What is lost
|A year ago today I was told I had cancer. By the end of that same day, October 12th 2012, I was in emergency surgery, my tummy cut open on the horizontal to carve out a big ol’ tumour which had burst out of my colon and begun its wicked migration around my body.It won’t surprise you that I have found myself approaching the 12th October 2013 with trepidation. Is it an anniversary to mourn or to celebrate? I still don’t know.
Some months ago, someone who never fails to make me think differently about things asked me what was the best thing about having cancer. When she said this, I collapsed a bit inside. It seemed so thoughtless. Cancer doesn’t give “best things”, or indeed much that is in any way welcome. Instead, it is easy for me to rattle off a list of what it has taken from me. First, the golden-girl future I always assumed I’d have. Never having quite reconciled myself to the fact that I wouldn’t actually be Prime Minister or UN Secretary General, suddenly an ever more exciting future making the world a better place disappeared. So too did my more immediate (and realistic) plans to take the family to live in California so that the boys could really bulk–up on Sunny D and Pop Tarts (and Billy and I could take Silicon Valley by storm – a poor man’s Sheryl and Dave, if you will). It wasn’t that I assumed I would die, or couldn’t imagine working again. It was just that I couldn’t imagine working the way I had done before. The place I’d assumed I’d get to required – at least for the perfectionist – 24/7 diligence, sacrifice of self (which is not the same as self-sacrifice) and a brutal commitment to my blackberry. The Nuisance took away the easy bickering of a relationship which had weathered a decade and two kids. At our age Billy and I should have been fighting over who took the bins out, not having heart to hearts over the kitchen table. The Nuisance took away the mother I had become, and who the boys were attached to, even if I wasn’t always impressed by her style. Flustered, grumpy, energetic, imaginative, shouty, careless, fun. Instead I became careful, soft, absent, lethargic and exerted no discipline whatsoever over Oscar and Isaac for weeks at a time. Who would, in my position? I only want them to remember Good Cop. The Nuisance stole the fictitious little Josie Boyle from our family and replaced her (in my mind, not literally) with a puppy, which has the advantage of not having to come from my largely defunct reproductive system. The Nuisance took the reciprocity from my relationships. By now I should be out of the phase where my parents prop me up and I, finally, should be doing some of the propping. But I’m not. The Gross-Boyles should be off round the country imposing ourselves on friends, and I should be offering the Oiseaux a shoulder to cry on and a helping hand when the baby is sick. But instead I have been the visited one, the crying one, the receiver of gifts for far too long.
This is a long list, and yet these are only the day-to-day things the Nuisance took from me. Ever selfish, these little losses are what grate most. Besides, whatever happens, the bigger loss which loomed (looms?) over our family is something I will never have to actually see. Lucky me.
But despite all this gloom, the truth is there is a best thing about having – or having had – cancer. What it has stolen is the normality I took for granted. But I have taken from it, too. For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which reasserts itself so strongly after illness that you can’t help but feel joy. Rather like your first time on ecstasy but with less pounding music and vomiting. Every time I ‘woke up’, whether from my fortnightly chemo or after my operations I experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in a way I haven’t quite before. The first time this happened was in the incongruous setting of Ward L4, on the 13th October 2012. I opened a window in the middle of the night and leant out to feel the cold autumn rain on my face, mingling with sharp, blissed-out tears. Then there is the way I feel about the people in my life. Billy and I have grown a love known only in power ballads, a depth of understanding and companionship which in any fair world would last us both a lifetime. My parents, always such dear friends to me, now closer physically as well as emotionally since their relocation to the flatlands. And friendships which survived on the leftover bits of time after real life was done have had a renaissance. Perhaps I imagine it, but the ties between my loved ones also seem closer. Naturally, Oscar and Isaac and their beloved Bon-Ma and Bon-Pa (for Oscar, AKA “the spares”). But do I also detect old friendships being picked up, more effort being made, more diems being carped within my dear urban family? I hope so. And whilst the world may have lost a future stateswomen, I have, at least, found my voice. And with my voice, an intellectual and spiritual hinterland which had been too long lost between the answering of emails and the wiping of tiny bottoms. I am woman, hear me roar.
I am not sure whether what is lost is greater than what has been found. Perhaps I should simply celebrate the fact that I can ask that question at all. Certainly, as I edge my way back into the world of work, I have felt a deep sadness at this seeming resumption of my old life. It makes me wonder whether, just perhaps, I might have got more out of the Nuisance than it has got from me?
Who am I kidding. I would still swap all this strange wonder the Nuisance has given me to exist in a world where I could be careless with life again. Of course I would.