It was early September when I equated the probability of P and I having children as ‘no likelier to happen than either of us getting a mohawk’. Well, that was a bit of a fib, designed to throw you – ‘you’ mostly meaning our family and close friends – off the scent, leaving us with the kind of space and time in which we could consider The Kid Question without fear of scrutiny or raised hopes or enforced opinion. You see, in that tricky period when we were daring to look ahead for the first time since The Bullshit’s initial appearance, considering what we might like to do with our newly rosy-looking futures, P and I were beginning to think about what it might be like to adopt children, whether we thought we might be up to the job, and how we might go about looking into it. And so we registered interest with our local council and signed up to a meeting in which we could figure out how it all worked and then be in a position to decide, one way or another, whether this really was something we could – and wanted to – commit to. As it happened, however, that meeting took place while I was in a hospital bed, a day after we’d learned of the incurable spread to my bones.
But before you get all teary on me, pack it in. Yes, it’s very sad; yes, we’d have been wonderful parents; and yes, it’s just such a shame when so many ill-prepared, Jeremy-Kyle-auditionee twatclackers can get pregnant so damn easily blah blah. But let me stop you there. Because, actually, this confession simply doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything; it doesn’t make the new diagnosis any more heartbreaking; and it doesn’t mean that P and I have lost anything other than the opportunity to try out a crazy new hairdo. Hence, we don’t want sympathy, we don’t want oh-what-a-shames, and if you don’t immediately adjust that tilted head I swear I’m officially banning you from my blog. I’m merely using this confession as a means with which to introduce what I wanted to write about today: having a purpose.
And so, here’s another confession. For me, a significant part of entering into the should-we-adopt debate was because, probably even more than I wanted children, I wanted a purpose. I wanted a drive, a reason to be, something to call myself. It’s most likely an issue that many non-parents consider, before deciding either that actually, yes, they’d like to give this child-rearing thing a go, or hell no, they’re perfectly happy with their purpose being freedom and spontaneity and having a marvellous, guilt-free career, thank you very much. But, I suspect, the what’s-my-purpose question is one I’ve considered more than most.
As those of you who know me personally – or know me through years of reading this blog – will understand, it’s always been my purpose to be purposeful. I do like a purpose. It’s incredibly important to me. Hence, unsurprisingly, some of the most troubling moments of my life have been those in which I’ve struggled to define my purpose: the odd, pre-birthday, panic-attack-laden period earlier this year, for example. And while I hate having been right about those moments of panic (which, I might as well admit now, were not borne of worry about whether P and I would adopt, but whether we’d finally do so and I’d then discover what I since have), I can perfectly understand why they existed. Strange as this may sound, my days of partial remission were, of course, hugely celebratory, but also bloody frightening: because what was my life all about now, now that it wasn’t about beating cancer?
Today, of course, it’s not about beating cancer, but keeping it at bay for as long as possible. And shitty a purpose as that is to have, at least I’ve got one. I appreciate that probably sounds like a sick thing to say; cancer having given me a raison d’être where I was otherwise scrabbling around for one, but that’s not what I mean. Because, jeez, I’d happily scrabble around on my hands and knees all my sodding life in return for my purpose being something other than trying to make it to thirty-fucking-five. How I – we – deal with that purpose, though, is a whole other ball game.
It’s something Dad and I talked about last week while he was on looking-after-me duty (speaking of which, you’ve never seen this flat so spick and span: Dad spent the entirety of the week with a paintbrush in his hand and, now Mum’s swapped over to relieve him, my ironing pile has magically disappeared and my cupboards have suddenly organised themselves). The conclusion of our discussion was, unsurprisingly, that there is no right way to deal with this stuff (as I’ve said before, there is no ‘how’ in managing this kind of thing; you just manage) but simply ‘doing what you do’ is probably the best way to go. Hell, the only way to go.
And so, now we’re over the initial horror and heartbreak and shock and sadness, ‘doing what I do’ is exactly what I need to crack on with. Because, if I don’t, we’re in danger of life carrying on as it is right now: with everything being about cancer. And boy, do I mean everything. This is the point where I come across as a miserably ungrateful cow, but that’s just something I’m going to have to take on the chin – because things simply. cannot. continue. in the way they currently are, lest I suddenly flip out and do a Falling Down on your ass.
Seriously, it’s suffocating – arguably even worse than the shituation itself. Not a single conversation or phonecall or email or text message or Facebook post or goes by without me being reminded of the state I’m in. Every ‘how are things?’ or ‘thinking of you’ or ‘hope things are improving’ is more loaded than a semi-automatic; every ‘how was the hospital?’ or ‘what’s going on with your meds?’ or ‘have you been sick today?’ is more impossible to answer than the last. In fact, I’ve now simply stopped answering, instead sending ludicrous, nonsensical responses to people’s well-meaning kindness. (‘Are the new anti-sickness drugs working?’ ‘Bacon.’)
‘Crikey, you’re popular,’ said Mum earlier this week in response to the incessant beeping of my phone and my inability to fit in all the people who want to stop by.
‘But I’m not,’ I said. ‘All these people aren’t coming to visit me because they just want to hang out. They’re visiting me because I’ve got cancer.’
And, if we’re being brutally honest, they’re not even doing it for that reason: they’re doing it because they’re afraid of how many more hanging-out times we’ve got left.
I’m not stone-hearted enough to roll my eyes at everyone who wants to visit or text or tweet in reference to my health. It is, obviously, very kind of them to do so. But let’s cut to the chase here: my time left is limited. Hopefully limited to many years – but limited nonetheless. Hence I don’t want to spend that time talking about the reason why that is the case. It’s like knowing you’ve got to give birth to triplets in six months’ time and people reminding you every sodding minute about how much it’s going to hurt. It sort of defeats the purpose.
I’m sick sick sick of having to talk about it. Because, let’s not forget, that’s why I have this blog. It’s why writing has worked so well for me throughout the thorny mental terrain of dealing with The Bullshit: it gives me the opportunity to say everything I need to say, in an accessible place for anyone who wants to read it, so that I can get on with the important things in life, like making playlists, watching Coronation Street and wondering what I’m going to have for tea.
That said, though, perhaps the blog is the problem? Perhaps writing so honestly about my experiences has made a rod for my own back?
‘You’ve done well to be so honest about the latest news,’ said my friend Kris yesterday. ‘A lot of people wouldn’t be so open about it.’
‘Ah, but I have to be, don’t I?’ I said. And I do. I’ve started, so I’ll finish. What that means, however, is that discussing my situation with anyone and everyone is fair game – as well it should be. I’ve put it out there, and I should be able to deal with whatever comes back. Hence, people I don’t know – and will most likely never know – contact me regularly, whether for advice on their own Bullshit struggles, to tell me how they’re doing, or simply to ask how I am. And, by ’eck, it’s an incredibly privileged position to be in, and one I take seriously. What I can’t handle, however, are the grief-trolls that piggy-back on top. It’s alarming to me how many of these people exist (particularly, I have to say, on Twitter), positively revelling in the chance to join in with the talk of my new diagnosis, as though it’s granted me access to some kind of secret club of folk who just love to be ill, relishing in the sickly deliciousness of medication names and pain one-upmanship and hospital-whinges. So let me say this now: I am not one of you. I am not my cancer, and my cancer is not me. Yes, it’s affected the course of my life, and yes, I write about it – but it is, quite simply, not who I am.
I am a wife. I am a daughter. I am a sister and a friend and a colleague and a writer. I am a woman. I am a Ram. I am a postgraduate. I am a cat-owner. I am an author. I am a neighbour. I am a driver. I am a music buff. I am a traveller. I am a soon-to-be-auntie. I am a Mac. I am a perfectionist and a baker and a secret rapper. I am an online shopper. I am a home-maker. I am a Virgo. I am a lover. I am a terrible sleeper. I am a latecomer. I am a gin drinker. I am a doofus and a telly-addict and a clumsy bugger who’s terrible at geography. I am all of these things – and so many, many more – before I am a cancer patient. And though my new purpose is set, it simply cannot be achieved without all of these things. When Dad and I talked about ‘doing what I do’, the above paragraph is what we meant.
I’m not intending to belittle the seriousness of my new diagnosis with this post. I appreciate how heartbreaking it is for those who love me, because my heart is breaking for them too. I also appreciate that ‘doing what I do’ must incorporate talking, where necessary, about the reality of the situation I’m in – just as I always have – and listening to what other people feel they need to say to me about it. But, bloody hell, the grief has got to end somewhere. And I’d like it to be now, please.
There are going to be difficult times ahead. Even more difficult than those we’ve seen over the last few weeks. But they’re not happening right now. Right now, things are returning to some semblance of normal. My pain is under control. My sickness is a lot better. I’m going to be on looking-after-myself duty next week and I’m going to start getting back to work. I’m seeing the right specialists, the right nurses, the right community services, the right therapists. I’m back in the system, and it’s doing everything it can possibly do. Everything is under control.
I appreciate more than anyone that my secondary cancer is, bit by bit, taking away everything. It’s taking our optimism and our hopes and our tentative plans for the future. And what it hasn’t already taken, it one day will. But what it hasn’t yet taken are the little things; the day-to-day trivialities which, it turns out, are even more important than the big stuff. So now it’s my turn to take something from The Bullshit. And what I’m taking is a new purpose: to do what I do, for as long as I can. So, I beg of you: let me, eh?