Friday, 15 January 2010
Those of you who’ve been with this blog a while will undoubtedly know Tills. Not personally, perhaps, but you’ll certainly be aware of her as one of the key mates who saw me through The Bullshit. She was the first friend I called after getting my diagnosis. The one who arranged my fabulous pre-chemo haircut. The one who ensured I had fancy pyjamas. The one who I yawped at despite her giving up a morning to help me buy a wig. The one who met me after my final radiotherapy session with a magnum of cava, and discussed nipple shades in the reconstruction clinic. The one who took the piss out of Calum Best when we found ourselves sitting beside him in a tattoo-studio waiting room. The one who stayed calm and caring on New Image Day when I dragged her along to two different colourists in three hours and had a diva strop in Topshop. The one who created the legendary tit-cupcakes for my Super Sweet 30th. And the one who’s regularly to be found being protectively supportive (not to mention pulling me up on my bullshit) in the comments section of these here pages. Lately, though, Tills has had a bit more on her plate than looking after a sick mate or leaving witty responses to blog posts. Because on Christmas Day, at 11.30am, Tills gave birth to a 6lb 8oz bundle of scrumptiousness called Bea. Round of applause, please.
(Actually, while we’re clapping the rites of passage of my lovely girlfriends, do keep up the ovation for Busby, who’s now mum to Eli; Leaks, who’s about to add a boy to the family; Suze, who’s gone for the hat-trick with Oscar; Rose, who’s carrying perhaps the most brilliantly styled baby bump I’ve ever seen; Polls, who’s cemented her place as The Most Successful Person I Know by becoming Whitehall Correspondent for The Guardian; and my soon-to-be-wed pals Weeza, Ali, Kristen and Lil. See what happens when you’re friends with me? Exciting stuff, that’s what. Because, obviously, all of the above is entirely my doing. Obviously.)
Anyway, back to business. Those of you who know of Tills might have been surprised to read her baby news, what with me having posted only a cursory, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention about her pregnancy. And I don’t quite know what my response to that is. Because, when Tills called to tell me that she and Si would be having a baby, I wasn’t quite sure of my response to that, either. Granted, I squealed and clapped and promised to verse her firstborn in The Beatles, pub-quiz pop trivia, accessorising and the offside rule, but – given The Bullshit’s blow to mine and P’s fertility – my joy for Tills and Si was always going to be ever so slightly muddied by a spoilsport pang of what might’ve been. (Three rings of the phone gave me a window in which to react in the excited manner that Tills so rightfully deserved, mind you. My mates know how much I hate speaking on the phone, so when there’s ringing instead of a text beep, it’s generally time to steel yourself for Big News.)
Immediately after getting that phonecall, I had a confused little sob – perhaps it was at the reminder of the aforementioned muddy spoilsport pang, or the fact that said muddy spoilsport pang was threatening to stop me from being as excited for my dear friend as I wanted to be. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want anything to sully my enthusiasm for the role of Auntie Lisa, or because I hoped Tills' news wouldn’t force other people to jump to ahh-you-must-wish-that-was-you conclusions. Perhaps I was mourning the inevitable change in one of my most-valued friendships. Or perhaps it was simply down to the fear that the only Big News I might ever have to tell my friends in the future would be similar to that which I received when I was 28.
The first time I saw a pregnant Tills was a few days later, when she came with me to the reconstruction clinic to hold my hand prior to phase two of my nipple-tattooing. And, rather ridiculously for a friend I’ve known for over a decade, I was as nervous about seeing her as I was about my hospital appointment, afraid that I’d not look as pleased about her news as I felt, that I’d come across as jealous or bitter, or – worse yet – that my eyes would leak a retraction to my joyful response.
Equally weird was getting the right balance of baby versus cancer. The thing is, once you’ve done the congratulations and the due dates and the scan results and the promises to drink twice as much booze while your friend is out of action, you inevitably have to go back to normal conversation. And when you’re in the waiting room of a cancer clinic, there’s only really one topic on the table – and it's one hell of a buzz-kill. Like rain on your wedding day, or a black fly in your Chardonnay. Or ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. Or something.
The same thing happens whenever there’s any kind of Big News, of course, be it cancer or pregnancy or engagement or wedding or new job or book deal. (See? Any excuse.) You have to constantly censor yourself on it, slamming on the brakes to make sure you’ve not driven headlong over the Big News Bore cliff-edge. And ever since my diagnosis – much like after P put a diamond ring on my finger – my inner voice has had to work overtime to curb the self-obsession. ‘Yep, you’re still going to the hospital regularly. Yep, you’re feeling better than you have in a while. Yep, your hair’s getting long again. Right, Lis, that’s more than enough cancer chat. Now stop talking about yourself and ask about the baby.’
The trouble is, when everything has been All About You for so long, it becomes a hard habit to break. It’s not that you’re pleased that cancer has made things so me-me-me, of course, but I’d be fibbing if I said that the attention it brings was an unwelcome side effect. It’s lovely that people want to call you and visit you and read your blog and send you cards and bake you biscuits. You just wish it were for a different reason.
But – even now – every so often, there’s an unscheduled debrief in which I simply have to talk about The Bullshit, as though I still need convincing that it actually happened. (I may write about it all the time, but it’s a rare occasion when it crops up in dialogue.) And judging by an hour-long cancer-conversation I had with – and initiated by, I should add – Lil earlier this week, it seems my mates still occasionally need convincing of its reality, too. Afraid that I had been secretly rating her levels of upset at my Big News, Lil was at pains to tell me how it had affected her.
‘I made a point of not crying in front of you, you know,’ she assured me. ‘I wanted to keep things as normal as possible.’
‘And you did, love,’ I said. ‘In fact all along you were one of the best at treating me exactly the same way as you always had,’ I added, thrilled at being able to use the past tense.
‘I hope so,’ she said. ‘I just want you to know that I always cried when I left you, okay?’
‘I know, bird,’ I agreed. ‘But it’s not like I was keeping a tally of who cried and who didn’t.’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ she winked, before I switched subjects to her beautiful engagement ring, bombarding her with wedding magazines and guaranteeing her a hen night to remember.
Just as it is for many of my friends, this is an exciting time for Lil. (And ain’t that just where your thirties whoop the ass of your twenties?) Being proposed to on Christmas morning (at the same time that Tills was in labour with Bea, funnily enough) put the icing on a happy month in which she’d also started a new career in PR, working beside a colleague we’d each met in a former job.
‘He was asking about you actually,’ she mentioned.
‘Oh?’ I said.
‘Yeah, he got confused about your name-change. I think he was trying to figure out whether Lisa McFarlane and Lisa Lynch were the same person.’
‘Heh. So am I,’ I thought.
‘So I filled him in on what you’d been up to since,’ said Lil. ‘About the wedding and the new jobs and that.’
‘Cool, cool,’ I hummed, expecting to hear another When You Had Cancer story.
‘And then I stopped myself,’ she said. ‘I was going to tell him about The Bullshit, but then I thought, “No, actually. Leave it there. It’s not important. She’s past it; she’s better.” Is that okay?’
‘That’s better than okay, Lilface,’ I enthused. ‘That’s fucking wonderful. Nice work, bird.’
‘So yeah, I told him about the writing stuff instead.’
‘That’s brilliant,’ I beamed.
And it is. It’s brilliant. And not just because Lil had talked about my career before my cancer. But also because in the course of our conversation it dawned on me that, in the eyes of the people who matter, I’d at long last rejoined the ranks as Just Another Thirtysomething, capable of getting as giddy about the exciting stuff happening in their lives as the exciting stuff happening in mine. Granted, my own Big News may be more book-shaped than bride-shaped or baby-shaped, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome. And, better still, being able to slowly edge The Bullshit out of the headlines has created vital space for far more newsworthy stuff, like shopping for gorgeous wedding outfits, eyeing up L-plates for Lil’s hen night and opening an iTunes account for Bea. That’s right, Tills – Auntie Lisa’s Lesson In Pop begins here.
Thursday, 7 January 2010
There’s an ongoing joke that my brother Jamie and I have with our parents.
‘…and be careful,’ Mum will say at the end of every phonecall/visit/conversation we have with her.
‘Cor, it’s a good job you said that, Mum,’ I’ll mock, ‘because otherwise I really don’t think I would have been.’
‘Listen, Mum,’ Jamie will add, ‘let’s just make a deal that, until you instruct me otherwise, I’ll be careful, okay?’
‘Piss off,’ she’ll retort. And then we’ll have the exact same conversation all over again the next time we leave the house/cross the road/put keys in the ignition. But that, I’m told, is ‘what parents do’. And it’s cute, ain’t it?
It does make me wonder, though, at what point will it stop? It’s more than twelve years now since I left home, and yet that level of overprotection is no different at 30 to that which it was when I was 13. That’s mostly cancer’s fault, of course. It may be a rose-tinted, hindsight-facing view, but I really do think that pre-Bullshit, the balance was just about getting right. My folks didn’t feel the need to know exactly where I was at any given point despite the 120 miles between us, nor did they freak out if I hadn’t answered the phone within five rings. Throw cancer into the equation, however, and I don’t need powers of telepathy to figure out that my parents’ #1 activity – wholly understandably – is Worrying About Lisa.
It’s not just them, of course. These days, even my closest mates ask how I’m doing without the usual not-really-interested-in-the-answer breeziness that comes with the question, and just today P expressed a worry about me going back into my freezing office tomorrow, given that I ‘have to be more careful than most people about getting ill’. The concern even stretches to GPs, as though having the magic word ‘cancer’ on your record opens up a secret, golden-ticket world of swift appointments, fast referrals and on-tap prescriptions, like some kind of Disneyworld FastPass for ill people. (I might try using it elsewhere actually. ‘Sorry, madam, The Ivy only takes bookings three months in advance.’ ‘But I once had cancer, don’t you know?’ ‘Oh, well in that case, madam, we can get you in at 7.30 this evening. We’ll sit you next to David and Victoria.’)
When, over Christmas, a niggling cold persisted for longer than the turkey lasted, my parents/in-laws/husband/friends nagged me to see a doctor. They were all absolutely right in the end, of course – it wasn’t a cold, but an infection – but I wanted to visit the doctor on my own terms, not because I’d been hassled into it. Because the problem with being told to be careful all the time, of course, is that it makes you want to do the complete opposite (in the same way that being told to tidy your room makes you want to do a Keith Moon). It makes you want to cross Spaghetti Junction blindfolded, run around a rush-hour Victoria station with a pair of scissors or carelessly yank your bread out of a red-hot toaster with a knife.
‘I know I should’ve come sooner,’ I admitted to my overly concerned sixtysomething GP, ‘but I figured this’d be gone by now and I can’t shake it off.’
‘Well you won’t do, darling,’ she said, her head so tilted she could have passed for a contortionist. ‘Not like other people do, not after what you’ve been through.’
‘Meh, I guess not,’ I conceded.
‘I must say, though, you’re looking wonderful,’ she added, in a comment that was about as relevant as telling me how many sugars she takes in her tea. (That’s another thing about having previously had cancer – people are crazy-nice. And marvellous as my newly grown hair is when compared to the George Dawes look, since getting it back I’ve had so many unjustified compliments on my appearance that I’m often surprised not to find J-Lo staring back at me in the mirror.)
‘Oh, um, thank you, that’s awfully kind,’ I mumbled.
‘Really, you are,’ she gushed. ‘But you’ve got to remember that you’re more vulnerable now.’
‘Hmm,’ I growled, à la Marge Simpson. ‘Vulnerable. Right.’
And there it is. According to medical science, I have now been moved from the pigeonhole marked ‘cancer’ to the one marked ‘vulnerable’. Which, of course, is fair enough. I know that; my immune system knows that; my doctors know that; my family know that; my husband knows that; and my friends know that. But whether I am vulnerable or not isn’t the point. The point is that – just as I never wanted to be treated like a cancer patient – I don’t now want to be treated like I’m made of porcelain, either. I want to be treated like a normal 30-year-old lass who’s big enough and daft enough to look after herself. (For the record, nobody gets that more spot-on than Jamie. He was as good at treating me like Lisa Lynch when I was bedridden and hairless as he ever was before – and still is today. Piss-taking little shyster.)
See, the beauty of this new year isn’t just having a crapload of exciting stuff to look forward to in 2010 – it’s the distance it puts between me and The Bullshit. It’s no longer having to say that I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. And that’s a sentence I get one helluva kick out of. So, in the wonderful words of the yoof: don’t harsh my mellow, man.