I don’t want to write this week's column. I don’t want to write it at all. I’m terrified of writing it.
Because writing it means, practically, that the whole circus is starting up again: by the time you read this, the preliminary bloods will have been done. By the time you read next week’s column, the PICC line will be back in John’s arm. By the time you read the column after that, he will have had a week of chemo- and a stem cell transplant. That’s our timeline, if all goes well. Can you believe it? I can’t. Not really. I can’t believe it’s really here. More bloody chemo. More bloody tubes and lines. More hospitals and Fifth Floor and running to get Starbucks to give myself time to have a weep and putting on a brave face, every single bloody day.
Writing this column means I’ve got a week to finish my book. Writing this column means I’ve got a week to pack the freezer with handy meals-for-one for me to eat when I get home from the hospital. Writing this column means I’ve got a week to make sure the Tall Man has enough pyjamas for a couple of weeks, at least, in hospital. Writing this column…well, it’s a sign that it’s all going to begin again, sooner than I could possibly want, sooner than I could possibly believe.
It’s really hard, sometimes, to remember that we’re doing all this – taking my currently perfectly healthy Tall Man and putting him through an enormously stressful medical procedure – because if we don’t, he will die. Not yet, maybe. But one day. Probably soon. Almost definitely in the next five years, probably within three. We don’t know exact statistics, because not enough people have had this cancer. Not enough people have survived this cancer to be statistically significant. But all of those people who survived? They had this treatment. They went through this. They’re out there, somewhere in the world. We know that much.
So we press on. The Tall Man scrabbles to get his work done, so that he will be able to take time off in hospital. He calls the hospital, over and over, trying to sort out the ins and outs, the whens, the hows, the what-exactlies. We lay in bed the other morning, sun streaming through the window, steam spiralling from the mugs of tea on the sill, clean white sheets, and he read me the Wikipedia pages of chemo drugs. These ones are new to us, you see. “Guess what this one does? If I tell you the name, you’ll definitely guess. Yes! it’s mustard gas again!” He’s coping. So am I. Or I will be.
I print out chapters of my book, editing with one hand and stirring the soup with the other. I run the washing machine at absurdly high temperatures, so that everything packed into hospital bags will be as close to sterile as I can get it. And I tip out my lipsticks onto the bed, and wonder which one is going to carry me through, this time. Somehow this makes me cry: the waiting is so hard, the build-up so emotionally complex, and this bag of lipsticks is a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow account of how exactly we got here. The Lancôme Spontanée that I wore the first time John was allowed out of hospital. I barely recognise myself in the photographs.
This bag of lipsticks is a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow account of how exactly we got here
A beautiful, bright scarlet Chanel number that looks too bright, too racy for me to pull off, but I pull up the column on my phone, and it’s like a little wave from past me, to tell me I can do this: “Remember –” (past me writes) “– that as we go together into this next round of chemo, and an uncertain future, that life is lovely, flippant, and worth having”. I look at the picture, and decide I can too pull that lipstick off, if I want.
The Besamé red lipstick that carried me through the awful second biopsy: we got through that day, when it rained and rained, and the cabs were on strike, and it took us two hours to get home, and we will and must get through this.
Nothing quite satisfies me, nothing seems to be the lipstick that will move me forward into this new next phase.
I resolve to buy some more lipsticks. The make-up shop by the hospital – my best friend in times of trouble – will occupy me while the Tall Man has his line fitted next week. For today, though…I can’t settle on anything. I got horribly street-harassed this week – the kind of street harassment you call the police over – and I’m still feeling a little uneasy about drawing attention to myself, walking down the same road through the same estate, and it’s making me bad at choosing lipsticks. I feel, somehow, that I have failed as a feminist by not wanting to wear bright lipsticks two days after I had to call the police on a man making uninvited sexually aggressive comments about my appearance. I feel like I ought to be taking back the street in bright red and heels, but I just can’t make myself do it. I am trying not to beat myself up over this. I have enough to worry about. In any case, it rules out most of my bag of lipsticks.
I tip the whole thing out onto the bed, and sigh heavily: there’s nothing I want to wear. And then I see it: a lipstick I haven’t worn since the very beginning. It’s a Dior lipstick, in an elaborate case that won’t stand up on its own. Dior Addict Tie Dye Lipstick in Fuchsia Utopia.
The past nine months, hellish as they have been, have been leading us to this moment
It’s pink: bright pink in the casing, pretty pink on me. I wore it in the very early days; before this column was really up and running, before we knew if the Tall Man was going to survive past the first round of chemo. Before we knew the names of nurses, or where to get water, or how to sleep alone. Before we knew anything about stem cells and harvests and where to get the best coffee in the St Paul’s area. Before we knew how to do this. And that gives me a weird, lovely kind of hope: we survived that. We survived learning all that. We survived without knowing any of these things.
So I take the Dior lipstick, and paint it on: a nod to the me of nine months ago. It’s just as good as I remember it, smooth, sleek, and not drying. I didn’t know anything about lipsticks then, and now, having written about them every week for nine months, I’m pretty good at telling a bad lipstick from good: this one is lovely and I really like it.
This time, it’s going to be easy in comparison. We know the drill. We know how to get through weeks of being apart, and uncertain futures. We know that you can ask for an extra blanket, and that taking your own Earl Grey teabags makes everything better. We know that I need at least an hour’s walk between three and four, or I cry; we know that if I don’t have breakfast, I cry; we know that the Tall Man won’t eat hospital breakfast and everyone’s day is vastly improved if I bring in a box of Breakfast Bars.
We know so much we didn’t know before, and the doctors do, too. Every month, almost, it seems at the moment there’s a new advance in treating blood cancer, all futuristic and scarily cool. Every time they see the Tall Man, they know more about him; can predict better how he’s going to respond.
And they think he’s going to respond pretty well.
They might even let him have the chemo part of the treatment at home, because he’s responded so well and easily in the past: the past nine months, hellish as they have been, have been leading us to this moment. We know so much. The washing machine is spinning; the soup is on. The book is nearly finished. I have earmarked a bunch of new lipsticks. And I have written this column – the one I’ve been hoping and hoping would never come. And now it’s done. And we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a makeup person before last year, but strange things happen on the cancer ward. When my partner, the Tall Man, was suddenly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I found myself reaching for a battered tube of Mac Ruby Woo – part armour, part warpaint, all crimson defiance. This is a column about lipstick, and about caring, and about cancer, but most of all it’s my lifeline and it’s proof – for me, at least – that putting on a brave face is half the fight. Read my story so far here.