Neither of us can remember when it started. February? March? Certainly before Easter. In the spring, it was ‘just’ a cough: ‘an expulsion of air from the lungs’ as the Oxford Dictionary defines it, a grate of sound that heralded each morning and night and was quickly forgotten about in between. There was no breathlessness, no pain, no reason for him to stop going to football matches or caring for our children. No reason to suspect that The Cough was about to change our lives.
Except The Cough wouldn’t go away. I told him to go to the doctors, little nibbles and nags as routine as his coughing that I threw over my shoulder as I ran to catch a train. But it was still ‘just’ a cough. We bought throat pastilles, changed the bedding, dusted the books.
Still he coughed.
I think I started to worry in May. I saw a poster that urged anyone with a cough that lasted more than three weeks to go to the doctors and through the twist of panic, I fixated on the words ‘and breathless’. My partner wasn’t breathless – I kept asking him – but I noticed he was doing less. The grass went uncut. He drove rather than walked to the shops and sometimes he’d fall asleep on the settee.
Eventually he went to the GP and we were both surprised when she diagnosed pneumonia and sent him for an urgent x-ray. My partner still seemed well – apart from The Cough. He took a course of antibiotics whilst we waited for the results of the x-ray and we carried on. The x-ray showed shadowing but this was typical of pneumonia, so when The Cough didn’t go away, he was given more antibiotics. Whilst we were on holiday, he took a dramatic turn for the worse. Suddenly he was unable to walk more than a few steps without collapsing into a coughing fit that literally took his breath away. He spent the holiday bed bound, the family trapped and terrified in a cottage far from home by The Cough.
The summer was lost in a series of appointments, scans and tests, waiting and coughing, coughing, coughing. After five courses of antibiotics, it clearly wasn’t pneumonia. But my partner had never smoked, so we thought it would turn out to be some rare, debilitating but ultimately curable autoimmune disease. So when the consultant sat opposite us and told us that the results of the biopsy confirmed it was lung cancer, we were shocked.
I think we all imagine these scenarios and wonder what we would say or do. I can confirm that it is exactly as the TV shows and books depict it: people and their voices seem very far away. Your face burns, blood rushes through your ears, stomachs plummet. You think/pray that you have misheard or are in a dream, as the life you thought you had fractures and falls away.
In that particular moment, my partner reminded me why I loved him. He gasped. Nodded. Then in his soft, kind voice, he apologised to the Consultant and the nurse for the fact that they had to give him such terrible news and hoped he hadn’t ruined their day.
I was less noble. ‘But we have young boys,’ I wept, as if that somehow entitled us to an exemption from disease and the heartache it will bring.
That was ten days ago. Ten days during which we have had to tell family, friends and our lovely, lovely boys. Ten days during which we have experienced a flood of kindness, sympathy and understanding that has been truly humbling. Everybody wants to help, but sadly there’s nothing that anyone else can do.
Bit by bit we are recalibrating our lives. I have given up my Big Important Job that turns out to be not important at all. I am learning the value of all the things that my partner used to do: getting the kids breakfasts and packed lunches together, making sure they take their PE kit when they leave and that I am here when they return. We have spent the week enjoying the gentle pleasures of cafes and pub lunches, holding hands and talking. Listening. All the things we were – shamefully – too busy to do before.
We lurch between hope and fear depending upon the latest article we have just read but neither of us can think about the diagnosis for more than ten minutes at a time. It is too overwhelming. I am throwing myself into domestic tasks: buying and cooking food as a barricade against the disease, obsessively searching the internet for new bathrooms and houses in an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Until today, I haven’t written. I wasn’t sure I could or should. This is a test run and I am not sure if I will share it. I usually quote Nora Ephron who said ‘Everything is copy’. Only sometimes, it isn’t. I could claim that I am writing it for others (please go to the doctors if you have a cough!) But in all honesty I am writing this for myself: trying to wrap a bandage of words around the wound of what has happened in the hope that reducing it to a paragraph or a page will make it less frightening and more bearable.
Cancer narratives tend to be written in the language of battles but the anger and sense of injustice that this implies simply doesn’t resonate with us. My partner has a very rare form of cancer that looks like an infection on an x-ray. It is nobody’s fault that he is so ill. It is just very, very sad.
In the coming weeks my partner will begin a course of chemotherapy and having lost my mother to cancer a few years ago, we have no illusions about what this will entail. But the past ten days have made us realise the importance of hope. And that what matters is love.