In short, I suppose, it’s been a hell the like of which I simply can’t do justice; surely – surely? – the worst two weeks that my family will ever have to endure. And yet all, of course, in the beautiful, bittersweet context of the birth of my nephew Corey James. Within the space of a cruelly confusing 24 hours, it was like being handed both an angel and a devil, each as convincing and important as the other, with arguments to be heard and dues to be paid.
My family, in their unending brilliance, have shielded the grief of my newest diagnosis from Corey with considerable skill, never allowing him to be party to tears or heartbreak; always ensuring that he doesn’t even so much as sniff the anguish into which he’s been born. Jamie and Leanne have, in particular, done all they can to simply do what must be done: being eager parents, dedicating everything they’ve got to raising their incredible son while maintaining a steadfast refusal to acknowledge darker thoughts of The Bullshit.
My folks have, as always, been the very picture of devotion: not just perfect parents, but perfect grandparents, mates, organisers, confidantes and sounding-boards, spreading themselves so thinly between Derby and London and workplaces inbetween that they’re practically tarmaced across the M40. My best friends, too, have had to get used to a new way of doing things: with me so lost that I’m incapable of providing any kind of direction, they’ve formed a forcefield of amity around P and I, giving us the requisite space to find our way through each mapless minute with the stern caveat that nothing cannot be dropped in order for them to be here at a moment’s notice. And as for P and I? Well, who’s to know what we’ve been doing.
Actually, I know full well what P’s been doing: he’s become a carer, and I have hated seeing it happening to him: adjusting his hard-fought and expertly played career in order to work from home, having to construct every day around tending to an ill wife, looking after the food, the finances, the washing, the admin, the health visits, the mobility improvements, the wheelchair ordering, the prescriptions, the incessant numbing din of my shit taste in telly. It’s taken its toll, of course (if ever work dries up, we could each do a marvellous sideline in pimping anti-anxiety drugs) but – in the highest compliment I can pay to my husband – what it hasn’t taken a toll on is the simple gloriousness of just us. Because though P is now carer where I am now patient, we are still we; we are still one; no less secure and firm and unbreakable and permanent as we have been for the decade in which we have now been together. And the fact that something as unshakably pure as that can remain at a time where I have never felt less like myself is, right now, the only thing in which I can find hope.
For while P has been coping through caring, I’ve barely even remembered to exist. Or, to put it in much more Lisa-centric terms, I haven’t opened my post, I haven’t really tweeted, I haven’t sung, I haven’t written, I haven’t listened to 6 Music, I’ve missed birthdays, I haven’t self-tanned, I haven’t kept up to speed with trashy news, I have friends in need who I haven’t been able to support, I haven’t baked my Christmas cake, I haven’t replied to text messages, and until last night I hadn’t even watched a single episode of The West Wing in two weeks. All the things that would ordinarily prove to me that life is ticking over, that everything is still okay, have simply not been happening. I have, however, in a fit of desperation, done my Christmas shopping online – but, judging on a tiny flat filled with giant boxes the contents of which I neither cannot remember nor bring myself to open seems to suggest, it’s not been an entirely successful mission.
Where once I’d have been the flag-waving leader on our tour of cancer, bossing the arse off everyone with The Way In Which This Is Going To Be Dealt, with the latest bombshell I just haven’t found my mojo. I had a brief kick-ass moment upon facing down my first new cycle of chemo, but that soon booted me up the ass when cockiness became excruciating pain and I ended up back in hospital for my second, and there’s been the odd bit of Facebook-wall fighting-talk but, let’s be honest, that’s been more for your benefit than mine. And, yes, shock and heartbreak and devastation and all that have more than played their parts but, when it really comes down to it, I think the biggest of all the emotional hurdles to negotiate right now is simple confusion. Everything, all of a sudden, is just very, very confusing. Rather like being handed a giant, indecipherable matrix of algebra and being told ‘solve that, mofo, or you’re fucked’.
Perhaps the most confusing thing of all for me to get my head around, though, has been the reaction to my news. At present, for example, I’m sitting on several hundred unanswered emails from unfeasibly kind people wishing me well – many of whom I know, many of whom I don’t, and none of whom I can possibly manage the justice of replying to without it being the last thing I ever do. Please know that my telling you this isn’t meant as a brag or a whine or a swank (in truth, I don’t know what it is; I can’t work out how – or even if – to compute it); it’s simply the most extreme means I have with which to explain the puzzling nature of my situation. It’s insane. And, again, it’s hella confusing. Because please, tell me: how do you reason with such angelic, overpowering forces for good in the face of the despicable evil that’s brought it all about?
From the hugely touching messages (and, I found myself surprised to read, the overwhelmingly faith-and-religion-referencing words) that you’ve written to me, apparently you’ve been asking yourselves the same question. And, in an even more confusing turn of events, for a lot longer than I have. See, I’ve always been pretty self-satisfied when it comes to faith stuff. But you, it seems, have spent years dedicating enquiring minds to searching for the right comforts and conclusions, seemingly while I’ve been sitting on the sofa picking Tunnock’s Teacakes crumbs from out of my bra. I’m grateful, I think, to finally be party to the conversation… but where the hell was I in the meantime? Why did nobody tell me this was happening?
I don’t remember a time when I’ve ever firmly believed in God, choosing instead to accept an agnostic conviction that there’s very little that can’t be explained by science. I don’t even remember a time when I’ve questioned my faith in any way; I guess it’s just always been something that, like the allure of Brad Pitt or the gap between Sarah Jessica Parker’s legs, I never imagined I’d be able to understand and, well, haven’t really tried. Throw my first bout with The Bullshit into the mix, then, and ha! Why should I even need to try? Because, purlease, who could possibly deign to know more about the ridiculousness of faith than I? Spiritual beliefs were my bitch, and damn the person who thought they could tell me better. Yeah, damn them and their rickety convictions, unable to draw a clear enough line between black and white, getting confused by faith-shaking bumps in the road when – pah! – what in the name of any so-called God could be any more life-altering than that which I’d already endured? Come on – what?
Well, we’re looking at what. Because, right now, I’d love to be able to be so cocksure with my beliefs as I was three and a half years ago. I’d love to tell you that there’s nothing that can’t be explained away by science. I’d love to declare that gene patterns are the end of all lines of enquiry, I’d love to state that there’s no how nor why in this having happened to me, and I’d love to console you that there’s nothing but coincidence in the cruel timing in which all of this has had to come about. But most of all – oh, yeah – I’d just love to have breast cancer right now. I’d just fucking love that to be my problem. Because right now I’m not just sitting on several hundred unanswered emails atop a tuffet of confusion, but from the uncomfortable position of having had a big old bite taken out of my arse.
On occasion over the last couple of weeks, I’ve brought up the subject of what, in light of my new diagnosis, I ought now to believe in with those who are best placed to understand my confusion: namely P, and my parents. Given that nobody knows me better than they, they’re not freaked out by the panicked faith-frenzy that’s come from my direction; nor the anger that’s come from science not always having the answer; nor even the necessity for me to read out passages of emails from people who’ve felt the need to say certain things in light of the shaky timescale of my prognosis. None of these can have been easy for any of them to hear but, as is customary with the way in which we cope, we’ve done it together. We’ve acknowledged that there are people (many, incidentally, from whom I haven’t heard for years) who are preparing to deal with what may by communicating things they might otherwise not have had the chance to say to me. We’ve concluded that being told such things is a true privilege, and we’ve respected that it’s a rare opportunity that isn’t presented to everyone. The confusing bit for me, however, is that I’m just not on the same page. I’m simply not thinking like that. I’m not there. I’m not ready to make final plans or write last words or hurriedly finish off half-written books; I’ve got a radio to sing along to and birthdays to remember and a West Wing box-set to watch.
Which is why, for the good of my health and my mind, I must remain unwaveringly true to the things in which I do still believe. Because, faith-shaking as this chaos of a fortnight has been, though so much has been taken already, so much more remains. Yes, a significant spread to the bones and brain might mean one thing in terms of survival statistics, but it means quite another in terms of options to try in the meantime. Hence, as my kick-ass mojo hopefully makes a slow and steady return, I think it’s important that I search not for answers to reasonless questions, but instead retreat back into my trusty, expectant, biscuit-crumbed, Lisa-standard headspace, where life is simple and Coronation Street is on series link, and where the things in which I believe – conventional or otherwise – are not to be messed with.
What I suspect I’ve never previously given faith credit for is something I hope I’ve come to appreciate over the last couple of weeks: how genuinely lovely it must be to have rock-hard beliefs in which to find comfort at times like these. And, I’ve got to say, bloody good on any of you who’ve been able to do as much. But bloody good on me, too. Because although the words ‘but where’s MY comfort?’ have lately found themselves pouring from my tearful face over and over again, the truth is that it’s been there throughout. It might not be God-shaped; it might not even be faith-shaped – in fact I dare say it might often be more Tunnock’s Teacake shaped – but that doesn’t make it any less present, or any less of something in which I believe.
See, what I believe in is people. I believe in the people I don’t know who’ve been so kind as to wish me well. I believe in the people who have got back in touch after so many years to say that they’re thinking of me. I believe in the people who have faithfully promised to look after the things that I hold dear. I believe in the people who’ve not known how – or even whether – to approach me, and I believe in the people who really don’t mind that I haven’t opened their post or remembered their birthday or replied to their texts or picked up their calls. But most of all, I believe in the people who’ve seen me through this most unbearable, fractious, horribly confusing disarray of a couple of weeks. Those people know who they are, but what they perhaps don’t know is that they are Gods themselves – and they haven’t just turned this non-believer into a devout fanatic; they’ve genuinely saved her, too.