The bad news
I think most of us experience a strange, surreal feeling when we hear terrible news. It’s like when people say ‘Where were you when President Kennedy got shot?’ Or ‘Where were you when you heard about 9/11?’ Everyone remembers because the hugeness of the event blazed a tear in their psyche. You stand numb, disbelieving, with the whole world that was in full working order just one minute before, destroyed.
I was at home; in the living room in my terraced house in Birmingham. A part of me seemed to be outside myself looking inwards; a second me was inside and screaming and the final piece of me was saying, ‘Well of course. Why wouldn’t this happen to you?’
I think all of us have got them: the watcher, the victim, the critic — and many more personalities besides. They shape our lives without our even noticing them, creating, destroying and fouling up. For most of my life I have been at war with myself through those characters. Even now, some of them only have an uneasy accord but they don’t attack the way they used to do.
Psychologists would point to Jungian archetypes, others to astrology, the Enneagram, Human Design or upbringing and environment. Some would even call them demons. I call them Sefirot from the Hebrew, meaning sphere or sapphire and each one of them represents an aspect of my own, particular psyche.
Life is circular. At least mine is. On good days it becomes a vortex where I climb higher with every turn. At this particular point in time it had become exactly the opposite kind of vortex; from happiness to disaster.
The caller on the telephone was my husband of just six months, Henry Barley. He had been for a routine six-month check-up at hospital four and a half years after having had a malignant mole removed from his scalp. Every time before he had been clear and this time neither of us had thought anything of it.
Now, out of the blue, he had been handed a death sentence. A routine X-ray revealed tumours filling his lungs and lodged in his lower organs as well.
The consultant said he would be lucky to live a year — and that only with savage chemotherapy.
Of course it’s not a new story; many people face similar horror. It’s not newsworthy like the deaths of soldiers at war or tragedies such as murder or an air crash. It’s just two people who are struggling with the basics; the very basics of life. The struggle for survival.
I had three hours to wait until Henry got home. His appointment had been in London where he had lived before our marriage. For most of that time, I walked round and round in the empty shell of what, hours earlier, had been a happy home. It went through my mind again and again: Every one of those tumours had formed in the six months since we got married. It must be my fault.
Eventually, I picked up the Bible that had been given to us as a wedding present. I opened it at random, hoping against hope for some hope. It was one of those ‘draw a card and see what it says’ moments. My finger fell on a verse from psalm 122. ‘I shall not die; instead I shall live to praise the Lord my God.’
I thought it meant that Henry would live. I thought it meant that he — a steadfast atheist — would become a believer in God because of the miracle of his miracle recovery. I thought that it was a sign.
It was, of course. But not the sign that I was looking for. And even as I felt a surge of hope, the critic denied it. What I was hoping for did not happen to women like me.
I wasn’t a ‘good’ woman. I was ‘nice’ but that’s different. I was a stealthy doormat with an impressive repertoire of hiding in cupboards and running away when threatened and seething with resentment underneath. I was also a bit of a trollop until I met Henry. Not a very successful trollop, to be honest; more of a would-be trollop really but there had been a fair amount of the floozy present. And now, after the feast, came the reckoning.