“How are you?”
The question came from a friend and for one breathless gulp I was tempted to let the mask slip. I thought about telling her how I really was, but I looked and saw that the “how are you?” didn’t require an honest answer. It was just polite chit chat, a way of brokering a conversation. She just wanted to hear that I was fine and to be able to go home and say to her husband “Oh, I bumped into Emma, she’s doing great”. What she didn’t want was me breaking down in the bread aisle sobbing over a hot cross bun. It hardly fits in with the brave cancer survivor narrative, does it?
Some Days WE Struggle
The truth is that I have days when I really struggle. No, the truth is that WE, and I mean me and Mr C, both have days where we really struggle. It’s now that we feel like we are battling. The unknown hangs heavy between us. It’s crawled into our bed and at night it squeezes between us, causing us to turn our back on each other. None of us wants to deal with the massive “What if?” that hangs heavy in the air, yet neither one of us is quite able to put it out of sight.
On the dark days I tell Mr C to divorce me. I get frustrated when he refuses, when he tells me that we are in this together, that he can’t ever imagine leaving my side. However, I feel guilty for bringing cancer into our marriage; for letting it destroy the rosy tint of innocence, for letting it smear us with fear and worry. I hate seeing Mr C struggle and sometimes I wonder if it’s kinder to insist on that divorce, to let him go. Don’t they say true love is selfless? Does that mean recognising that the one you love would have a better life without you? If I really loved him would I let him go? Some days these thoughts run constantly through my brain. They keep me awake at night or they shake me awake in the deepest darkest hours and I lay there, overthinking, as the rest of the house gently sleeps around me.
Our Life Is Different Now
Conversely, I can’t imagine my life without Mr C by my side. We are a great team; we work, even though on paper we probably shouldn’t. Yet, our marriage has shifted. I no longer feel that we are equal. Last year he became the carer and for a while we both really struggled with that. I resented needing him so much and he resented the fact he no longer recognised his wife. Even now I feel as if I’m still living like a shadow. I’m not quite back to being me (will I ever be me again?) and on the bad days that makes me question what my role is in our family. I don’t feel ready to return to my writing job – I’m still really forgetful, I forget words and I mix my words up. I forget where I have put things, appointments, and to take my medication. Forgetfulness and an inability to find the right words is hardly ideal when you work as a copywriter. I’ve been trying to write this post for the last three days. In my job I didn’t have the luxury of time with deadlines to meet. I also get easily distracted and then there is the tiredness. I’m hoping that it will improve once I finish the blood thinners because right now it feels like there is still a very long way to go.
“How are you?” is a phrase we rattle off so easily, but in essence it’s meaningless. We use it as punctuation, a way of opening an email, starting a letter, but do we really mean it? Do we ever listen to the true answer, the unsaid that lurks just under the rushed “I’m okay”. I know that I have been guilty of not really listening; of not really asking. If we are the one asking the question we really need to mean it. Also, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask someone how they are? We need to show that we care; we need to listen to the answer.
If we are the one being asked the question, we really need to respond truthfully. We shouldn’t feel the need to be polite, we should be honest. I’ve very recently started answering the question truthfully. I now explain that overall I am doing all right but I still have days when the fear is overwhelming and all consuming. How I have moments when I have questioned whether I need to go to the doctor and ask for help. How I feel cancer has tainted everything. Then the next day arrives and I feel a little better. Sharing it helps me, it feels less of a burden and the more I talk, the more I realise that how I am feeling is perfectly ordinary and “normal”.
A simple “How are you?” has the potential to change someone’s day. Those three words can make someone feel valid, reassured and listened to.
How are you?