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

Mission Accomplished.

Ten months later. Unencumbered by a full set of tits (and saving 50% on nipple-chafing plasters), today I ran a marathon, and raised almost £6000 in memory of my husband, who wasn’t so lucky.

Cancer doesn’t always mark the end of your life. In my case, it marked a new beginning. My new fella helped me to train, and my husband inspired me to keep going.

Thank you all so much for your support over the last few years. My husband will never be forgotten, and is always missed, but would never have run a marathon in a million years. Even so, this one’s for him. xxx

Marathon