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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A Tale of Two Titties.

It’s been a while since I posted an update, and the truth is that I haven’t felt the need to. Literary Fanny has been having a rest while Actual Fanny has… well… been busy enjoying a wonderful new relationship. I’ve been feeling far more contented than I’ve felt for a long time, and – although my new chap is keen for me to keep writing, and hopes to feature more in future blogs – I felt it was wise to let our relationship develop privately for a little while. This is partly because he hasn’t been a twat (yet) so there’s not an awful lot to complain about at this point, and I’ve begun to realise that my urge to write seems to be fuelled, at least in part, by misery. I also think I needed a break from Facebook, which in recent years has – for me, anyway – become synonymous with grief and cancer. It’s been my outlet – and a bloody wonderful one, where friends and strangers have held me up in so many ways – but I wanted a bit of time to just be cancer-free, to find out who I am again, and to remember my husband in my own way, without the constant reminder that I’m a widow.

It’s strange, being in a relationship with someone other than my husband, but it also feels completely right, and in many ways, heaven sent. Although New Chap is a mutantly tall neuroscientist who runs ultra marathons for fun (so cannot in any way be compared to my husband in physical appearance, or matters of extra-curricular interest,) he is a keen inhabitant of Pedants’ Corner, where he snuggles up beside me to tell me tales of how he was once nearly electrocuted by Ronnie Corbett’s lawnmower, and that his ex-wife’s lesbian sister thinks I’m as hot as fuck (it must be the haircut.) All this is wonderfully reminiscent of the mind of the man that cancer snatched away, and I love it. Heaven sent? Yes, and I know exactly who sent him.

Neither of us ever expected to be where we are. Neither of us had planned for it. Of course I wish my husband hadn’t died. Of course he wishes his wife hadn’t left him. (OK, wives.) But we are where we are, and are enjoying finding our Plan B. Or, in his case, Plan C. In fact, our relationship is probably stronger for the fact that we’re both determined to learn from the past and embrace a different future. Things are looking brighter and better, and as we moved into a new year cancer-free and with renewed vigour, I was looking forward to making some changes to match the fact that 2018 was also going to be The Year of the Tit. I was optimistic, happy, and buoyant. (Unlike my left boob.)

I’ve had a couple of setbacks over the last few weeks, but with New Chap by my side, we tackled my return to the cancer hospital together. It was OK. It was so much easier to walk down those corridors holding hands with someone who actually cared whether or not I survived. We walked back through the door that my husband had been wheeled out of when he was brought home to die, and I was glad that my guy was there beside me. My husband would have been, too. Luckily, with a new cocktail of drugs, I’ll be OK again. I will survive. The final job (apart from growing out this abomination of a haircut) is to get my left breast reconstructed – something I was expecting to happen early this year – and apart from the next ten years of daily tablets, monthly injections, and the stupid twatting compression sleeve, I can well and truly leave cancer behind for good.

A couple of weeks ago, I went back to see my surgeon alone. I knew that I’d only be going there to book in for the reconstruction, and wouldn’t need any moral support. I was fine. In fact, I was more than fine. I was excited. New life, new boobs, new hope. I told the surgeon that I had a place on the London Marathon in April, so it didn’t need to be done urgently – in fact, if I could wait to have my reconstruction in early May, that would be bloody lovely, thanks.

But yet again, as with every time before in that stupid fucking side room, the stupid flowery frieze of wallpaper span around as my eyes exploded with tears because reconstructions don’t just happen like that, apparently. No. If I’d had a smaller cancer, they’d have reconstructed when they took it out. I knew that. But because I’d had a large tumour, invading my chest wall, skin and lymph nodes, a mastectomy was my only option. In fact, it wasn’t an option. I did what I was told. The cancer has gone, so that means my reconstructive surgery isn’t classed as cancer surgery. It’s plastic surgery. And because it’s not urgent, there’s a wait of eighteen months. Worse, I’ve developed mild lymphedema, so I can’t have the standard reconstruction that my local hospital offers because that involves fiddling about inside my armpits… so I need to be referred to a specialist centre, where the surgery is more complicated and the waiting lists are even longer. Most women have their surgeries cancelled three times or more before they even get to lie on the operating table, apparently. Fucking bastard twatting arsehole Tories.

This year, my plan had been to make some changes around the house, including redecorating the room where my husband died, and replacing the orthopaedic bed which we had to buy when he could no longer lie flat. I also wanted to change the car – which my husband got three years ago from Motability when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and which I bought from them for cost price after he died – because it’s just another reminder of the life of hell. The cancer hospital is still the top destination in the Sat Nav, for fuck’s sake. I want rid. I’d done the sums, and with a loan I could trade it in for something else. But instead of changing the house and car, I’m going to change my boobs. I need to move on, and quickly – so I booked in for a private appointment. I have no insurance, but I needed to know the cost of the surgery, and of course this couldn’t be done without a consultation. The surgeon who’d be working on me in a year or two can’t see me in the NHS clinic for six months, but for £150 she could see me on Thursday. And at THAT point she could give me a price. Funny, that. I decided to go for it. To own it. To take control of how, when, and where my tits go back on (and the sooner the better.)

The other day, while I was pushing my trolley around Sainsbury’s (buying ingredients for something for the slow cooker so I could go out and see the surgeon the following afternoon, but still find a way to feed the boys,) her secretary rang. She wasn’t sure what I’d booked in for, and wanted to check a few things before the consultation. Did I realise that the £150 fee was for cosmetic consultations? The fee for cancer patients is actually £250 (because we haven’t fucking well suffered enough) and the receptionist I’d originally spoken to obviously hadn’t understood what I needed. I wasn’t insured? Shame. To be fair, she did offer to ask if the surgeon would see me for £150 as a goodwill gesture. She promised to ring me back.

Ironically, I was standing beside a selection of melons when she delivered the news that the reconstructive surgery I need isn’t available privately, to anyone. I’d had my heart set on it. I didn’t care about the cost. I was ready to remortgage, or do whatever it took to move on. To move away from cancer, forever. I sobbed and sobbed, with old ladies walking past, squeezing the cantaloupes on display, and sympathetically clucking at the poor woman with the terrible haircut talking on her mobile phone in aisle 15 with tears streaming down her face. All the money in the world can’t buy the thing I most desperately want. I should be used to that by now.

I’ve cried all day. I can’t stop. It’s just too fucking much. There is one more option. A surgeon in London, who can see me for a consultation in March, but the operation would take place 200 miles from home, and I can probably manage to get there but it’ll be a logistical nightmare leaving the boys at home while I’m in hospital for a week. That’s it. Until then, I wait. And wait. And hope to move up the NHS waiting list as quickly as possible. I feel utterly deflated (just like my left boob.) And I feel angry. Angry that it took four months for them to diagnose my cancer in the first place. For all I know, if the sanctimonious little twat who told me there was no cancer on the first scan had actually seen something, they might have caught it in time to reconstruct immediately. I’m angry that they were so quick to whip away my breast with the promise it would only be gone for a year, when in fact the wait will be so much longer. Why don’t they put us all on the list the moment we have our tits removed? I don’t get it. But I also know that a) I’m better alive with one boob than lying in a coffin with a perfect and perky set of knockers (it would be difficult to close the lid, for a start,) and b) if you put me in an actual queue, with an actual person who needed emergency surgery, I’d obviously let them go first because reconstructing my tit could wait. I do get it. But my head being able to understand all this doesn’t stop my heart from breaking anyway.

In all of this, remarkably, New Chap seems to remain as keen on me as ever – uniboobity and all – as I am on him; but (although he’ll undoubtedly benefit from it,) this reconstruction is for nobody but me.

As for my husband… I’ll never forget him. Ever. He is on my mind all the time, and I’m sure he always will be. I still look at his beloved boys and wish they had their Daddy (and not just when I’m standing on the side of a freezing cold football pitch every bastard Saturday morning.) When I’m up and dressed and facing the world, though, I’m beginning to think more of the good times we had together than what was left of the man who died, and I smile with love and affection – all the while looking forward to a different future. Yet, every time I’m naked and I look in the mirror, I see that there’s something missing, and I’m reminded of just how much I’ve lost. I don’t just see the missing breast. I see a succession of bald heads, cannulas and sick bowls. I see the dying husband, and the children who’ve coped with so much. I can’t forget the past, but I don’t want to be a “cancer survivor” forever (they’re almost as irritating as vegans, and people who don’t own a television.) I want to move on. This is the right time to rebuild, using the strong foundations of the physical and emotional scars that cancer left behind. I guess just have to take my place in the queue, and wait, and remember to be grateful that I’m still here at all.

Love Fanny x

Image from Rethink Canada - http://rethinkcanada.com/blog/2015/11/melons-get-makeovers-for-breast-cancer-awareness/