I’ll say this for a possibly-terminal diagnosis: it does make you appreciate the little things. That’s how my first column for this website started, what feels like a thousand years ago. We thought the Tall Man was dying, and he was. We didn’t know if even one round of chemo had worked. We didn’t know if he was going to make it to his birthday, let alone mine, let alone Christmas. We knew the average survival rate for this kind of cancer was seven months. We knew that our lives, however long they were, were already irrevocably changed by this.
And they are: more than a year later, I am changed by this. I’m not the person I was when all this started. I’m different now, and so is the Tall Man: physically, mentally, in so many ways we are different. Someone said to him, early on, that cancer changes you, and he laughed, and said there was no way it was going to change him. Even then we knew that it had, and it would. It’s one of those clichés that is true, but not in the way you think it’s going to be true: it’s only, really, that going through something traumatic throws everything into sharp relief. The Tall Man is kinder. I am more brittle, and scarred all the way through by the things that have happened. Our relationship is infinitely more complicated. It’s something I am still struggling to parse, and so can’t write about properly: how cancer changes your relationship. How caring changes your relationship. How both change you.
My understanding of everything is different now, but one thing remains true: it does make you appreciate the little things.
On Thursday afternoon, the consultant told us he wanted to see if the Tall Man could cope with a weekend at home, taking pills instead of the IVs. It was, maybe, one of the best sentences I have ever heard. They were being very cautious, they told us, but they thought it was time: one final IV on Friday morning, and we could take Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday completely off the Day Unit. He didn’t even need to go in for blood tests until Monday.
And so he had the final Friday IV, and then they took out the cannula in his forearm (purple with days and days of cannulation bruises), and let us go home. It was a weekend of little things, and they were perfect.
I would do anything to spend the rest of my life with the Tall Man, and I think he would say the same about me. We have each other. We get to do this together. We get to have, in between, a weekend together, and it’s the best thing in the world
We went straight to the pub. The Tall Man’s mum met us there, and bought us steaks in celebration. (She also brought biscuits, some meals in a selection of Tupperwares, and an extremely nice pair of jersey trousers for me: she is, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of a mother-in-law.)
I went to the farmer’s market, and made an apple crumble. I arranged some flowers in a big enamel jug. We killed some bandits on a video game, and I read the first Harry Potter book in the beautiful illustrated edition. We cooked some sausages really slowly over a low heat, because we weren’t rushing to get out to the hospital. I made a lasagne – roasted squash, charred leeks, kale, goat’s cheese sauce – for the same slow, contented reason. Between us, we had five baths in two and a half days. I washed my hair, and painted my nails, and tried a bunch of new lipsticks. You see? The little things. He was pretty yellow, and heavily bruised, and his legs were too swollen from steroids to do too much. I was so exhausted I could barely speak, with the dull, constant headache that comes from spending too little time asleep, and too much staring at a screen in artificial light. The house was a tip. And it was perfect, all the same. Absolutely, no-holds-barred wouldn’t-change-a-thing perfect.
As is this lipstick. (How’s that for a tidy segue?)
It was one of the ones I’d been meaning to try for ages, and hadn't, because it looked too nice to waste on a hospital day: too much of a special treat, in that lovely coppery packaging, to spoil by trying it on when I was tired and grumpy and didn’t feel (now here’s a red flag) that I deserved it. I often feel like this, when I’m miserable: that I’m too miserable to have nice things, because I don’t deserve them because I’m miserable, and then I become more miserable because I don’t deserve nice things, and the whole thing goes on and on forever until either we’re all dead, or I snap out of it. This time, happily, I snapped out of it, but let this be a lesson to you: go at once and do something lovely for yourself, because life is short and little things are lovely and this lipstick is among them.
I’m late to the party on this one, but my God it’s good. It’s Charlotte Tilbury Matte Revolution, in Bond Girl, and damned if it isn’t the perfect everyday autumn lipstick. I don’t know what Charlotte Tilbury does to her lipsticks, but I love them. (My previous all-time favourite everyday lipstick, Amazing Grace, is also a Charlotte Tilbury.)
This one is a rich, subtle, grown-up berry colour, goes on like a dream, and fades really, really well. I’ve never aspired to be a Bond girl, thank goodness (the Tall Man has, for lighthearted hospital relief, been reading the Fleming novels, and the kindest thing to say about them is that they are both – er – a product of their time, and also cheerfully insane) and fortunately the lipstick is far more than that: it’s hardworking, flexible, and gentle. The air in the Day Unit is pretty violently sterilised, and there are no opening windows: my skin and mouth always end up a bit rough after even a morning there. I think it’s the papaya in them that makes them so good for sore lips, and honestly, it really is very good indeed: I have been wearing it instead of lip balm since Thursday evening, and my lips are genuinely improved.
And so am I, actually.
You wouldn’t think a plain, ordinary weekend- – pyjamas, sausages, video games – could make such a difference. Such a small thing, and yet both of us were independently moved to tears by it: how normal it felt, and how happy we both were. A small oasis of calm in the midst of everything chaotic and unpredictable. Our lives, and our relationship are more complicated than they used to be. It’s true. You can’t get away from it. But when you get right down to it, it’s more simple than ever: I would do anything to spend the rest of my life with the Tall Man, and I think he would say the same about me. That’s it. That’s all there is. We have each other. We get to do this together. We get to have, in between, a weekend together, and it’s the best thing in the world.
I’m changed by the last months. Of course I am. Everything is. It’s harder and sadder and more frightening: I am more brittle and more scarred and more scared. But I have the Tall Man, still here, still making me laugh and bringing me tea and loving me. We’ve still got each other. Which is the only thing – or the biggest thing – that matters.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a make-up 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.