Two years since her boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, Ella Risbridger writes her final column.
It’s two years, as Facebook never stops reminding me, since all this began. “Ella”, it says, cheerfully, “we care about you and the memories that you share here. We thought that you'd like to look back on this post from 2 years ago.”
There’s something very odd about the way social media does this, as if I might have forgotten; as if there’s no difference (and I suppose there isn’t to a computer) between the pictures of our life before, and our life after. Facebook delivers them all to me the minute I open the app.
An initial plea for help from our dear friends Caroline and Harry. An Instagram of my (then) new trainers visibly squeaking on the hospital floor. The Tall Man texting to raise money for Anthony Nolan's life-saving stem cell charity in his first bed at Barts, with text-to-donate number underneath. The milestones: so many milestones. Raising a thousand pounds; two thousand; five thousand; ten thousand. Twenty. Fifty. Seventy five. A hundred thousand.
I am still amazed, you know, that we did it. A hundred thousand pounds! Six figures! It feels now like a strange anomaly; like a dream I had a long time ago. I have become so subsumed by the present crisis – in many ways harder, and more draining, than the Tall Man’s cancer ever was to either of us – that I look back on that solemn little girl with her pink lips and determination to make something good happen with a mixture of bafflement and awe. How did she keep going? She had no idea how to wrangle hospitals, or read blood results, or the first thing about lipstick. She just made up her face, and set her jaw, and bluffed until it worked.
That first column? I had to ring Caroline and ask her what people wanted to know about a lipstick. “It’s, like, kind of a pale pinkish colour” I told her. “And it goes on like ordinary lipstick, I guess? Is there anything else to say?” It was all new to me, and somehow – bafflingly, and against all the odds – I made it work. We made it work, and somehow we’re still here. We are both – and in the Tall Man’s case, against all odds – still alive two years on.
I want to stress that this is not because we are better than other people, or that the Tall Man tried harder, or anything; only that in this most fundamental of ways, we have been very, very lucky. It’s worth remembering. Our lives are very difficult just now, but they are still our lives; none of this is what we would have chosen, but nonetheless, it’s something. And that’s worth having.
And so many just didn’t get it. Writing this I think especially of lovely Amber, who was such an endless champion of this lipstick project in particular; she was brilliant, and she fought like hell, and she died. I miss her often. I couldn’t write this last column without pausing to think of her, and our other friends who did not come through this.
We are so lucky to still be here – whatever else is going on. And we are lucky, you know, in so many other ways.
They advise you, when you first sit down with the cancer support nurses, not to make “cancer friends”. I think this is because you will carry them with you forever; you are supposed, I think, to have enough grief and fear of your own. I understand the theory, but in practice, it’s different. We mostly did as we were advised, but sometimes – and particularly through this column – it was hard not to. People wanted to support us. People came to us, and talked to us, and helped us; people reached out to us, and every week, still, after two years, people reach out to me. I cannot tell you how much it has meant to us both. We have made so many “cancer friends”, and so many of you have stuck around to be “mystery illness friends”, and then “rehab friends”. The support, as we have gone through all of this, has been extraordinary.
If I have learned anything in two years, it’s this: the only way of living life is 'why not?'
I am so grateful, especially to those of you who have been reading since the beginning. I hope you’ll keep reading when my new project with The Pool materialises next month (bit less cancer chat, bit more fun).
These columns have achieved a lot, and it’s time, now, for a change. Two years feels like the right time to move on. We have done a great deal in those two years – me, the Tall Man, our families, our friends, and all of you. We raised awareness; got blood cancer and its symptoms into most major newspapers; drummed up support for junior doctors and the NHS in general; and we raised more than £100,000 for Anthony Nolan.
A book will be coming out at some point (currently shelved while we wait for the Tall Man to get better), and part of the proceeds will go to Anthony Nolan.They still, by the way, deserve your support and your money: they have been utterly brilliant to us for the duration of this illness.
I have to tell you that I am crying writing this: we have been so very, very lucky in the people around us all this time. Nobody could have had more fun in hospital than the Tall Man and I have had; nobody could have felt more loved than we have. We have been so, so lucky in everyone around us, and that, I think, is the most important thing of all that this column has achieved: we have never been alone.
There was for ages a billboard outside my house which read CANCER IS THE LONELIEST PLACE. I hated it at the time, but I think it’s not untrue: hospitals are lonely. Sickness is lonely. Caring is lonely. And into that lonely breach came The Pool, and The Pool readers, and they reached out their hands and sent letters and emails and tweets, and they told me: you are not alone. You are not the first person to walk this road. There is a road here, and there is a path, and you are not the first, and you are not alone.
What I have tried to do with these columns is to take those letters and emails and tweets (and by-chance meetings on the bus), and to weave them with my own story into something bigger than all of us: to pile those hundred-and-four lipsticks into a cairn for the next person coming along.
Something for the next brand-new too-young carer to flick through and think: ok, it’s possible.
Or: If she can, I can.
You can, I promise you. What I want to say, most of all, in this last lipstick column is this: there is nothing special about carers. There is nothing special about cancer patients. They are not better at this than you would be; they are not magically better at bearing this than anyone else. They are just people, trying their best, and mostly they manage. Just as, if you are ever in this kind of terrible situation, you will. You will do your best, and that will have to be enough because it’s all you’ve got.
I am addressing this to myself, mostly. I have sometimes addressed columns to my future self before, and I go back and read them: even two years on, they work. Pixel pep-talks preserved in time that mostly say the same thing: pick yourself up, put on your lipstick, and put one foot in front of the other. And that’ll do.
The lipstick I wore in that first column isn’t a lipstick I’d wear now. I don’t really like pale pink on me, but that’s OK: I have changed, found out more about myself than I ever wanted to know, and understood myself better than ever. I’m not really a pale-pink lipstick kind of woman any more, if I ever was.
No, the lipstick I love best at the moment- and I’m sure in another two years I’ll read this back and be horrified – is gold. Real, bright, glittery gold. Gold like an award; gold like precious; gold like worth it. Gold like it’s earned.
Long-term readers of this column will remember I’ve been on a gold lipstick quest for about eighteen months now, and today I’ll present to you my favourite: NYX Cosmic Metals Lip Cream.
This one is Celestial, #13, but it’s worth trying them all to see what works with your skin tone: some are more scarlet, others more buttery yellow. I love them all. It can’t be said they are easy to wear, exactly; not like the pale pink I wore that first week. It takes a bit of nerve to wear gold out. But it’s worth it when you do.
It feels like a prize; like the ordinary grey August day is something a bit special, a bit frivolous. It feels like you are something a bit special. And you are. I hear so often, from women who don’t feel they can “pull off” lipstick. That is nonsense: you can, and you should, and I believe that you will. And you can and should and will wear gold lipstick, too – or blue or green or bright carmine – whatever you like. Try it. Why not?
If I have learned anything in two years, it’s this: the only way of living life is “why not?”. Why not try to raise a hundred thousand pounds? Why not smuggle still-hot chorizo onto a chemo ward? Why not write a book? Why not escape for chocolate cake? Why not wear lipstick?
If it gives you joy – or might make something good come out of a “horrible, no-good fuck-up of a thing” (as I put it at the time) – why not? Why the fuck not?
Life is often very hard, and always pretty short, and sometimes cut even shorter in unfair and unpredictable and breathtakingly brutal ways. Take joy in everything. Try everything. Love your people. Love strangers. Eat the cake. Write the book. Wear the lipstick. Why not?
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a make-up person before 2015, 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.
To make a donation to Anthony Nolan, visit John's Just Giving page