Friday, 25 October 2013

When Harry Met Sally...

The other day I bumped into someone who I hadn't seen for roughly two decades. He had been a student of film when I was studying English and we'd had mutual friends at a time in my life when partying and socialising seemed to be never-ending priority pursuits. I was coming out of the building where I work when he happened to be passing at the same time,

'Hello, remember me ?'

'Hi, yes of course I do ! How are you ?'

'I'm fine. And you ? You look really great ! I love your look !

Now to any other woman at any other time in her life this would be noted down as a great, no strike that, fabulous moment. An attractive man who you haven't seen for all of 20 years bumps into you and utters (before the usual 'so, what are you doing now ?') how good you look has to be the stuff of a Hollywood rom-com. At this point I feel obliged to state that although I'm already spoken for, at times it still feels great to get a compliment from a member of the opposite sex. Of course, there's always the possibility that it could have a double-edged meaning. Perhaps in my awkward 20-something days when I was so caught up in pursuing a career there's the chance that I may well have let my appearance slide at times. It was certainly a long time ago, but I don't remember ever caring too much about what the current weave trend was or whether I looked like the girl from the latest music video. I'm certainly not saying that I do now, but it's amazing what an unintentional hairstyle can do.

I thanked him, smiled sweetly and we carried on catching up. The rest of the conversation isn't that interesting to recall here but what struck me as important from this encounter was the fact that in no way did I give him the slightest impression that I had spent the last two years of my life dealing the one of the most devastating diseases known to man. If I had walked out of the door limping, I would have elicited more sympathy. Should I have honestly told him how rough the last couple of years had been ? Wouldn't it have been more honest of me to tell him about the experience of chemo, radiotherapy and surgery while looking after a child who was barely a year old ? Should I have done by bit for the cause by explaining exactly what metastatic breast cancer is and why I'm still able to function despite the loaded sound of the illness ?

I guess I'm either a pollyanna type or a coward or maybe I just didn't want to scare him away but I firmly said nowt. Not one sniff of the C-word. It just didn't seem appropriate and I guess I was reluctant to burst the bubble of joy and surprise that comes with re-aquainting yourself with someone that you haven't seen for a while. I found it much more pleasurable to talk about the experience of having a child for the first time, or speculating what other long-lost friends might be up to or sharing gossip and titbits about other mutual friends who I sadly don't connect with any longer. Stepping out of my persona of the successful, career-minded 40-something working mother and into the role of chronic cancer patient just didn't seem that appealing and for once in a long time, since I didn't happen to be experiencing any tell-tale side-effects from the treatment on that particular day, I had the luxury of being able to choose which person I wanted to be.

As we parted after a big hug and promise that we'll search for each other on Facebook (where else ? gone are the days when folk would exchange telephone numbers but then never get round to ringing...) I walked away with the thought that my life is well and truly surreal at times. Why is it more acceptable to talk endlessly about having a stinking cold or the fact that I almost broke a bone in my foot while on holiday, yet speaking at length about an illness that affects one in three us in our lifetime still has the power to halt a conversation in its tracks ? Believe me, I have tried it in the past, thinking that it was far better to be brave about my 'coming out about the Big C' then hide it under a bushell. But the response has always the same - a sharp intake of breath, followed by something, anything that might fill the uncomfortable gap in conversation, usually followed by a hasty retreat. Just before I continue, I have to admit that I'm probably no better. Seeing a colleague recently wander over to my desk to say hello after having spent months off sick from having a stroke, found me in a similar position of not knowing quite what to say. I felt ashamed of myself as I fished for words that might trigger a joke and finally realised what it is that makes others so tongue-tied. Human beings aren't necessarily programmed to cope with new or difficult experiences if they've had no prior warning of them. Sometimes flight seems to like an easier option when faced with the question of your or someone else's mortality.

In a way I guess that I'm lucky that my close crop gets such a seal of approval and it was great to talk about my life without for once having to factor in the cancer bits. But I wonder how the conversation might have gone if I was having one of my bad days ?

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