In mid-life we become survivors by definition. In all likelihood we will have lived through tragedy and trauma. Grief, illness, relationship difficulties, money worries, unemployment, family ructions, bringing up children or coping with childlessness are integral to the landscape of being human and alive, burdens we have to bear essentially alone. I have survived the collateral damage of my parents’ divorce, the isolation of being bullied as a young child, the soul-searching of my twenties, the grief of losing friends young to drugs, working motherhood and caesarians. Even the first stage of labour with my first-born was achieved alone. When my waters broke we went straight to the hospital, where I was told I had hours and hours to go by a midwife and was put into a side room to sleep with two paracetamol for the pain. My husband was sent home. I got up regularly throughout the night to go to the lavatory and groan through contractions because I didn’t want to wake the pregnant woman in the bed beside mine. It was only when I walked into the ward the following morning, feeling the baby trying to be born between my legs, that they examined me and found that I was fully dilated. Labour on two paracetamol.
So I know that I am the one who has to throw every ounce of energy and intelligence that I have into burying the bitch of cancer, for she is the bitchiest of bitches, just like I discovered at primary school, creeping up stealthily in the playground of life as she sucks vampirically at my strength to feed her own inadequacies. The great wonder of mid-life is that I have exercised these muscles before. The experience of living through everything that has been before lays the foundations of resilience for what is to come: just as with every game of tennis, muscle memory builds. I know from everything that has gone before that I have the resources to stop myself from being yet another of cancer’s victims, I tell myself as I whack a metaphorical tennis ball at the bitch’s head and watch her face smash to smithereens, just as I should have done all those years ago with those presumptuous girls who dared to make me feel so small. And I know from everything that has gone before that between the great dark episodes there is always light, always an up after a down, love soothing loneliness and unhappiness, and that it is only by seizing those good moments when they happen that we can really flourish.
I know that I can fathom the same strength that allowed us to turn that last tennis game around, from losing to a decisive win. But I am going to have to dig deep, just as I did then, just as I did as a child, to come to terms with the poor prognosis and cope with the side effects of chemo. On some days my feet are so sore that I cannot walk, the tips of my fingers so tender that I cannot prise open the foil packets of painkillers and supplements, and even of the chemo itself. Sometime the nausea is so great that the smell of food makes me want to vomit. My dreams can be disturbing too, scary enough to keep me awake. But I will fight to beat this back, just as I have fought before. I will fight to live. And I will not be diddled out of that state pension, with the triple lock intact.
I will keep going, living as normal a life as possible so that others see me, not just my illness and my invalidity. Carrying on with the day- to- day, with the ordinary aspects of the life that I love so much, will be the ultimate triumph over cancer. You imagine before such a diagnosis that you would drop everything and do all those things that you have always dreamed of doing, ticking off the bucket list. But with a shortened life expectancy comes appreciation for the simplest things. Walking without fear. Running to catch a ball. There is so much to be grateful for – birdsong and the dawn chorus; the smell of a perfect rose; the rich blaze of fiery colour that comes with autumn in thin sunlight; the taste of lush strawberries and sweet mango; watching the sun set over the hills from the terrace of my brother’s house in Italy; the enchantment of good novels, Bach and Mozart, films by Almodóvar and BBC costume dramas. I am so very lucky, I keep telling myself, just to be alive. I have the best medical care. I have the support of so many kind people. I may have to fight this disease alone, but I am held high in the arms of love from family and friends. I cannot imagine how anyone gets through this without that, or the money to take a taxi instead of grappling with the crush of public transport and the risk of picking up an infection.
While I mourn my sudden loss of physicality, I know that I will probably never be able to play singles in the way I used to again, fearlessly and aggressively, but I can look back and be grateful that I have dedicated a good decade of my life to such exuberant, joyful play. I do, however, nurture a very small ambition: that one day I might be fit enough to put on my own trainers, by myself, sling my tennis racket over my shoulder, put a can of balls and a bottle of water into my bag and walk to the park with Christoph. We will warm up from the service line, hitting the ball gently to one another, chatting about nothing much at all, before moving back to the baseline to hit some proper shots. We will then play together, in the way we have always played, with our own set of rules – if I win a single game I have won the set because of his superior male strength. I will laugh and squeal with joy as we spar like courting lovers, and he will look back at me with that twinkle in his eyes, for he has always taken such pleasure from seeing my joy in this game.
We will manage that. And we will resume gentle mixed doubles with dear friends. Even if we have to play as if we are old. I used to play regularly with a friend at Regent’s Park and almost every week a group of four elderly men were there too. They hit the ball at each other with impeccable technique, never moving their feet as they punched the ball back and forth for the points alone. One of them even played in his normal shoes. Then they would break to sit down with a cup of tea and talk about their latest ailments before resuming play on whatever court was free. That is how I hope to be. We may need to dose up on painkillers and rub Voltarol into our aching muscles, and we may need the St John Ambulance on speed dial. But unless we move continually towards the light of what makes each day joyful, what on earth is the point, exactly, in being alive?
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes