Why I’ve Been Away

Isn’t it funny the way things work out sometimes? The largest, most overwhelming events begin in the smallest ways, often when the world seems at its most calm and beguiling. Six weeks ago today, while my son was away in Spain, I received in the post an unexpected parcel from my academic publisher. It was a copy of Julian Barnes’s latest book, Nothing To Be Afraid Of in which he tackles the cumbersome topic of death, intertwining it with his own personal history. When I opened the book, imagine the thrill I got to see that it contained a dedication inscribed to me by Barnes himself. In the accompanying letter (and my publisher writes just the best letters) I found out that he had attended the first Julian Barnes conference, met the man and managed a conversation with him (more than I ever did, for those of you long-versed in this blog) and had even given him the address of Tales from the Reading Room. I could not have been more delighted; what a great way to be distracted from missing my son! And then it struck me that I should get something posted on this site right away that was a step up from the usual drivel, just in case Barnes should ever chance to surf by. Full of plans for what I might write, carving time out of the day to start reading, I went upstairs to have my morning bath and there I discovered the lump in my breast.

My son used to have a James Bond video game that required the player to reach as many ‘James Bond Moments’ as possible, moments when the rapid action of the game froze in some classic pose of macho daring. As time slowed to a halt for me, I felt uncomfortably as if I were in some feminine version of this, the enemy’s gun held to my temple. I hate moments like that, not least because they remind me of my limitations as far as courage is concerned. I don’t think I’m someone who copes well, naturally. I’m an arts student – I like life at one remove, as a witness sitting quietly in the corner, analyzing rather than experiencing. Intellectualising experience is my way of dealing with things, collecting information, thinking about what events mean, writing about them, that’s how I move forward. In this vein over the years I’ve heirarchised what it’s worth getting upset about and there are only really two things that lie in a ninth circle of hell, a zone beyond my possible competences; one of them is something serious happening to my son, the other is cancer. I’ve had plenty of time lately to think about why this might be, why the illnesses that have afflicted members of my family, angina, arthritis, the early hysterectomy my mother had, don’t terrify me the way cancer does. It’s because those illnesses follow a logical course, where pain or suffering leads to relieving treatment. Cancer, by contrast, seems to me to work backwards, taking someone who isn’t necessarily suffering too much and subjecting them to the kind of treatment that seems like a form of torture. My father-in-law died of bowel cancer that had spread to his liver, and in the brief space between his surgery and his death he seemed to me to go through the most abject of horrors. My friend’s mother died of cancer in the lung and the brain, and my friend, who nursed her tirelessly, not only had to mourn her but to somehow come to terms with the trauma of witnessing her mother’s sufferings. I don’t even like writing this all down; the words give me the shivers. If ever this came up in three in the morning conversations with myself, I had made a promise that I would not go through chemotherapy, that if it happened to me, I would prefer to go quietly. I had rather thought I might not have to contemplate such a decision for a long time.

So what to do? I didn’t want to accept this, I didn’t want to be myself at this particular moment in time, but I also knew that I am no good at denial. I have no aptitude for it. So with reluctance I rang my doctor’s surgery and was given an emergency appointment. I went prepared for a long wait and took along Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon, aware of the burden I was placing on her shoulders. In the event I got lucky and was seen quickly and by my own GP, the doctor who has seen me through the past two years of recovering from chronic fatigue and whom I know well and respect. I embarked on what would be the first of a long series of undressings. Why is it that trips to the doctor so often involve presenting intimate parts of yourself in broad daylight to relative strangers? It’s not negligible. As I put my clothes back on, I heard my doctor ringing up reception for a breast clinic form and my heart sank. But as I emerged, he was upbeat. ‘I don’t think it’s necessarily anything sinister,’ he said to me. ‘It’s mobile, and smooth sided. Do you have any history of cancer in your family? No? Well that is good news. Still, we take all lumps very seriously and I’m sending you to the clinic for a check-up. They’ll do a mammogram there, and perhaps an ultrasound and you’ll know the outcome very quickly.’ In a few days a letter arrived: I had an appointment at the clinic in a fortnight’s time.

It was an auspicious start and perhaps I should have been more reassured than I was. But like I say, I don’t always cope well with these things and I was having to face up to one of my most profound, most nightmarish fears. It was encouraging but it wasn’t an answer and in the meantime I had to live with the kind of uncertainty that my imagination could turn into a horror circus. It didn’t help that I was frankly terrified and I couldn’t shake it off. And the context in which these life events take place has more importance than we think. For a while now I had been in a strange kind of limbo, having given up my lectureship in French but without having settled the transfer I was hoping to make into the new area of learning support. This was the biggest decision I had made since going back into academia at the age of 24 and it felt odd and unsettling. I’d nominally made the first steps into more commercial writing, but I hadn’t heard from my agent in ages and I had no contract for a book, nothing solid to depend on. Even my son was away. No longer an academic, not yet a writer and temporarily not a mother, I felt that I had shed all my reliable roles and in their place had come this distressing new one. I was now a woman with a lump in her breast, and that seemed to be it. What bothered me most of all was that I had so recently reached a state of good health that constituted a recovery, as far as I was concerned, from the chronic fatigue that had dogged me for a decade. I didn’t need some terrible brush with disease to remind me how precious life is; I could close my eyes and evoke the feeling of the first taste of food eaten with appetite, the feel of the cool air outside after weeks of stuffy bed rest, the gorgeous stirrings of sharp, clear energy that replaced the sluggish mud in my veins. I had battled against that and worked at my demons and the last thing I felt I needed, in this limbo land of changing my life, trying to make it right for me post-chronic illness, was a new and far more frightening health scare. I felt I didn’t deserve it, that I wanted to forget the princessy demands of my body and just live lightly for a little while, like other people do. We went out for dinner, my husband and I, as we had planned we would, hoping to enjoy each other’s company in the absence of our much-loved son, and as we strolled the city’s summer streets packed with untroubled, unworried people seeking an evening’s entertainment, I felt the glass wall descend, sealing me off once again.

For the rest of the week I walked in a fog of anxiety. It was shapeless and formless and mostly silent, but it dulled the contours of the real world. Life receded and in its place was just a sense of not knowing what lay ahead and the constant, relentless battle to stop my mind from catastrophising. But very late that Friday night my son returned from Spain, having had a wonderful time, and hearing his voice cheeping in the kitchen to my husband, I had a sense of one of my gears shifting out of neutral. Over the next week I did better at putting my fears into perspective. I told myself repeatedly that it could be so much worse, that I had diet and age and family history on my side, that 85% of lumps are benign, that being made to wait two weeks for an answer was positive in itself, even if the waiting was hard. I managed to read some books and enjoy them, although I had to put Julian Barnes to one side with deep regret. I even finished off a small section of research I’d been writing and I steeled myself for the trip to the clinic.

Okay, and this is far too long a story to be told in the one post. I’ll be back for part two tomorrow blogging friends.


17 thoughts on “Why I’ve Been Away

  1. Why they make women wait and worry is beyond me. One way or another is easier to cope with than uncertainty and imagining that whatever is in there might be getting worse as they are taking their time. If there is something there, you just want it out of there immediately, that minute. Even if it is just “mobile and smooth-sided”. Trying to pierce that fog to focus on the rest of life is exhausting. I vaguely remember a “mobile and smooth-sided” lump that turned out benign. But I very vividly remember the anguish of waiting.

  2. Oh Litlove, I hope your next decade is less grueling. You don’t deserve all the bad things that keep happening. I’m not sure if you are still in the waiting period but if so I hope you get good news soon.

  3. I’m so sad to hear you’ve been through (are still going through?) this turmoil. Having recently had a bit of a health scare myself, I know how torturous the waiting is. And to cope with your son being away at the same time – too much, too much!!

    I’m hoping the fact that you’ve begun to share this with us means the news is all good.

    Thinking of you.

  4. Dear Blogging friends – thank you so much for your comments. You should know that I can only write about this having reached a point of closure with it, so there is no need to fear for me, but there’s more to come, I’m afraid, as I have to get the whole experience out of my system and into some form of sense and this is the best way I know how.

    Archie – the hugs are extremely welcome – bless you! I was going to spread them over the day, but then I took them all at once 🙂 Writer Reading – you too? I must say the more I tell people about this, the more people I find who have been through it. I concur wholeheartedly that the past few weeks have been exhausting and anguished and quite the most distressing time I’ve lived through in a long while. I wish it hadn’t happened to either of us, but I really do appreciate the solidarity. Ms Make Tea – oh thank you – it’s hard not to feel these things as if they were punishments in some obscure way. I had hoped for a few quiet years, health-wise, or indeed, just a few quiet years! Ravenous – I am so very sorry to hear that you have been suffering too. There is something so pitiful about health problems as they rob us of the sense of control over our lives in which so much of our happiness is based. In other words, it’s the pits. I was not thrilled at fate’s choice of moment for it, either! But I do hope you are feeling much better now and have had complete reassurance yourself. Sending love back. Andrew – thank you so much; I’m very grateful for the support. Verbivore – it’s the only way I know to get some pleasure out of the whole wretched business. If anyone suffering from the same thing comes across this and gains even the tiniest bit of comfort from reading it, then I’ll feel that I’ve done something positive with it. And thank you, my friend, for the good wishes. I do appreciate them. Anne – yes and coping much, much better with it than I did! I am very impressed by the way you have stayed so grounded, despite the worry. I’ll be watching your progress and sending lots of hugs back.

  5. I’ll join Archie in sending cyber hugs your way! I’m glad you have reached the point of being able to write about this experience and I hope you find writing about it helps you understand and process everything. And in the meantime, we get to experience some wonderful writing … you are so right about context affecting how we deal with crises — that’s an easy point to forget and so we wonder why we aren’t dealing with things well, when really we’re dealing with more than we realize.

  6. The only good thing I can say about the incredible horrors of waiting is once the waiting is over, the rush of relief – of just knowing – is such a deliverence. I am so sorry you have had to deal with this, after just coming into some good health. Cancer is indeed the biggest bogeyman out there, I think. Spinning the prayer wheel and lighting candles for you, Litlove.

  7. My daily prayer/meditation always asks for three simple things: Health, Happiness and Wisdom. I figure without any of them my life would be utterly miserable. I shall hope for the same for you..and the peace of mind these qualities/virtues give you. Have a joy-filled and inspirational summer, friend…

  8. Since I know the outcome, I can enjoy your exquisite writing. I hope you decide to write a memoir someday. Sure, I know you don’t like writing of the revealing kind, but your personal writing is always so beautiful. Maybe when you are old and wrinkly and don’t care what anyone else thinks anymore? Or maybe you’ll write some kind of hybrid memoir using books or something else as a way to tell your own story. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I can’t wait to hear about the Julian Barnes book. And of course, I am so glad you are starting to feel yourself again.

  9. Dorothy – oh thank you; you know you’ve been the most wonderful support through this and it is so wise of you (as ever) to pick up on the question of context. It’s certainly something I learned over the course of this, that what goes on around you makes a huge impact on how you get through traumas. Hugs to you, too. Qugrainne – thank you so much for your kind and lovely words. I’ve always been steadfastly against genetic engineering but whilst I was going through this I saw a news item that suggested medical science might be able to identify and remove the cancer gene in babies and I had to acknowledge what a breakthrough that could be. Cliff – I’ve dropped the bar these days and would manage without the happiness and the wisdom! But thank you for that thought. Peace of mind is certainly one of the most precious qualities there is.

  10. Oh Stefanie, what a sweetheart you are, thank you! I would love to write a memoir one day and can only hope that someone would want to read it! I do find I care a lot less these days what people think, which is at times gratifying and at others alarming. I am beginning to look forward to dear Julian Barnes, now that I don’t really have anything to be frightened of.

  11. I read this post out of sequence, after reading Away Two first. Serves me right for being out of the blogosphere for so long. Now, upon reading Stefanie’s comment and your response, my spirits have lifted. I am sincerely glad that, now, you don’t have anything to be scared of. On a second reading with a more pacified mind, it is marvelous to see how precisely you can express yourself.

  12. Well, since I know what happens, and thus am standing safely back from the cliff, instead of hanging off it, I can focus on a minor detail: funny how Edith Wharton accompanied you to the waiting room that first time. The night my father-in-law had his massive heart attack, and we were told he had a 10% chance of surviving the surgery for which we’d all opted (which he did and went on to live 2 more, very good, years), I had Edith Wharton’s ghost story collection with me. I will never forget that I chose to bring along an author I adored writing in a medium that was unusual for her.

    And I agree with everyone else about your fabulous writing. But then, you already know I think you’re a fabulous writer and want to see many, many books in print (and lining my shelves) with your name on them.

  13. oh wow.

    hello, new friend.

    about the read the other two links you sent over but just wanted to also respond instantly.

    got a bit tearful at this bit:

    “I went prepared for a long wait and took along Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon, aware of the burden I was placing on her shoulders.”

    we took sybille bedford’s books to appointments, aware of the same.

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