As her partner bears witness to all the ambiguity her illness entails, the author has learnt what it means to truly love. By Georgia Blain.
In sickness and in health
I was never the marrying type – and no, it’s not an old-fashioned euphemism. Stupidly, I once grilled a concerned mother who kept describing her daughter’s fiancé with this same phrase.
“If he’s getting married, then he’s the marrying type,” I said to her over and over again.
Eventually, my partner, Andrew, hissed in my ear: “She means he’s gay.”
I was brought up a daughter of a second-wave feminist. Whenever I imagined my future, it was to do with my occupation. An astronaut, a champion netballer, a scientist, a poet – I cast the net wide.
I didn’t imagine children of my own, or a husband, and I certainly never dreamt of a wedding. Perhaps just a rockstar lover, someone in the vein of David Bowie or Garth Porter from Sherbet, or even Robert Plant. Once again, I cast the net wide.
Soon after I left home, I moved in with my first boyfriend, and then the next, and now, finally, Andrew.
Despite my serial de facto status, I have remained resistant to marriage. My parents didn’t have a happy life together, and I didn’t see family or partnership as a place to be trusted. But more importantly, I didn’t believe in the foundations of marriage. I saw it as resting on institutionalised religion, and women as property.
I have always felt that if gay marriage were legalised, these foundations would be shattered, liberating all of us – but this is not a column about the need to legalise gay marriage. It is a column about love, and the words that have washed over me at the few weddings I have been to, but now have so much resonance: “in sickness and in health”.
It is more than 20 years since Andrew and I moved in together and, like so many couples, we have had wonderful times, mundane times and times when we came close to loathing each other. But through it all I have always had faith in him. In terms of the larger world view, we are looking through the same window.
Just before I had a seizure that signalled a brain tumour, I was staying with friends. We were talking about ageing, and which one of us would be better at caring for the other if illness struck.
I was sure I was going to get Alzheimer’s – I come from a long line of women who have been afflicted – and Andrew would live until his late 90s. He’d always had a constitution to envy.
Poor Andrew, I joked. But he’d be much more patient than I would be, I said, and much better at coping in the aftermath of my death.
When you have an illness such as mine, your whole family is affected, and if you’re lucky enough to have a partner, he or she bears much of the physical and emotional load.
After I came out of hospital and commenced radiation, I wrote in my diary:
I don’t know if I would have the strength that Andrew’s going to require. You see, I have no choice. I cannot escape. But he could bale. To stay here will be a Herculean act of courage and I have absolute faith in him to shepherd me through to the end. This is the core of loving, the life force; it is the most fundamental act. It has honour and commitment and truth and misery and joy.
On a practical level, I am no longer able to drive, and I have an unprecedented number of doctors’ appointments. Andrew takes me to them, often coming in with me to take notes and to remind me of the questions I want to ask.
He now does all the food shopping and, most of the time, the cooking, unless friends deliver meals to us. I’m often too tired by the end of the day.
He keeps people at bay when I’m not up for seeing them. My social energy is variable – from poor to very poor – and he fields the texts and emails.
He drives me to see my mother, who is in a nursing home.
He tries to stay on top of the illness itself, reading up on it, sheltering me from the information that can fell me.
He also cares for our daughter, who is doing the HSC. She is 17, and helps me, too, but this is the year in which we promised ourselves we would be there for her. When she hits us with a complicated essay question after 5pm, I have to bow out.
And then there are the times when I despair. I am toppled by the fear. There is something in my brain that is going to grow back and I am terrified. Not so much of dying, but of what will become of me before death and how I will summon the strength to say goodbye.
If I allow myself to go there, I become unhinged. There is no end to the pit. I am the only one who can bring myself out, but Andrew has to bear witness to my terror and it takes its toll.
And finally, he tries to inject joy into our lives.
When I first came out of hospital I just lay in the garden, in the shade of the jacaranda tree. There were only about three blossoms left, purple amid the beautiful new green feathery leaves. The sky above was tissue paper, Native American turquoise. Andrew often came out and lay on the grass next to me, and of course the dog stretched herself along the other side of him.
As I regained my strength, he would take me to the sea. I would put a sunhat on my bald head, sunglasses, a rashie, sunblock – precautions I’d never taken against skin cancer before. Why I’d decided to take them now, given my diagnosis of brain cancer, was something of a mystery to me, particularly since I was only going to be in the full glare of sunlight for 10 minutes at the most.
I would cautiously step into the rock pool, clutching the railings so I didn’t slide down the stairs that are always slick with moss. I took it one step at a time, testing the depth, feeling my way carefully before I followed with the other foot.
The water was always oily with sunscreen and I did the old lady breaststroke, head out, from one end of the pool to the other. I always forgot Andrew was not meant to let me swim in deep water without watching me, given the slight possibility that I might have another seizure. He also forgot, both of us becoming lost in the bliss of the day.
Later we would go to a cafe on the beachfront. I was always too tired to talk, and just watched all the rudely healthy people come and go. Long-limbed girls, men on their mobiles talking about the stress of their jobs, toddlers eating croissants with foamies on ropes scraping the pavement as they made their way home, and a 10-year-old who we once saw taking photos of the beach vista with her iced chocolate in the foreground.
Those were good mornings.
As are the mornings when we both walk the dog together, sometimes in silence, sometimes making plans for a weekend away, or even just talking about what we’ll have for dinner.
There are times when we slip into bickering again, in the way we used to when we thought we had all the time in the world. But we are much more adept at getting out of the mire, both wanting to forgive and move on as soon as possible.
I used to have a job filling in for a speechwriter, who often went on holidays in October. The politician I wrote speeches for usually spoke at National Carers Week, an event to acknowledge the contribution of Australia’s more than 2.8 million carers. It was one of the quick speeches – just a few minutes – and I’m sure that I never expressed what it means to care for someone.
But since then I have learnt.
Although you would never wish for the role to be foisted on you or on someone you know, this is what it means to love.
I am privileged to know this, and to have absolute faith that someone is there for me.
Georgia Blain is taking a break from her monthly column, The Unwelcome Guest, about her life with cancer.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "In sickness and in health".
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