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Washed-out & Disconnected

by  Henbenpet

Posted: Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Word Count: 1899

Washed-out & Disconnected

Before I was diagnosed with it, cancer had always seemed very distant and unlikely to me. It was one of those things you heard about, like plane crashes and obesity, that you knew killed people, but never thought would affect you personally. Before I was diagnosed with it, I had only associated it with those adverts on TV, the ones with the slow piano music in the background, and the washed-out screen showing smiling people with tears in their eyes while someone talked over the top, telling you to give just two pounds a month to Cancer Research.
And then the doctor told me I had a tumour under my left kidney.
I remember that day, the way Dr. Nehru leaned forward in his chair, looked steadily into my eyes and told me the results of the test. I remember just staring back, not really comprehending at first what he had just told me. And I remember my mum grabbing my hand suddenly and making a little choking noise as she squeezed my fingers.
But I had been getting stomach cramps for months, and that’s all they were; just cramps. This is what I wordlessly told myself, even as the doctor looked at me and told me I was wrong. This is the vague belief I held that immunised me against the truth.
Dr. Nehru broke eye contact with me now, though I barely noticed, instead staring blankly past him, and looked at my mother, who was trying to keep herself from crying, still squeezing my fingers. I too looked at my mother when I realised I was still staring at the wall, and saw a couple of tears escape from her wet eyes and run over the lines on her face, down over her make-up and nearly to her jaw-line before she reached up with her free hand and brushed them away.

My girlfriend’s reaction was similar to my mother’s. I told her on the phone as soon as I knew she’d be home from school and for a few moments she was silent, then I heard her breathe in sharply and her voice become higher as she asked how I was feeling, what it meant, when I’d be better.
I imagined her as she stood there on the other end of the line, imagined her eyes shimmering with moisture, like my mother’s had, but more sparkly, and I imagined her teeth sinking slightly into her soft bottom lip, leaving little indentations as she absorbed the information.
When I thought of this, I felt bad for making her cry and asked if she wanted to come round. At that time the full implications of my condition had not hit me, and I felt the same as I had the day before, and the day before that. Well, I was the same really, why should a few words change that?

She knocked on my door an hour later. I opened it and there she stood, Sophie, in a green t-shirt and a grey-striped hoody, half-smiling, half-apprehensive.
She walked in, and hesitated before hugging me.
“It’s okay, I won’t break,” I said. She smiled and kissed me.

We had been together since the last August. For the past three of those seven months we’d been together we’d been having sex, and she had been my first time, and still remained the only one. We saw each other most days (we went to the same sixth-form) and I really loved her.

For a while that day she remained a little apprehensive, worrying about my condition, asking how I felt, when the treatment would start, whether I would still be at school, but when I had finished answering her questions, I put on a CD and we made out, and she was comfortable and easy with me, like we always were together, and everything was as always.

I decided I would continue going to school as normal as much as I could. After all, I didn’t want to get too far behind, or not see my friends or Sophie for days at a time, so I stuck to that, even after the chemotherapy began. And at first I got a lot of sympathy when I told people, but pretty soon, everything just went on as normal and I was treated no differently. And that was how I wanted it.
Although still whenever I would cough or anything Sophie would look round concernedly, and that attention I didn’t really mind, though I continually told her not to worry.

For the most part I didn’t worry too much either, and I generally tried to put the cancer as far away from my mind as possible. Naturally it crept in though, especially at night when I lay in bed, and when I looked in the mirror.
I remember one time looking in the mirror a couple of days after I was first diagnosed and looking intently at my stomach. Then I pulled up my t-shirt and studied closely the slight bumps and curves in the shape of belly, and the couple of moles on the right side, and the hairs few hairs that tapered out away from my belly button.
It all looked perfectly normal to me and I poked it a couple of times to make sure, but nothing felt different.
Another time I looked closely in the mirror was after my first lot of chemo, when I lost all my hair. I had pulled off the hat I had taken to wearing and just stared at myself in the mirror again, focusing on my head this time. I ran my hand over my now bald head, and felt the smooth skin, interrupted only by a few wispy hairs that clung doggedly to my scalp.
I looked into my eyes as well. Dark rings we’re beginning to form around them, making me look permanently tired, which was how I was beginning to feel. It was strange looking at that face in the mirror and knowing it was me. I thought I looked like a criminal.

After this self-study, I was afraid that Sophie wouldn’t be able to adjust to the change, wouldn’t think I was attractive any more. But she said she didn’t mind, and she pulled the hat off, despite me protesting, when we were making out, or even when we just sat watching TV. She said the hat made me look more like a criminal than the bald head.

For a while, everything did continue as normal: I went to school, only missing occasional days for hospital appointments, I went to Sophie’s house at least one time each week, and she came over to mine as well and we generally did all the stuff we usually did. But it began to get harder.
One time I remember I was watching a film with Sophie and I fell asleep halfway through it. I didn’t wake up until it was finished, and Sophie was still sat there next to me on the sofa, watching me. She had to go soon after I woke up, and I was disappointed.
Not long after that, after my third lot of chemo, I realised I couldn’t make it into school any more, and both Sophie and my mother told me I had to stay at home and concentrate on getting better. I had to agree to this, but I still told Sophie to come round and see me as often as she could, even if I couldn’t make it up to hers much, and so she did. And in this way she became my link to school, and for the most part, to the outside world.
In a way, she felt like my life-line, and I tried to save all my energy for seeing her, even if it was then put into just watching a film and the occasional kiss.

Sophie began to become more distant though. At first I thought I was just imagining it, most likely a result of not seeing her at school every day. But then I began to see it more and more. Like in the way when I tried to kiss her, she would pull away quickly and tell me that I needed to focus on getting better and that we couldn’t do anything like that while I was in the state I was in.
This remained her stance even when I assured her that I felt up to it, and that we could at least go upstairs and lie on my bed together. She also came to see me less, just once a week now, most weeks, giving excuses the rest of the time. She never used to do this, and for the first time, I really felt ill.
It was when her text messages became more distant that I really worried. We used to text each other every night, now it was every two nights, then maybe once or twice every three nights. Eventually I asked her if she still loved me, if she didn’t want to come see me any more, if it was because I was ill.
I felt like something inside me broke when the reply came back, when she told me that she’d felt for a while like she’d only been coming to see me because she felt like she had to. She didn’t say it exactly like that, but that was what she meant; that she came to see me because she would have felt guilty if she hadn’t, that it was too difficult to go out with someone so ill, even if they couldn’t infect you, even if they needed you. I felt betrayed, and would have felt angry too, if I hadn’t felt so dismayed.
It was May by then, and a warm night. I remember I had my window open and I remember just lying in bed, half-naked, half covered by the duvet, curled up and holding my phone in my hand. I remember wishing I could text Sophie, wishing that she would text back and tell me something to make me feel better, tell me that she loved me, that everything would be alright.
But I couldn’t, my phone was my last link to her, as she was my last link to normal life, but that link was broken. It felt like I was clutching in my hand a baked bean tin with some string attached, like those home-made telephones you see on kids’ make-it-yourself programmes, but the string between the tin I was holding and the tin Sophie was holding had snapped, and rather than pulling it taught, there was no resistance because it was attached to nothing when I pulled it. It felt as if my life-line had broken.
And I remember lying there, alone and disconnected and wondering how the people in a plane feel right before it crashes, how they feel faced with imminent instant death. I wondered too how fat people felt when they were told they were morbidly obese, if they thought to stop eating, or if they just carried on because it gave them comfort. I’d just stop if I could.
And finally, I remember wondering too if the people in those cancer research adverts were actors or real people, and if I would ever be in one, asking for just two pounds a month to help people just like me.