurry up and watch The Sopranos. Although she was horribly clever, she was never a snob, so everything was included, from utter bollocks to brilliantly-scripted drama. Lisa just absolutely loved telly. So really, it couldn’t be more appropriate that she ended up with her own film on the BBC.

Watching the adaptation of The C Word, I lay on my sofa in Los Angeles and chanted to myself ‘it’s not really her, it’s not really her’ just to get through it. But the truth is, Lisa was there. She was in the brilliantly-crafted script by Nicole Taylor, and in Sheridan Smith’s beautiful acting. True, I wasn’t prepared to see Sheridan wearing Lisa’s jewelry – the silver nameplate, the cocktail ring Pete gave her after the first round of chemo – but those things were important. It had to be done right. There was the mug from their actual kitchen cupboard, that postcard from the fridge. I thought of all the exhaustive work that had gone into getting this right, down to a random teacup, to the perfect denim jacket and the floral dresses from Dorothy Perkins (or ‘Dotty P’ as Lisa called it). All of these efforts had been made to honor Lisa and I was grateful for them. But mostly, I heard the words Lisa had said and then written. I remembered her typing away sitting on the windowsill at my friend Hannah’s place in LA. Lisa had come out for a holiday but still, she worked and worked, despite a lymphodema- swollen arm. Telling the story was everything.

“I wish I’d written more. I had more things to say,” Lisa said, one night towards the end. Sitting beside her, I searched desperately for something to say to make it right, rejecting the idea that nothing could. So I told her something true: her book had helped many thousands of people through their darkest times.

That number has risen somewhat lately. 5 million people have watched the film so far, her book just went to number one in the Amazon chart and to number three on The Sunday Times bestseller list. So I reckon she might have been alright with that. But she’d have kept on working anyway.

I think you’re supposed to eventually stop wondering where a person is and how they are at a certain point after they’ve gone. But I haven’t. I didn’t realize I simply wouldn’t accept her absence or that I wouldn’t see her again. Nor does anyone tell you how terribly lonely grief is. I had some idea it would bind us together, those of us united in grief, that like sailors lost at sea we would link arms. Instead, I found I couldn’t bear to see any sign of sadness in our close group of friends, couldn’t talk about Lisa being gone without feeling panicked and short of breath. I stopped calling them as often as I used to. When well-meaning people asked about Lisa I was angry and abrupt. As I live overseas, I’d pretend she was still at home in London. More than once I pulled out my phone to text her before realizing there wasn’t a number for where she was.

This year, on Lisa’s anniversary, I was shopping for her flowers – the roses she loved so much. I’d picked out some pretty stems at a florist’s but then the woman behind the counter argued I should pay more than the listed price, that there had been a mistake. I didn't care about the money, I was just enraged that she’d said anything at all.

“They’re for a funeral!” I said, bursting into tears and walking out without them.

That’s the thing, there aren’t ways to explain to people that it’s been more than two years but buying the flowers is still just as vital. You can’t say to everybody, “I had this friend I loved so much and she died”, just as you can’t expect them to know that the phrase ‘time heals all wounds’ turns out to be bullshit.

But one thing did improve over time. Walking out of that flower shop, I made a phonecall.

“Yeah Me too.” Tillie said when I explained what had happened. Of course she’d also been buying Lisa’s flowers that day. “I’ve just been snippy with a florist in Kentish Town,” she said.

After I hung up, I sent a message to Polly, who wrote back saying how much she was missing Lisa.

It wasn’t long after this that I started watching The Sopranos, and as the weeks went by, I called Tillie again and again to discuss plot developments.

“Silv whacked Adrianna and Tony killed Chrissie!” I’d shout before she’d even said hello. Invariably our analysis of Tony’s motives would segue into talk of Lisa – memories that mostly made us cry with laughter. Finally I could talk about her at length with the friends who loved her like I did. Soon I was calling Tillie every day, and as we talked and talked, something happened. Lisa’s presence blossomed between us, like she’d been there holding us together all along.