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.