Cliffs

I am standing on a cliff.

The sea unrolls before me, an empty beach, an empty sky, a full heart.

I stretch upwards and touch the sky and feel gravity’s invitation, a question I don’t wish to answer, easily rebuffed.

The water dances with the wind, time-honoured, time-ancient. There is warmth on my back and salt in my nostrils and as I make my way down the path the sand meets my toes like a kiss.

I wander down the beach, stopping to inspect seaweed and dead wood, or simply to gaze at the sea. I am totally alone, here, on this wild beach in Wales. No-one knows where I am right now; no-one needs me for anything.

I had been nervous of holiday-ing alone, already living alone as I do and, in the dazzled, frazzled days of my life, often feeling lonely. I had a sudden space of annual leave to take and no-one to take it with; on an impulse I booked to come and explore this part of Wales, to try surfing and be Brave and Explore. This week has turned into something I could not have predicted, a space so beautiful, so full of delight, new friends, good food, such joy. I am drunk on the space, on beauty. In all my life I have never felt so free. I tell myself to remember this feeling, to try and take it back to my ordinary life. To not let it go.

Now, five years later, I am standing, once again, on a cliff.

This cliff has carpet, not sand under my toes, and a view of my sofa, half-drunk cup of tea, living room. The phone lies quiet where I tossed it seconds before. I am totally alone.

My GP just called to say I have cancer.

I am standing on a cliff, only this time I am tumbling, this time gravity’s invitation to dance has been answered.

I am 39.

It is the day after the announcement of (the first) lockdown. Five minutes before, as a frontline healthcare worker, I was busy planning the upcoming months, talking to rota co-ordinators and HR about increasing my hours and changing my rota pattern. Five minutes before, I was day six of a seven day self-isolation from having spiked a mild temperature with cough; slightly bored and feeling like a fraud I have been anxiously following updates from my colleagues on the frontline. Has the wave hit yet? I ask, to be told no, no we are still waiting, wait until you see the layout of the department when you return, meanwhile people keep bringing us cake.

Five minutes before, I am preparing for what I will imagine will be a gruelling, scary, lonely, extraordinary few months dealing with coronavirus. I live alone and imagine I won’t see my loved ones for some time. I am glad not to put them at risk but a little sad, a little worried how I will cope without hugs and love and physical touch. I worry for my dating life, how that once again has to go on hold (will she ever meet the right guy? I imagine people asking). I worry for my writing and spoken word career, something that is just beginning to find its feet. I worry for my parents, both well but both over 70. I worry for my colleagues, my friends, a cold stone of a thought that we likely won’t all make it through settling deep into my core. And I feel privileged; privileged to work for the NHS, privileged to be in a position to help (and not have to worry about losing my job!) ready to face the wave, working with the best colleagues you could ask for, all of us standing together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the tsunami that’s about to hit.

The phone rings. It is 4pm, a Tuesday. My GP.

I’m sorry – I don’t have good news. We have the results from your lymph node biopsy and it shows malignant proliferation, most likely metastatic melanoma.

I know what this means. I spent years learning what these words mean. This means I have a form of cancer that has already spread to the lymph nodes in my groin and, although at this stage we can’t be certain, it appears to be a form of skin cancer called melanoma.

I know melanoma that has spread is not good news.

The words hang and for a moment I stutter. I sit down. I scrabble for something to write on, scribbling the words ‘malig prolif, ?melanoma’ knowing I won’t be able to remember what she says next. I stand up.

I repeat it to her. She repeats it to me.

Repeating it does not change it.

She will refer me to the oncology service. She is sorry. She will arrange an urgent scan to assess for further cancer spread. I mentally list all the places melanoma can spread to – lungs, brain, liver, gut. She offers to sign me off work, to which I blithely refuse. It seems crazy to me not to go back to work this week. After all, I’m still – for now – fine. I’m fine. I feel fine, apart from the mysterious – well, now not-so-mysterious – pain in my leg. I thank her. She thanks me. The call ends.

A month or two later – after, after the shock, after pain and surgery and drains and endless heavy discussions – I am watching TV and a new Macmillan ad comes on. It shows a normal person going about their daily life, walking along before an invisible force hits them and they stumble. Their face contorts with fear and shock. They throw their arms out, they start to fall…and a Macmillan nurse runs to catch them.

I swear loudly at the TV. Fuck off, I say, don’t be ridiculous. Don’t be so dramatic. I change the channel.

The truth is Macmillan got it right. That is exactly how it felt.

After the phone call ended so politely, I howled. I have never made that sound before. My body jittered. I paced. I swore. I cried.

I never returned to work.

I am standing on a cliff and I am falling.

Welcome, says Gravity, to the dance.

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