I have been thinking for days, now, about whether I could write this column this week; about, in fact, whether I could continue to write this column at all. Whether I could write at all. The emotional and ethical ins-and-outs of creating a narrative of these things that have happened to us, and more specifically to the Tall Man, struck me as too hard to parse: how could I commit these things to paper? How could I put these things on the internet? How could I share these things?
How could I take the time to force the terrible things that have happened into a structure, or a narrative? How could I use these terrible things to sell lipstick? How could I wear lipstick?
But here I am: I am wearing lipstick, and I am writing, and the Tall Man is critically ill. These things are true.
I am wearing the lipstick because I no longer know how to function in times of crisis without it; I have depended on the waxy sameness of face paint to carry me through for some sixteen months, and I will not give up on it now. It’s a pale pink, almost a nude; I know it’s there and perhaps nobody else does. It’s moisturising and it’s smart and it feels like a relic from a life I used to have. It’s good. It’s sheer: I don’t often wear sheer lipstick, but this one felt right for today. It lasts a reasonable amount of time.
It seems very strange to me that I still reach for lipstick; that I can still have opinions about lipstick while the Tall Man is so sick. But I do. The same way I find myself laughing on the phone to a friend, or enjoying a sandwich, or wondering whether now, finally, might be the time I need brown tights: I am not sick, and I go on, and I am guilty and conflicted and glad. I choose a lipstick, swatch it on my hand, discard it and choose another: I go on. I live. I choose a lipstick, and straighten my skirt, and sit down to work. I don’t know what else to do.
That’s why I’m writing: I don’t know what else to do.
I have never written this column – or, in fact, anything at all since I met him seven years ago – without showing it to the Tall Man before I hit publish. He has been my editor, my proof-reader, my test subject all this time. If there are mistakes in the column this week, know that it’s because the eagle eye of the Tall Man hasn’t skimmed it first. Frankly, I’m afraid.
I read over the lines I have written hoping to hear his voice in my head: change this word, tweak that line, take this out. I hope to do him justice, but I will inevitably fall down. I am not used to doing this alone. But I am doing this – and as I write it seems more obvious – for both of us: writing is what we do. We made a commitment to explaining, as clearly and vividly as possible, the process of diagnosis and treatment for cancer; we made a deliberate choice to say what this was like. We discussed what might happen if one of us was unable to write, and we agreed, then, that the other one would write for them. That we would leave nothing out. That we would be honest, whatever was happening. And so, as much as I might want to, I cannot let the column hang back there, frozen in time, where we were safe and well. I have to carry, while he cannot, the project he began so long ago with his blog: which means, I suppose, I have to tell you the truth.
And so, as I have always done, I come here: I write because I don’t know what else to do, and because this is my safe place, and because this is what I’ve always done; and I write because I’m lonely, and because I want you to know we are here
Here it is: he is critically ill. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong, and the precise details (in any case) belong to him, not me. It is a complication of his treatment, which is doctor-speak for “we don’t exactly know”. I didn’t think I would ever look back at a round of chemotherapy with nostalgia, but I do. A round of chemo is, at least, a definite: they know what’s wrong, and they are trying to fix it. This time we don’t know what’s wrong, not really. They can make guesses, but educated guesses are all we have. The Tall Man is stable. The Tall Man is breathing. The Tall Man has some kind of serious illness, but they have not yet been able to tell exactly what. They are trying treatments; perhaps some are working; perhaps they are not. We don’t know.
We have been mostly very lucky; the Tall Man has had few complications, and he has responded well to treatment. We knew this was unlikely to be the case always, but we hoped we might remain the lucky ones. We hoped we might get away with it, and we have not. But that this is the worst things have ever been seems to me no reason not to document it. This is part of having cancer; this is part of being a carer. Sometimes things don’t go well. Sometimes things happen and we don’t know why. Sometimes people who seem to be doing well become sick again. Sometimes you can do everything right, and it still goes wrong. Sometimes you don’t get Christmas, however hard you try.
We tried so hard, and still it went wrong: that’s how it goes. It isn’t fair, but nobody said this was going to be fair. Nobody ever said life was fair: I just, I suppose, had read too many stories where the narrative ran smoothly, and I thought that life was supposed to make sense. I thought that if I wrote this into a story, it would become a story, and acquire logic. No logic. No justice. Only the Tall Man, asleep, and me beside him writing about lipstick and the sheen of it.
I am frightened to write without him; I don’t want to say the wrong thing, or put a sentence out there that isn’t the way he’d choose. I want to shake him until he wakes up, and make him listen. But I can’t: I can only hope that I’m doing it the way he’d want. I can only hope, like all my caring now, that I’m getting it right. This is a new kind of caring, and a new kind of problem. This is all new to me, and I feel like I did right at the beginning. I’m afraid. I am dreadfully afraid. It’s so strange, and new, and lonely.
And so, as I have always done, I come here: I write because I don’t know what else to do, and because this is my safe place, and because this is what I’ve always done; and I write because I’m lonely, and because I want you to know we are here.
I don’t want this part to go unrecognised in the fun of the run-up to Christmas: I don’t want you to forget us, or forget him, or forget all the people like him. I want you to know: he is being so brave. He is fighting so very, very hard; not the metaphorical “fight against cancer” both of us have always despised, but a real strenuous effort to override the misfiring signals of his treacherous body. I don’t want that fight to go unnoticed. I don’t want my loneliness and my anger and my grief to go unmourned. I don’t want the tireless, careful work of the nurses and doctors to be ignored. I want you to know what this is like.
And, too, I want you to know that I am still here. I am still here, and I am still writing, and I am wearing lipstick. What else can I do? I put on my lipstick, and I work, and I hope.
“You’ve got to believe,” the student nurse told me today. “You’ve got to believe, because there’s no other way.”
He’s right. I’m trying.
I write because I want to believe something useful may come of it; I write because I want to believe that one day he will come home, and I will need to have paid the bills in his absence; I write because I want to believe that if I set this on paper, even without him, it might come right in the end. I wear lipstick because if he wakes up, I want him to see me. I wear lipstick because when he wakes up, I want him to know I didn’t stop. I wear lipstick because I have to try to believe that things will improve, and that I cannot give up just yet. That’s how to reconcile those emotional and ethical quandaries, and it’s how I have sat down and written: I believe in the Tall Man, and I believe in the power of writing, and I believe in the power of lipstick.
It’s almost Christmas. What else can we do but believe?
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.