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April 24, 2014 / Kate Gross

Two become one; or as someone wiser* put it, let the winds of heaven dance between you

Last week, my Best Woman had the pleasure of sitting with me during chemo and watching as my face turned from pink to green to grey, and the retching started. Still more heroically, she then shepherded me back to Cambridge by train so that Billy could get some work done. I trust the Best Woman with anything and everything in my life. But still, in my post-chemo bleurgh I longed for Billy, even for a two hour journey.

It made me reflect on our partnership, and though Billy will hate this, to want to write about it. When we met we were feckless 24 year olds. Walking back from dinner last weekend I briefly saw our younger selves careering down the street to a party, laughing, carrier bags of booze in hand. I wondered with a mixture of nostalgia and sadness where those days went. For me at least, the desire to party all night dissipated somewhere along with the nappies and the jobs and the move to cosy, quiet Cambridge. In the place of weekend walks on the South Bank and nights out at strange bars and wild house parties held (incongruously) in Golders Green, we began to juggle babies, went on sleepless holidays with other families and spent a lot of time in cold playgrounds. We’ve had 10 years together now, split between happy irresponsibility and even happier responsibility. The truth is I don’t miss the early days of courtship. We were still feeling one another out, working out how much of ourselves to reveal, to pour into this partnership. They were heady, exciting times. But I felt excruciatingly vulnerable as I sat on the 159 bus, about 6 weeks into our relationship, thinking that this was the man I definitely wanted to marry. Eventually, something shifted, before the babies, around the time it became clear that a wild night out was to a cinema which permitted booze. We settled into a partnership which felt mutual, equal. Our lives were entwined out of choice, but there was enough space between for us both to flourish. Billy became my family, the person I turned to before anyone else, for everything. Of course, there were fuck off moments, usually in the middle of the night as we passed each other in the corridor, each trying to quiet a howling baby, bitterly jealous of the amount of sleep we imagined the other to be getting. But through this time, we were bending towards one another. Billy learnt through the medium of the repetitive nag that clothes do not spontaneously fly from floor to washing machine, and there is no such thing as a bin angel. I discovered that although I was Boss Lady at work, Billy did not respond well to my approach to managing employees. The Knights glue us together. Having weathered the battlefield of the early years, we run a tight ship. We know how we fare when the vomit starts to fly, when the toys are thrown out of the pram, when the dog shit needs picking up. My roles are chief bed-snuggler, reader of stories, poo and vomit clearance machine, provider of food and clean clothes. Billy is moderator, enforcer, teacher of maths and the person who throws the Knights up in the air and shows them the world of star wars and video games (Ballet Shoes just can’t compete).     

What does illness do to a partnership? We are still finding that out. Of course, our roles have changed. The lady who once leaned in is now reclining on the sofa, and that makes for a different kind of home-life and a different kind of Kate. Outwardly, I know we look less like equals. I appear the dependent, the one who gets driven around, cooked for and generally molly-coddled. I am allowed lie-ins and get taken on nice outings. In any and all clinical settings, if Billy isn’t there I would prefer a light sedation to being alone. He is my talisman against the smells, the sounds, the vomit and the endless potential for bad news to arrive without warning. On the days we get scan results, you can see us sitting side by side reading Victor Frankl, occasionally squeezing sweaty palms. But this is only a decade in. How would our power-ballad partnership fare after 20, 30, or 50 years? I sometimes allow myself a day-dream about being old together and then I feel a sharp jab of anger that someone else might get to see his face get old and lined, his hair grey, his pace slow. But of course, the spaces between us could have grown into a chasm. I might never have accepted that this was a man who preferred home to a nice muddy walk and would never buy me tasteful jewellery. Billy might have become exasperated by my intellectual laziness and total unwillingness to engage with his latest science fads. So I try not to sentimentalise the future we won’t have too much.

But my dependence isn’t the whole picture. Whilst I’m here, I’m here. We are still two, not one. We sit in the sun, enjoying togetherness but letting those crisp heavenly winds dance in the space between us. We argue and I grump around like a surly teenager (not because of being ill. Just because sometimes I like A Good Sulk). We negotiate on a daily basis what I can and can’t do, because my worst days are when I can’t manage the most basic of household tasks, and therefore feel like an utterly non-contributory member of the human race. Can I take the boys to school? Can I cook dinner? Can I unload the dishwasher and clean the floor? On my best days the negotiations are different: I’ll take the boys swimming whilst you go to the gym. I’ll make waffles for breakfast. I’ll hoover the new astroturf (yes, really. Baxter did some serious damage to the muddy patch of grass we call our garden). The list of what is and isn’t possible goes up and down; but Billy understands what I need to do to feel human. And I understand what he needs too, in a way that no-one else does. In the way you only really get when you sleep next to someone and understand their strange rhythms, little moods, odd foibles. For those who haven’t worked it out, Billy’s bare necessities are exercise, intellectual stimulation, family and man-time in the pub. Oh, and twisters. But I suspect all of us who love Billy want him to share more of what’s going on in his head. But that doesn’t come naturally, not the way it does to someone like me who will spill it all out at the drop of a hat. I am in awe of the friends who arrive to take him out, having strategized on the train how they will make him talk this week. They have tactics I don’t (perhaps eventually resorting to Rumsfeldian interrogation techniques, but for now, booze and Y chromosomes). But whilst I am here, I am here, and I am the comforter as well as the comforted. The dependency between us passes two ways, like the electrons and protons in an electric current.

Of course, I wonder what will happen when things finally change and I become only the comforted, the dependant. I wonder what will happen Afterwards, when Billy is on his own on the sofa after bedtime, having dealt with endless questions from the Knights as to my whereabouts, or whether he is going to die too. I wonder what that loneliness will feel like and how he will manage it. I wish more than anything I could be there to help him through it, rather than be the cause of it all. But I know, and he does, that what we have had is worth the pain he will feel. Like me he agrees with Tennyson’s great cliché that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. And to go back to CS Lewis (the great writer of love and grief, as well as other worlds): “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

*Khalil Gibram, innit http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Prophet

P.s. I am told that it might be helpful to provide an actual update on my health. Goodness me, I thought you read this blog for poems and my pearls of wisdom, not actual news. Well, I’m 8 cycles of chemo in – I’ll probably have at least 12. I still have my treatment every 2 weeks down at the Royal Marsden. The chemo is basically tolerable, better than the last lot at least. And I’m not bald, though the steroids (and perhaps also the chocolate and macaroons) are making me fat. I’m being scanned all the bloody time, but for now the chemo is doing the business and holding the Nuisance at bay. Though that won’t last forever by any means, it’s good enough for now.

15 Comments

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  1. Jenny / Apr 24 2014 11:56 am

    I really want to clarify that Billy’s essential ‘twisters’ are those grimmo green and white ice creams. He’s not a cyclone chaser.

  2. zoestellacurrie / Apr 24 2014 2:44 pm

    Kate, I don’t know you but I love you! (I’m not a spooky cancer tourist). I am your norwich doppelgänger – 44, incurable cancer, wondrous husband, 2 wildly gorgeous kids aged 4 and 7, former academic career and now a Victorian lady of gardening, sewing, reclining (my iPad just spellchecked that to declining…. Some truth!). Scanned, chemo’ed, still have hair, slightly fatter cos of stereoids and inactivity. I am about to start blogging myself as I need to share and write and I’m running out of space in texts and Facebook. I love your words. Thank you.
    With love, light and laughter xx

    • Kate Gross / Apr 24 2014 4:00 pm

      Hello Zoe – thanks for your nice comment. I hate cancer communities but if you ever want to chat I’m down the a11 or on email. Bon chance. Kate x

      • zoestellacurrie / Apr 24 2014 4:16 pm

        I also loathe cancer communities – there is almost a competitive nature to it all: ‘I have 15 stomas, 700 rounds of chemo in my eyes AND I can’t eat chocolate’ etc. so I have surprised myself by really needing to write to you. Thank you for writing back. I’m planning on a trip to Cambridge with a friend quite soon. Perhaps a coffee?

      • Kate Gross / Apr 24 2014 8:46 pm

        Yes lovely – email me at Kate.gross@tb-Agi.org when you are coming.

    • Libby Sheehan / May 24 2014 9:15 am

      Zoe – there seem to be more of us out there than I thought! I am 46, incurable cancer, 3 kids, academic career, love scented candles! I have just started writing a blog, too. Do get in touch if you want to at e.burton@warwick.ac.uk. X

  3. Emma J / Apr 24 2014 2:51 pm

    Wonderful blog. Hope Billy appreciates the attempt at a science analogy.

    • Kate Gross / Apr 24 2014 4:01 pm

      Thanks for noticing ems. Occasionally and with the help of Wikipedia I do try.

  4. christine grek / Apr 24 2014 8:19 pm

    Hi I just read your article in uk vogue my sister brought me,my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and liver metastasis in jan this year and wondered if you have heard or tried Iscador its made from mistletoe and it really does work do google it,you can find it in the UK my husband is taking it you inject it 3 times a week subcutaneous no side effects and does not interfere with chemo but rather protects your immune system.Also the gerson diet helps,juicing etc. You are a great writer and by your blog a wonderul mom partner and daughter
    Lots of love
    Christine Grek

  5. Ruth French (Catchpole) / Apr 24 2014 10:09 pm

    I have been checking daily waiting for your next amazing blog Kate. Must go and buy Vogue but haven’t been able to get out of the house due to poorly kids – thought it was hand, foot and mouth disease but now disagree with docs as appears to be ‘hot tub rash’ – who would have thought a weekend in Norfolk could do that for you!

    As ever, such wonderful writing. And how amazing is your mum too? I loved her words last month.

    I hope you enjoy the creeping warmth of spring and get to summon some energy for those swim trips with the boys.

    Love Ruth

  6. Sasha Howard / Apr 25 2014 8:51 am

    Kate only you and Maggie O’ Farrell can make me sob on the train to work like that. Really looking forward to seeing you 4 this weekend xxx

  7. Donna Ockenden / Apr 25 2014 1:22 pm

    ________________________________ Hello Kate I ‘found’ you in Vogue last week (I think!) I have just received my first blog from you and have forwarded on to 5 friends. I wish you well for your treatment and wanted to say that I’m sending you lots of positive thoughts

    Donna x

  8. Harriet Thompson / Apr 28 2014 6:56 pm

    Just been re-united with your blog after realising e-mails were going to the office and I am not going to the office! I have missed it. I am looking forward v v much to seeing you soon. And I will write the letter I have been meaning to write to you as soon as Tommo gets back and all the family helpers who have been to stay have gone home. Very much love, Harriet xx

  9. Katy E. Halvorsen / Apr 29 2014 4:00 pm

    Hi there! Just found you, after reading your piece, “Treasure Seeker” in British Vogue May issue. I bought it here in Norway. I am a Norwegian born, American raised and now living with my family in Norway. I bought this magazine because I love fashion, love looking at all the stuff and I´m sick and stuck at home waiting for an operation. I just wanted you to know that I loved what you wrote and I can relate, and it touched home with me in so many ways! And now, I found your blog and you have now a fan in me. And I thank you for your wit, honesty and brilliance and for sharing! So, I am now rooting for you, from across the pond! P.S. Like your name!
    Best regards, Katy Elizabeth Halvorsen

  10. Libby Sheehan / May 21 2014 9:50 am

    Hi Kate, I am delighted to have found your blog. I’ve just started writing one, but it is nowhere near as well written as yours! I am terminally ill with metastatic bowel cancer and am a mother of three. I’m also a professor of architecture at the University of Warwick. I loved your descriptions of your relationship with your husband and the change in dependency/interdependency since you have been ill. I have really valued over the last couple of years being ‘looked after’ for the first time by my husband. I was always so capable before, there was no room for him to care for me. I’ve seen a different side to him and it’s lovely. Sometimes when I’m going through a prolonged well phase we slip back into our old ways and I miss that feeling of being nurtured. I’m now going to read back through more of your posts! I think it will help me as you sound a little like me – I have vowed never to go a week without a White Company scented candle!

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