Of all the reasons I love being a writer, this year I am most grateful, maybe, that I don't have to have a single back-to-work conversation about what I did over the Christmas break. Where would I even begin?
Hi! How was your New Year? Get up to much? No, me neither. The Tall Man had brain surgery, but apart from that it was pretty uneventful. Just stayed in.
And stayed in, and stayed in.
The brain surgery – yes, really, sorry to spring it on you like this – was an attempt to find out what's going on with the Tall Man. He's been in hospital for more than a month, now, and I don't think he's going to be coming home any time soon – and we still don't know what's wrong, at the time of writing. We know there is something very seriously wrong in his brain – we can see that on a scan; we can see the clear effects of it – but we don't know what's causing it. Tests have mostly come back inconclusive. And so, brain surgery, in those strange dead days between Christmas and New Year, when the hospitals are full only of the people who can't possibly go home. And we were among them.
The surgery went well, we think, as far as we can tell – he didn't die, or seize, or have a stroke. He did not lose movement or much blood. Those were all things we were warned about beforehand and none of them happened, and these are the things to hang on to in these uncertain times. It's all we've got; we have no answers yet.
And so imagine, just for one second, that we're back at work, and I've just told you all this, and you're doing that horrified and kind of awestruck face people do (I do it, too!) when they hear news like this, and you don't know what to say, and I don't know what to say either, and then we stand awkwardly for a minute and you say something a bit obvious and ineffectual like "Oof, God, I hope he gets better", and you kick yourself when you've said it because you know it's obvious and ineffectual, and I agree, in this manic cheerful way I've taken to agreeing with obvious and ineffectual statements meant in the kindest way possible, and we hover briefly, and you pat my arm and head back to your desk, and I stare blankly into space until the next time I have to tell someone how my Christmas holidays were.
Fortunately, however, I am a freelance writer. And though I'm back at work (tentatively) from today, the only people I'll see are nurses, doctors, my mother-in-law and strangers in Pret I don't have to talk to. My work days look a lot like my caring days, except that on my work days I stick my laptop in my bag, and – of course – reach for my lipstick.
I haven't worn lipstick for the last couple of weeks. It wasn't even a conscious decision – I just stopped having time. I ran out of the house in the morning to try and get on to the ward in time to catch the doctors, to see if they had any news. (Never.) I left late, because I wanted to make sure he had his evening pills on time. (Sometimes.) There just never seemed to be time.
The Christmas break – it's true – was hard. But we survived it, even the Tall Man, for whom it was sometimes a bit touch and go. What comes next – whatever it is – will be hard, too. Harder, maybe. But we've got to get on with it
And then, a day or two after the surgery, it was New Year's Eve, and some friends, changing their own New Year plans – in one of those acts of unbelievable kindness of which I am more and more frequently the recipient – picked me up from the hospital, and took me to a bar, and bought me a cocktail, and one of them handed me her lipstick. I can't remember what it was, but I liked it.
And it came to me very suddenly that this was not going to go away any time soon. That the Tall Man's illness was not just going to suddenly be fixed and gone, even if we worked out what it was. That we were not just going to be able to go home. That this is going to go on, and on, and on. That this – in fact – is going to be our new normal. And I thought about this, and I drank my cocktail, and wore my friend's lipstick, and as the old year tumbled away and the new one drifted in, I thought, "Come on, Ella. Time to get a grip. Time to make this good. Pull yourself together."
I have been avoiding everything, really – work and friends and family and, above all, self-care. My email inbox is bursting at the seams; my Twitter DMs not far behind. My hair needs washing. I haven't done any exercise in ages. I'm eating mainly cheesy pasta. And I haven't even thought about lipstick – let alone tried to match it to my outfit, or the day, or how I felt – for ages and ages and ages.
This morning, I got up and washed my hair and thought about my clothes. I chose soft old grey jeans, a soft stripy grey T-shirt, a soft pale grey knitted hoodie. Ankle boots. Christmas present socks with bicycles on. And I chose a lipstick, too: a careful not-quite nude. It's Bourjois Rouge Edition Velvet Matte in #17 Cool Brown, and I think someone recommended it to me for its staying power, which it has, and which I like.
I apply it, although I'm running late, in front of the mirror, and it feels like power. While I'm there, I brush my hair, too, and put some concealer under my eyes. I put my laptop in my bag and run for the bus. It's time to pick things back up and to find places for the things I have loved and needed in my new life. It's time to stop reeling, and pick myself up, and take stock of what we've got, which is, to say, each other, for now, at least, and everything except certainty. (Which is, perhaps, true of everyone.)
I've got to pick myself up, and put on my lipstick – which, for the record, is extremely nice, very reasonably priced, and has real staying power – and work. I've got to write. I've got to keep going. The Christmas break – it's true – was hard. But we survived it, even the Tall Man, for whom it was sometimes a bit touch and go. What comes next – whatever it is – will be hard, too. Harder, maybe. But we've got to get on with it.
(And since I've got to do it, I might as well do it in a smart lipstick. It's got us this far, after all.)
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.