Fruits of the Vine.

I meant to publish this just after Christmas, which passed without incident. I’d forgotten how to enjoy festive family time, because for the last four years its presence only enhanced the pain we were in as a family. Whether we were waiting for test results, or scans, or news of a trial which might just give my husband a bit more time, or for a mastectomy which would only afterwards determine whether my life could be saved or simply prolonged a bit, every Christmas week (when the rest of the country ground to a halt and celebrated) left us dangling in painful suspended animation. Every year, we wondered if it would be the last we’d see with our children.

But this year, it was wonderful. Quiet, calm, content… and rather than being angry for the loss of my husband (though of course the grief hit us all at times) I chose to feel grateful for the three extra stockings around the fireplace brought by the lovely New Chap and his welcome little brood. Yes, I was still waiting to be given a reconstruction date by the hospital (henceforth known as the Build-a-Boob Workshop), but even that had stopped bothering me too much. I was happy to just be alive and well.

I didn’t expect this Christmas to be so good. We did nothing. Saw very few people. We simply snuggled up for a few days, and enjoyed being together as a mixed up family with multiple teens and toddlers. I loved having New Chap and his children in the house which for so long had been the place of pain and misery, because it was brought to life again – just as a family home should be. It’s just that my definition of family has evolved since the day my husband and I bought it with our one-year-old twins in tow, full of optimism for the future (and a strong desire to get rid of the hideous dark wood and ghastly peach bathroom tiles).

Timehop kept showing me pictures from Christmases gone by. Of small boys unwrapping gifts by the fireside, with their contented Daddy still half asleep in his dressing gown, and a probably much more frazzled Mummy behind the camera; of exciting trips to Florida, South Africa and Thailand with slightly bigger boys, because the rest of the family couldn’t agree on who we should spend Christmas with, so we just took ourselves out of the equation for a few years (a tactic I can highly recommend); of more cuddles by the fireside with eight, nine, ten year old boys, desperately trying to smile. Not knowing what gift to buy for a man who was dying. A man who was wearing his dressing gown because he was too weak to get dressed.

Photos of chemo, feeding tubes and scan appointments kept cropping up. These weren’t pictures we’d ever put on social media, but photos we’d taken for fun because there are so many different ways you can model a cardboard sick bowl, and my husband was determined to try them all. There were even photos of the remains of my left boob, from a couple of years ago. I was determined to remember that, too, so I took a sneaky selfie before surgery (you’ll be pleased to hear that that didn’t go on Facebook either). As I idly scrolled through the pictures, with the New Chap reading on the sofa beside me, I realised that I remembered it all as if it was yesterday. I remembered my husband’s stoicism. His bravery. His resolve. His tumour humour. When times are tough, especially with the boys, I often refer back to him in my mind, and imagine what he’d do or say in a situation. The memory of him never fades.

I remember him vividly. I hope I always will. But I don’t remember me.

In our marriage, as with all good relationships, my husband and I grew and developed together like intertwining vines. I like to think we were both on a continuous programme of improvement, actually. I still am. The 23 year old woman who stood in church and placed a ring on her fiancé’s finger was a completely different woman from the wife who received that ring back in an envelope with his name on it (after the wholly unnecessary words “The Late”, I thought), at the age of 37. Because we’d grown together, though, I was always the right woman for him. I was always the best wife I could be. The best mum. The best friend. Not always perfect – and in fact, frequently apologised for and learned from mistakes I’d made. But the eighteen months between losing my husband and meeting someone else were shaken by the chaos of yet more cancer, and the one-titted widow with the terrible post-chemo crop, who reluctantly signed up to eHarmony to shut up her kids (who thought having a fella might stop her from crying all the time), was not the woman my husband fell in love with. I don’t remember that woman at all.

Interestingly, if online dating had been as much of a thing seventeen years ago, when my husband and I got together, we’d never have been considered compatible.

There were 25 years between us. I was a university student, and he was self-employed. He’d been successful in the past, but had hit a tough period during single parenthood, with no steady income, and had run up thousands of pounds’ worth of debt. He had grown up children, a grandchild, and two ex-wives. I was young and had always wanted children, but he’d had an irreversible vasectomy. He had left school without A Levels, and never quite finished the degree he began in his forties, but was undoubtedly the most intelligent man I’d ever met.

We’d met on a fire escape on a smoking break when we were both doing a little bit of freelancing for a local company. Friendship turned to admiration, which turned to attraction, which turned to love. It didn’t happen overnight, and no website in the world would have matched us up.

It was a rollercoaster. It took work, effort, and compromise on both sides. It wasn’t always easy, but we made it happen. We made it our marriage. We stayed married, and faithful, and loving, until the day he died. Shortly before he passed, he told me that being married to me had been the greatest privilege of his life (and that was quite a compliment from a man who’d been married so many times before). I felt the same.

For eighteen months afterwards, I felt that bond of marriage holding us together as strongly as ever. I still wear my wedding and engagement rings (but on the opposite hand now). And I wear his, too. I still do everything I can to keep his name in the conversation. I still do everything I can to bring up his beloved boys surrounded by love, good humour, and compassion, just as he would have done if he was still here.

Conversely, my relationship with the New Chap (with whom I matched 100% in every area on the tedious online quiz they make you take before you can start perving over potential partners) has been effortless from the start… but I don’t think that’s because we’re necessarily a better match (or because we’re both left-leaning atheists who don’t want any more kids). We don’t live together yet, for a start. I know enough about him – and he about me – to know that we probably wouldn’t have hit it off ten years ago, when he was last on the market (only one divorce down) and I was knee-deep in toddlers. I think we’re better people for the experiences we’ve had, and are determined to make our relationship last, because our last ones didn’t. His biggest fear is that I’ll leave him, whereas my biggest fear is that he’ll die. And we’re both committed to making sure that neither of those things happen… although, of course, married or not, I will love him in sickness and in health, until death us do part (but it had better bloody not do just yet).

When my husband used to snore in the night, I had every normal wife’s natural reaction. I wanted to pummel him in the back of the head with the bedside lamp. But, having spent eighteen months in an empty bed, pining for my husband to come back to me and snore – or fart – just once… I love to hear the sound of my new fella snoring because it means he’s alive. If he farts and rolls over, it means he’s well fed. He’s beside me. He loves me. He’s there. I wasn’t a bad wife, but losing my husband has made me a far better partner than I’ve ever been before. Having him beside me – alive and well – makes me so grateful, because the loss I’ve experienced before is so great. I know how much worse it can be.

Meanwhile, New Chap had only previously been attracted to women with blonde hair and big tits. He’s moved on from that one quite admirably. (He’s had to, really.)

I choose now to live in the moment. To enjoy the life I have, and the people in it, although a lot of the people who used to be in it have quietly disappeared. I look back at photos of my husband with love, fondness, and unwavering respect. But within those pictures of the last few Christmases I also feel so much pain that the only way for me to look now is forward. I look forward to a new year, to “our” new boobs (which will be reinstated next week, all being well. On Tuesday. Obviously, this is now being referred to as Boobie Tuesday), and a life of growing together, with new shoots appearing from our vine all the time, and hopefully at least one melon. (We won’t be having a baby, though. I no longer have the necessary equipment to feed one properly, for a start.)

We will grow together, and love each other, being anchored by the roots of past mistakes and the branches of experience. They helped us to grow to where we are now.

Love Fanny x

The Vietnamese Fruit Loofah. I’m hoping that at least one of my melons will be slightly perkier.

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The Car Park of Destiny.

I haven’t written an update for a while, and to be honest, I’ve been enjoying getting back to normality (and trying to learn how to parent teenagers), with limited success. I think that writing Fanny through my grief and treatment was my way of releasing stress when I had nobody else to tell. Now, I do have someone to tell, who loves me deeply, but with that happiness and contentment has come a bit of Writers’ Block. Our stories don’t end as long as we’re alive, but perhaps I wanted Fanny to have her happy ending, and I wasn’t sure if there really was any such thing.

In fact, I suppose I thought a new beginning had come instead – in July last year, when my husband’s ashes were interred in the graveyard of the church where he and I had married 15 years before, almost to the day. I’d just finished my cancer treatment, and had decided that – having held my hand through it in the only way he could – it was time to let him rest. (Stick with this – it gets progressively less depressing, I promise.)

That day, for me, was a marker. I knew that I would be on my own from the moment we’d placed him in the ground. I’d spent the 15 months since his death holding on to what was left of him, but I knew that my future – whatever it held – could not include my husband as a living, breathing companion. I was ready for a future without cancer, but I wasn’t quite ready for anyone else to take his place. I still didn’t consider myself to be a single woman (as opposed to a woman who was married, but whose husband just wasn’t alive any more), but I suppose I needed to make peace with the fact that a different guy may one day end up by my side. It’s what my husband had said he eventually wanted for me after (and I quote) “a suitable period of mourning”, followed by the inevitable smirk and a wink. The idea of letting him go was as frightening as it was strangely liberating.

I’ve already written about how I met the New Chap, so I won’t go over it again (suffice to say that it involved a large amount of encouragement from my children, and an even larger amount of wine), but the short story is that we began communicating on an internet dating site which I’d joined, primarily to shut up the children, a couple of months after my husband’s ashes had been interred. Not being remotely experienced in the world of dating, my opening gambit was to send him a message to say that I’d noticed he didn’t look mad, and unlike the rest of my potential matches, he only lived up the road.

When I’d originally made contact, he was part way through running an ultra marathon in the Swiss Alps, but we’d managed to exchange some epic banter in the few moments he could snatch in between running and sleeping. We got on well, and I was pleased to be able to continue the conversation by asking him for some advice about training for my own forthcoming marathon. Only when I’d berated him for a misplaced apostrophe did I realise that his utterly perfect response confirmed his place in Pedants’ Corner, and therefore as a potentially ideal partner. I was just a bit worried that his enthusiasm for athleticism might not be entirely compatible with my somewhat battered and butchered body.

A few days later, when he was back home, 13.1 miles away (precisely a half marathon distance, as it happens), we arranged to meet. I hadn’t expected to date anyone so soon, so I’d had to come clean about the slight Trades Descriptions issue of my profile picture, which wrongly suggested that I might have a full set of boobs, and perhaps some hair. Meanwhile, he’d had to admit that he usually went for blondes with big tits, was about five years older than his profile suggested, and had had little success in the marriage department. Not to worry, I said – I could offer a wildcard option regarding hair and tits, and 48-year-old twice divorced men are exactly my type. Marrying one had worked very well for me many years earlier, so why change the habit of a lifetime? (Next time, hopefully, I’ll be a cougar and snare one from my nursing home.)

He’d only been to my neighbourhood once before (there would never have been a good reason for him to come here, as it’s not on his route to work, and all we have to offer are reservoirs, Brexiteers, and Morrisons). However, our local pub/restaurant was the halfway point between his house and that of a woman he’d met online a few weeks earlier, and after exchanging a string of messages, they’d met there one Saturday night for a pleasant but ultimately unsuccessful date. It also happens to be the pub where we’d held my husband’s wake, and which is directly opposite the church where we’d got married, had his funeral, and where his ashes are now interred. It didn’t seem right for either of us to meet there. So, instead, we arranged to meet for lunch in the small market town half way between our houses. But when the New Chap did what all good internet daters do, and web stalked me, he was shocked. My husband’s death had made the news. New Chap remembered seeing the story. He’d read it in the paper. It had massively resonated with him at the time, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about our story that had grabbed him, and he’d never forgotten it. When my husband died, the New Chap was still married, but he’d been separated for almost a year by the time he tentatively started dating again – beginning with the woman he’d met at my local pub.

We both thought this could be a sign that my husband had sent him to me. Of course, we’ll never know. The good news, though, is that our first date went very well. As did the second… and the third… etc.

Over the last year, we’ve grown to love each other so much. We’ve become each other’s best friend, and can’t imagine life without one other. We both look forward to a future of growing old together. The only thing that holds me back is my often overwhelming fear of him dying… but that’s probably understandable. What’s lovely is that the boys really seem to adore him, and I think the world of his kids too. My twins and his teenage daughter consider themselves to be siblings (and simultaneously love and hate each other accordingly), and when his two little boys are with us, it’s a breath of silliness and fresh air which was desperately needed in the house which has seen such pain and trauma. What’s even more wonderful is that my husband is always part of the conversation, and New Chap doesn’t feel threatened by his memory – he just wishes they’d met each other. So do I.

The other week, I was scrolling through the New Chap’s Strava feed (that’s Facebook for athletes) to see if I could see his epic Alpine run from last year. I was trying to work out exactly when we’d first made contact. I knew it had been sometime in September, but that was it. Having found the maps and noted the date, I carried on idly scrolling back. A little further down the feed, I saw a map of a route that he’d cycled a few weeks before he’d left for the Alps. It went from his house in the hills down to my neck of the woods, and because we’ve both now cycled and run that very route together several times, I recognised it straight away. He’d made the journey on his bike to collect his car from my local pub, where he’d left it after the pleasant but unsuccessful date the previous evening.

According to Strava, he arrived to collect his car on the same day, at exactly the same time, that I’d arrived with my husband’s ashes (in a Bag for Life, obviously, as regular readers will appreciate), ready to say goodbye for ever. At the very moment that I let go of the love of my old life, the love of my new life was right there. We will have passed each other in the street. The New Chap would never have had any reason to return to my neighbourhood after that, if he hadn’t met me online, in the Alps.

Little did he know on that morning, as he reluctantly resumed the search for the woman of his dreams, that she was actually right there: the teary-eyed bald woman with wonky tits, walking over to the church a few feet away, manhandling two bickering twelve-year-olds and a large carrier bag. Meanwhile, she definitely wouldn’t have paid any attention to the mutantly tall Lycra-clad lunatic trying to shoehorn a bicycle around two child seats in the back of a poncey Jaguar. Perhaps it was best that the two of us began to feel a connection in words before we looked for a physical one.

From the start, meeting the New Chap has felt like fate. Losing my husband ripped me in two, but my own cancer episode paved the way for someone other than him to complete the person I became in the time after he died. We can’t help but feel as if someone was trying very hard indeed to put us together at exactly the time when he knew we’d both be ready. The New Chap and I just needed a few more weeks to bump into each other again, when the time was definitely right for both of us.

Even after his death, my husband still manages to be right about everything. He (almost) always was. Fanny, meanwhile, will continue to write about her adventures as the Champion of the World alongside her ever-expanding family, but perhaps Volume One: The Cancer Years has reached a suitable conclusion. The happy ending has just written itself.

Love Fanny x

Way Out

Photo copyright My Parking Sign

Fanny for Grabs.

A few weeks ago, I did a deal with my son. My angry, grieving, difficult son. It wasn’t a deal I wanted to do, and – in many ways – it felt like a pact with the devil. I told him that if he would engage with a course of counselling, then I’d do what he’d been asking for, and start to look for a new partner. 

I knew that it would take several weeks to sort out my son’s head, and, through counselling, he’d probably realise that his problems were not going to be easily solved by my acquiring a substitute for his dad. I wasn’t ready for a relationship, and was otherwise muddling along as a double – not single – parent, but at my wits’ end.

Both boys have been desperate to see me happy again – and that, they believe, means for me to be married off as quickly as possible. Even when my husband was still alive – on the day we sat the boys down at nine years old, and told them their Daddy was dying – one of them disappeared with the laptop to look for a dating website so they could find me a new husband as a matter of some urgency. It took a little while to explain the concept of marriage vows, sickness, health, and death us doing part etc., but we got there in the end.

Since my husband died, though, the boys have made several less-than-subtle suggestions. On holiday last year, barely four months after I’d been widowed, they danced around me singing Love Is In the Air while I was having a perfectly genial conversation about table tennis with a 19-year-old member of the Croatian animation team. They’ve come home from school full of optimism every time one of their friends happens to have a set of parents in the throes of divorce. On the holiday we’ve just returned from, I sat in the bar most nights being elbowed in the ribs by an enthusiastic twelve-year-old who had spotted the multi-millionaire Saudi Arabian fortysomething with a penchant for $160 shots of cognac. Although he seemed like a nice guy, and we found commonality in being widowed parents of teenage boys, I couldn’t quite shake off the thought that anyone who could spend $160 on a single shot of cognac was probably more than a bit of a twat. All I wanted was a cuddle and a conversation with my ageing scruffy intellectual, who was usually floored by half a lager – the cheapest one available.

I’ve apparently had sniffs of interest via friends – which has been flattering, but unreciprocated. I’ve just not been ready to even contemplate a relationship with someone other than my husband. Since we interred his ashes in the churchyard a week after my treatment ended, though, I’ve felt an element of closure and optimism that I haven’t felt for a long time. I miss him, terribly. I always will. But he is dead – and burying a box in the ground with his name on it hasn’t brought him back to life, much as we all wish it could have done. Now, with every new hair that appears on my head, I feel a strand of hope; of a future which is new, exciting, and seems to be within my grasp. It’s been such a long time.

A few weeks ago, having returned from another very lonely holiday in which the children mainly made friends and buggered off, just as I’d expected and wanted them to do, I asked my husband’s dearest friends for advice and reassurance about the next tentative step I thought I might want to take. Without exception, they gave me a monumental thumbs up, and later that night, I got myself royally pissed and set up an internet dating profile.

I met my husband at work over 16 years ago, at a time when entire families were sharing a single dial-up internet connection, so online dating is completely new territory for me. As a widowed parent working from home, though, it seemed like the best place to start.

I knew that my husband had wanted me to move on after – and I quote – a “suitable period of mourning,” but my mourning period has been long and difficult, and isn’t over yet. It never will be, completely. Nonetheless, I was nervous as I filled in all the criteria (including an upper age limit of 48 – the age my husband was when I met him,) and selected that any potential suitor must be educated, and that he must have a proper job. There was no option to request that he have no pre-existing medical conditions, or a family history of cancer.

Out of about 25 possibilities, only one face leapt out at me, but I duly went through each profile one by one. As more and more so-called “compatible” matches appeared, and as I read through each one (deleting them with gay abandon) it became clear to me that I had a few more criteria of my own, which couldn’t have been picked up by the website’s algorithms.

– He must have a nice traditional name, but not the one belonging to our dog.

– He must be able to spell and punctuate.  

– He must not be a Tory.

– He must not be topless on his profile picture, although bonus points for removing his anorak.

– He must not be wearing a football shirt.

– He must not still be proud to display one of those Celtic arm tattoos.

– He must use a picture of his face, not his car.

– He must not use “LOL” at any point, especially not as an appendage to an otherwise rather dull statement.

– He must write something to make me smile.

– He must be someone that my husband would have liked. A lot.

Likewise, I tried to answer all the questions as honestly as I could.

– I explained that I liked all types of music, but that I wasn’t allowed to like anything too modern on account of it being embarrassing for the children. I also warned that I’m rather keen on musicals – particularly reenacting certain death scenes at full volume during long car journeys – and that I tend to forget that I am not in fact a member of Little Mix.

– I listed my hobbies, which include refereeing arguments between twin boys, swearing, and being the world’s most unremarkable cook.

– I said I was widowed with pre-teen twins, and looking for someone who, like me, was not in a rush, but who would enjoy intelligent debate, wine, sarcasm, and companionship. I also asked that he should be a dab hand at DIY, an enthusiastic grammar pedant, and enjoy getting up early to let the dog out.

I decided not to mention the missing boob and ghastly post-chemo crop at this point. I expected the search to take several months. I also knew that anyone who could jump unscathed through all the hoops would be a chap worth getting to know better, and if he still managed not to care about how many mammaries I currently possess, then that would say everything I needed to know about him.

I whittled my own shortlist to a grand total of one. A tall, handsome, marathon-running scientist, with an attractive smile and a self-effacing biography, who also happened to live the closest to me – just up the road in the next valley. The one whose picture had stood out in the first place. He was probably way out of my league in intellect and looks, but I’ve learned that life’s too short to not even try. We exchanged messages, and I was relieved to find that he used the correct version of “you’re” in a sentence. He had found my profile to be quirky and interesting, although I’d made the first move – it turns out, if left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have given me a second look as he normally goes for leggy blondes. As did my husband. My husband had not been a health freak – in fact, he got out of breath running a bath – and that was often a stumbling block in our relationship. A whole new outlook on health from a partner would not be unwelcome, but in the long term, I want a man who can stimulate my mind as much as he can stimulate my somewhat imperfect body. A man as imperfect as me. A man as imperfect as – though different from – my husband.

I will report back. Even if nothing long-term comes of this, I’ve had the joy of communicating with another adult, on the same wavelength, whose epic banter (in exquisitely-punctuated messages) has made my heart leap and a smile reach across the full width of my face. Who knows what will happen? We’ve been on a few dates already, and the connection is strong. We miss each other when we’re not together. He knows the score. All of it. He’s had his nose in my Fanny for the last few days (which is absolutely not a euphemism) and still hasn’t been put off by the grief, the booblessness, or the frequently awful children. If all else fails, he knows he could end up as material for the next blog post, so he’s trying his best to not be too much of a twat. And so am I.

I wasn’t expecting to click with anyone so soon. In fact, I realise now that I wasn’t really expecting any kind of life at all. I’ve simply been existing, day to day, for three and a half years. Three months ago, I was quietly planning my own funeral (I was going to have Brimful of Asha as my coffin came in, by the way. I thought it would be funny,) but now I’m planning a future, and it feels wonderful. The boys haven’t met him yet (nor has he endured Trial by Friends,) but they’re delighted that we’re going out on dates and keep asking me why I’m smiling for no reason. And, they’re both still receiving and engaging with counselling. These are still very early days, but they’re good days, and – far from feeling like cheating – being with this man already feels like the most natural thing on earth.

In actual fact, it feels as if somebody, somewhere, has played a very special part in this. He knows that the time is right for the boys and me to smile again after so many years of pain. Maybe, a loving hand from heaven has given things a nudge in the right direction. Time will tell, and I have plenty of that.

Love Fanny x

A Future for Fanny.

Following a few nail-biting weeks, I’ve just heard the two wonderful words which my husband never got to hear.

All clear.

Thank you to everyone who helped to drag me along the darkest path I’ve ever had to walk alone – in particular to The Fanny Pack, and to so many others, whose kindnesses will never be forgotten.

Thank you to friends, and strangers, who have joined me here on the blog, and supported the boys and me practically, at home or in hospital.

There is a new life at the end of the tunnel, and my wonderful, brave, much-missed husband is holding the light which guides us there. He always will.

Life, Part Three, starts here. (Well, when I’ve handed back my radiotherapy gown and finished setting fire to my wig.)

Love Fanny x

Chemo accoutrements, no longer required.

End of Part Two.

Today marks 1172 days since cancer came into our family. 1168 days since my husband and I walked through the doors of this hospital, hand in hand, for the very first time.

Those doors were the last thing my husband saw of the outside world, before being wheeled into an ambulance and brought home to die. He said, at that point, that a bag for life would probably be an unwise investment.

Today, 463 days since my husband died, and 343 days since my own diagnosis, I walk out of the same doors once again, on my own, to the outside world, for what we all hope will be the very last time. To freedom. To our children. To countless more days.

Here, they’ve given me the most precious gift – my life, wrapped up in a metaphorical box with a bow, when my husband couldn’t even begin to pick off the sellotape. Here, my treatment has finished, and I am cancer free. The words don’t even seem real, after so many days of nothing but cancer. It’s going to take a while to adjust.

To say thank you, I brought a big box of chocolates for my radiographers, and asked them to share it around my husband’s oncology team as well, in the room next door.

Next week, it’s our fifteenth wedding anniversary. My husband’s life in a box – the ashes which are all that remain of his hands, his smile, and his wonderful mind – will be interred in the church yard where we stood and kissed for our wedding photographs, and where his dearest friends carried his coffin as we said our goodbyes. In sickness and in health, I was with him, and he with me. Maybe it’s time now to let him rest.

Until my husband and I meet again, I’m going to do one thing – for him, for our children, and for me.

I’m going to invest in a bag for life.

Love Fanny x

One Fried Tit and a Healing Scab.

For two years, my husband and I went back and forth to the cancer hospital, through roadworks, down motorways, along side roads, and always into the same bloody car park. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then we waited. And waited. Their admin was dire. Their queuing system was dire. Their coffee was dire. But, the staff were lovely, and the relationship we had with my husband’s oncologist was great. Well, we knew each other very well in the end.

When we reached the end of the line – when it became clear that no more treatment could be found to save my husband – his oncologist told him that he needed to be admitted for a day or two; have a scan, and maybe a lung drain, and that we’d reconvene in a couple of days. Although the doctor’s message was clear to me, my abiding memory is of my husband being wheeled down the corridor to the ward, after the seventh failed attempt at cannulation. He turned around to grab my hand and said, “let’s not give up hope yet.” He couldn’t be dying. We’d just come home from holiday. A week before that we’d been riding rollercoasters in Blackpool. He wasn’t ready to die, and I wasn’t ready to let him.

But, there was no hope. I knew it. The oncologist knew it. All the nurses knew it. Over the course of the preceding weeks – when my husband was on a clinical trial which we thought might be the answer to our prayers – the oncologist hadn’t always been very direct, and we still clung on to the hope that a miracle was around the corner. 
A couple of days later, when we left the building for the very last time, we’d both commented that, at the very least, it was a relief that we’d never have to go back to that fucking place ever again.

How wrong we were. I now have daily visits to that same hospital, but without my husband to hold my hand. Parking in the same car park. Passing the café where we used to sit and drink awful coffee and wait for blood results. Walking past the same ward where I took one of the last photos of my husband, working on his laptop, tying up some loose ends. (We pissed ourselves at that, and he posed for the photo gladly. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he said.) I pass the BEREAVEMENT SUITE. It’s a hospital – of course there’s a bereavement suite – but just in case you’ve forgotten that this is a cancer hospital, it’s written there, just by the entrance, in massive jolly writing, so you never quite forget that there’s a chance of BEREAVEMENT the moment you step through the fucking door. (We never actually went into the BEREAVEMENT SUITE because my husband died at home. Our sitting room is our BEREAVEMENT SUITE instead. I never go in there now, either.)

I’d managed to avoid the cancer hospital up until now, apart from a brief visit to check that my heart was in good enough shape to start chemotherapy. How ironic, I thought, that they needed to check the condition of my heart in the very place where they broke it. I’d been fortunate, in a way, that my surgery was done in our local hospital where they also have an excellent chemo unit, and they moved heaven and earth to make sure I didn’t have to go back to the place so full of difficult memories. Until radiotherapy.

I was expecting to be able to have that treatment at one of the local satellite centres too, but my oncologist wasn’t happy. She said my tumour had been too large, in too awkward a place, and she wanted to fry not only my left tit, but also my neck and my chest wall, to give me the greatest chance of survival. She wanted me to be in the best place for the treatment I needed. The best place? That best place also happened to be the place where they couldn’t cure my husband.

So, there I go. Every day for three weeks. I walk down the corridors, in a building which was so very much ours. It’s not somewhere I ever wanted to be ours, but bringing a friend with me now would make me miss my husband even more, so I go alone.

On the first day, I walked through the same door, into the same waiting room, with the same writing on the board, stating that my husband’s oncologist’s clinic was running 60 minutes late.

I froze.

There’s a fucking surprise, I thought. There are probably people in here who were behind my husband in the queue 15 months ago and are only just being seen. Three out of four of them will be dead by this time next year, I realised. I looked around and wondered which ones.

The same staff, the same waiting time, the same room, the same chairs, but no husband. No husband at all, because they couldn’t save him, here in the best place.

My husband’s oncologist never actually came to say goodbye. He never shook him by the hand, or said that it had been a pleasure to treat him. One of his colleagues discharged him in the end, because it was late on a Friday night and everyone else had gone home. We never saw the oncologist again, until the other day when I bumped into him as I was walking into Radiotherapy, and he was wandering over to speak to a patient.

He was thrilled to see me. He summoned over the whole team who were all smiles and welcomes and full of words about how sorry they were to have seen on the news that my husband had passed away – he was such a lovely man, they said. So humble. We’d had no idea how incredible a career he’d had, they said. Nor did we, I thought.

Then, of course, at the sudden realisation that I was quite clearly now a patient, the joy turned to concern. They wanted to know if I’d be OK. The oncologist asked after the boys. One of the nurses ran off to find catering quantities of tissues, and shoved sheet after sheet into my hands as the tears came – just as they always did, for my husband and me, every time we mentioned our darling boys as we sat together, holding hands, in the room just steps away from where I stood again, on my own.

They hadn’t forgotten us. It made me feel validated again. I was a human being – not a patient – and, more to the point, so was my husband. Of course they’d wanted to save him. They wanted to save everyone – and for the people like us with young kids, they throw as much as they can at us, even when they know there’s barely a scrap of hope. A scrap is sometimes enough. I think I understand that now.

I looked around, and realised that there would have been a string of patients who’d died under the oncologist’s care since my husband was discharged. The corridor still buzzed with people walking up and down; some in hats, some with lanyards, some in uniforms. A woman pushed her husband, too frail to walk, in a wheelchair. I looked at her sympathetically – I’d been there, even though my husband never opted for a wheelchair if he had the strength to walk. I realised she was looking back at me with sympathy too; I’d forgotten that I was now quite obviously a cancer patient, not a carer. Her husband had probably been normal and healthy, when mine was the patient in that wheelchair, just over a year ago. She smiled a smile of cancer solidarity, which implied that she knew how I felt. You haven’t a fucking clue, I thought. You poor, poor woman. Just you wait.

I realised then, that I’d been carrying so much anger within me for the team who couldn’t make my husband better, even though it wasn’t their fault. They can’t possibly shake every patient by the hand when they send them away to die, or point their relatives towards the BEREAVEMENT SUITE, because they’d be doing it every day. It would be soul-destroying. But, they did remember us. My husband was someone to them; they liked him, and they did their best. Sadly, it wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t because they hadn’t tried. They tried everything. In fact, they probably tried too much – and my husband had wanted them to. Anything for another few precious days with his family.

Maybe, I didn’t just need this wound to scab over. The act of coming back here – of ripping it off, letting the blood flow out, and starting again, is perhaps just what I needed to do to let the healing process start afresh. It’s been a bloody long and complicated way of healing, though.

Just because my husband’s time at the cancer hospital ended, doesn’t mean that time stopped here for everyone else. The place still functions and runs without him, even if the home I return to doesn’t function anywhere near as well.

Wives still push dying husbands up corridors. Bald little children with tubes in their noses still walk into the garden to sit and read for a bit, and try to be children. Women with hats and drawn-on eyebrows still complain about the shit coffee, but buy it anyway.
 

And the lucky ones get to walk past the door of that fucking BEREAVEMENT SUITE on the way out, and keep on walking.

Love Fanny x

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Brian May’s Merkin

This has just happened. 

After only a few days on chemo, I’m taking control of the hair loss situation with a pre-emptive strike, and I’m jumping before I’ve been pushed. Now I’ve done it, I’m not sure which would have been worse – waking up among ever thicker clumps of curls on my pillow, day after day, or the resultant ‘do which has seen me go from Tim to Edwina Currie in half an hour flat. I’m not quite rocking the Matt Lucas just yet, but give it a week or so.

We’ve been here before, with my husband, and we could always tell when the hair loss was a few days away when the pubes started to appear around the loo seat with alarming regularity. They were always the first to go. My somewhat unruly Widows’ Bush still passes the tug test for now, so I reckon it’ll be a few more days before anything happens on my head. Not that I’ve really spent an awful lot of time tugging.

I honestly thought that losing my hair would be the easy part. The mastectomy had been the frightening bit, because – before it happened – I thought it meant losing everything that made me a woman. The hair wasn’t a problem. I was up for it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I was almost looking forward to choosing a cute little Audrey Hepburn pixie crop ahead of The Big Shave, and not having to dry the ridiculously thick, unruly mane I’ve learned to cope with over the years. After spending a large fraction of my waking life with my head upside down over a diffuser, a quick polish and go was beginning to sound appealing.

But that isn’t how it is. On a daily basis, since my op, I look in the mirror at the scar where my left breast used to be, and I feel OK. Early on, I realised that the boob had never, actually, made me who I am. And anyway, it’ll be back, nipple and all. In the meantime, I pop in a Knitted Knocker and off I go. I’m more bothered by the half a fucking stone that I’ve put on in the last few weeks. Seriously – losing the weight of my (admittedly fairly small) left boob seems to have made absolutely no difference at all, which is one of the greatest disappointments of my treatment so far, but that can be dealt with later.

Our boys have seen what’s left of me. I was determined, from the start of all this, to carry on as normal. We’ve always been an open family, and as they were growing up (OK, partly because my husband and I were far too tight to pay for interconnecting hotel rooms on holiday,) they’ve seen us in all naked shapes and sizes. They’ve seen us both at our chunkiest, at our fittest, and even felt the severe muscle wastage towards the end of my husband’s life, as we all smothered sun block onto ourselves in Lanzarote three weeks before he died. Fucking Lanzarote. It wasn’t just the sun we were blocking out. When we got home, they knew deep down, because they had seen it for themselves, that their Daddy had to die. I think we probably all did. They had to learn, at too young an age, that a fabulous body was nowhere near as important as a phenomenal mind, heart and soul, and their Daddy had those three things in abundance. To be fair, a great bod had never been quite his forte.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve made sure that the boys have seen my mastectomy scar as part of me. I feel fortunate that they’re still pre-pubescent, because I don’t suppose that their seeing me in various degrees of undress is something any of us would want in a few months’ time. At first, I suppose I eased them in gently, and it was just something they might have spotted if they were hanging around upstairs as I got dressed. No big deal. But yes – there were comments, as only 11 year old boys can provide. Now, they see it all the time, and nobody notices it any more, as I casually hop into the shower, or as I run down the landing half naked to bellow at them to get their fucking shoes on. I didn’t want one missing tit to be a big deal for them. I wanted them to see me, to know me, and to love me, just as I am now. I wanted them to realise that – heaven forbid – if one day they were to support their wife or girlfriend (or boyfriend – I’m very modern) through something similar, that loving their partner anyway, no matter how many missing body parts they had, would be the most natural thing on earth.

Still, when I returned from my oncology appointment the other week, and told the boys that yes, chemo would be of “indisputable benefit,” one vomited and went to bed for 24 hours. The other got into a fight with a friend. They were angry, worried, and upset – not about the pending sickness and tiredness, but about the fact that I was going to let the doctors do something to me which would make my hair fall out. I promised them that it would grow back, that I’d wear a hat in the meantime, and that they could even see the wig I’d chosen. They didn’t want to know, and I didn’t understand why the hair loss – of all things – bothered them so much, when the thought of it hadn’t been bothering me much at all. But, for the boys, cancer means chemo. Chemo means bald. Bald means dying.

Now, as the remains of Brian May’s merkin lie on the floor, and I look in the mirror, I can see it. I understand. I know what panics my children, and the fact is that no wig, no hat, and no prosthetic boob will hide it. Their mum has cancer. Their dad died, a few months ago, looking much like I will in the next few days. They’re not old enough, or strong enough, or confident enough, yet, to allow themselves to believe there will be a different outcome for me. They don’t care if I have a left breast or not, but until my hair grows back, they will know I have cancer. It’ll be written all over my face. They will remember, and that will hurt us all for far longer than it will take for my body to be slowly pieced back together.

Love Fanny x