Joan Collins inspired me to choose Fun & Laughter when Chemo took my hair

Sooner or later when someone mentions Chemotherapy one question always comes up… Will I lose my hair?

Me and my hair are a bit like the Barry Manilow jingle – I am stuck on Band Aid ‘cos Band Aid’s stuck on me. And I wasn’t just stuck on my hair – I was literally terrified to lose it. Since childhood, my hair was usually the only thing I had going for me – however fat and spotty I got; however scruffy and dirty I was – I was the kid to whom mud pies were irresistible. My grandmother told me at an impressionable age, “Wash your hands and face, brush your hair and you’ll be fine.” I trusted that my hair and elementary grooming would take me anywhere.

A little bit later, when I went through what my mother called ‘the plain stage’, (and, for me, that went on for a very l-o-n-g time) she assured that, whatever else I didn’t have going for me, I had great hair. With both my grandmother and my mother telling me my hair made me OK, come what may it is no wonder that my emotional investment in my hair was huge. My own private contribution was that I was a bit ashamed of what I had under it. It seemed to me that the the back to my head was very flat. At the age of ten I had refused have my hair in bunches because I thought that, with this very abbreviated head, people would know at a glance I was stupid. Undiagnosed dyslexia, epilepsy and its treatment has a lot to answer for!  So, facing chemo, my reaction was all about the hair.

The first lot of chemo began in March 1992 and hardly did anything to my hair. It hardly did anything to the cancer either. So my oncologist decided to do something called – in capital letters – CHOP! It seemed very violent and I was warned it would CHOP my hair too. It did. It was not a good time.
My hair started to come away in my hand. I’d run my hand through my hair and find I had a handful Every millimetre of my scalp had the headachy sensation that one gets when you change your parting. I was like a mangy dog – it fell out all over me and every time I woke up, even from a short nap, I had to hoover the pillow! I went to the hairdresser to get it cut short so its loss would be less obvious and less messy.

One day I thought, ‘To Hell with it! I’m going to be as bald as an egg. Let’s cut to the chase and just shave it off!’ So we used a beard trimmer and then shaved the stubble away with a razor. It might have been tragic but I love the energy of breaking taboos and, unexpectedly, it turned out to be funny and empowering.

Most people seem to try to replicate their own hair to look as normal as possible. Joan Collins was a neighbour of mine and, inspired by her and Dolly Parton, I chose instead to play it for laughs with as many different kinds of wigs as I could find. I shopped for wigs. I went to joke shops, party shops and wig shops and I also tried wig catalogues. In the end I had nine different wigs. One was long enough to sit on. I don’t know what happens when you grow your own long enough to sit on it but I can tell you that with a wig that long you find that it, if you sit on it, the wig begins to crawl off the back of your head. Six inches had to be trimmed off it to make it useable.

Soon after I got my first wig I went for a walk on a high hill in London. The wind was so strong I feared it would blow my wig clean off my head. I knew how silly people looked chasing after their hat and wished I had ribbons to tie under my chin because I was certain that an unfit bald lady awkwardly pursuing her wig would be just too hilarious.  There is certain adjustment period to full time wiggery. I did find them itchy. The Newel post in our hall frequently looked like Traitors’ Gate because upon returning home I would pull off my wig and dump it on the knob.

My son was six, rising seven, and I presumed he would try to conceal his mother’s baldness from his friends. But, when I grabbed a lie down during a playdate, he and his friend would often burst into my bedroom and I would be revealed lying there looking like Humpty Dumpty. The boys’ frequently looked quite shocked. The girls were easy to distract; there wasn’t one who declined an offer to have a go at playing with my wigs (I collected nine of them!). I wondered what was going on in my son’s head but thought better of asking.

My face must be very common because almost all my life I have been told that I resembled other people… The first time, I was a rotund adolescent when a bitchy classmate looked at me and said, “You look just like Hattie Jacques.” who was legendary and large. At other times I was told I was like Prunella Scales, Hayley Mills, Juliet Mills, Elizabeth Taylor(!), Kathleen Turner, Myrna Loy. It wasn’t hard to take. As I lost my hair the people I resembled changed.

Irving Lazar was a real Hollywood mover and shaker. After putting together three major deals for Humphrey Bogart in one day, Bogart him dubbed “Swifty”, a nickname he disliked but it stuck. Swifty Lazar also represented Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote, Cher, Joan Collins, Noël Coward, Ira Gershwin, Cary Grant, Moss Hart, Ernest Hemingway, Gene Kelly, Madonna, Walter Matthau, Larry McMurtry, Vladimir Nabokov, Clifford Odets, Cole Porter, William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, President Richard Nixon and Tennessee Williams. His power was such that he could negotiate a deal for someone who was not even his client and then collect a fee from that person’s agent.

One night I was sitting in bed with my huge square black-framed glasses on.The wardrobe door, which had a full-length mirror, was open and I caught sight of my reflection. Smooth pale head + big black-framed glasses who was that familiar face? Oh yes, Swifty Lazar, the legendary American talent agent and deal maker. Never thought I’d see him in my bedroom…! Help! That was me.

One night my husband and I were watching a boring movie in bed. I was musing over the way I could ring the changes with my various wiggy alter egos. “Is it exciting never knowing which woman you are going to be going out with?” I asked. His expression looked distinctly unexcited. The penny dropped.

“Oh.” I said into his silence, “ Yes. I suppose if you come home to go to bed with the same old bald one…”

We had a wonderful masseuse who would come to the house and give me a massage to iron out some of the kinks and tensions that knotted my body and I found her ministrations wonderfully therapeutic. An oiled bald head is a big plus for massage because, unimpeded by any considerations of hair pulling, hands slip easily over the scalp smoothing out tensions accurately and precisely.

Once, after the massage I put on a long, cowl-necked navy blue kaftan. She followed me down the stairs, “Kit,” she observed, “from this angle you look exactly like Uncle Fester.”  It was funny and I laughed. What had happened to Elizabeth Taylor and Kathleen Turner?

I bought a tinsel wig and kept it for Christmas.

This and Gretchen (below) came from a party shop and cost less than a cup of coffee.

Gretchen – The long blonde plaits looked great with jeans made me feel like yodelling.

It is a fact that those whose hair is admired are seldom happy with it themselves. The hair I aspired to was long and straight and platinum blond. Guess which wig was first on my list.

 

I called that wig ‘Helga’ and, since I still encounter friends (usually men) who enquire wistfully after ‘Helga’, I think it is safe to assume, I am not alone in admiring the long blonde look.

 

The wonderful thing about being bald is that you can have whatever hair you like. I still have Helga because I cannot bear to get rid of her. Now that my own hair has grown back however, it is impossible for me to tie my own hair back severely enough for it not to show. Helga is something I could only experience and enjoy BECAUSE I was bald.  The only way to discover these compensations and expand your horizon is to, as Charlie Chaplin suggested, ‘take your pain and play with it.’

 

 

This was the grown-up wig which I wore to be
inconspicuous.

 

 

I always wanted a ‘Pageboy’ cut and the auburn shade was fun.

 

 

The wig games that I played meant that I am able to look back on that period with some fond nostalgia – which is a very strange thing considering how ill I was and how often. By 1998 I had lost my hair five different times and grew comfortable and confident enough to go out everywhere completely bald.

Another compensation was that I found out that the back of my head wasn’t so terrible after all! The first time I lost my hair to chemo I was rarely seen without a wig – well I had nine to choose from! The second time – ditto. But by the time I lost it for the fifth time kindly comments in private with intimate friends about the beauty of my head shape helped
me to lose the neurosis. I was sceptical at first but, when I got brave enough to go bald in public, many people found my baldness ‘cool’ or beautiful.

In NY after dinner in 1998 I was sporting full maquillage, a very elegant black suit and a bald head. As about eight of us crossed Second Av at 58th St I was astonished when group of blokes in their 20’s in a car all leaned out of the windows waving ‘thumbs-up’ at me and one shouted, “You look really cool, lady”

I’ve never forgotten it. It was the very last thing you’d expect to happen to a rather sick middle-aged matron, with lines in her chest, who had nearly died from an infection a month
or so earlier and was still under sentence of death. It was a lovely compensation for what was going on in my life at that time – and it would never have happened to me if I hadn’t made peace with my bare head.

Growing back
Some people worry about their hair ever growing back and, even if it does, they wonder, will it be the same? I did myself at first but I can testify that each of the five times Chemo robbed me of my hair it never failed to grow back in the end. If you shave your head (or anywhere else for that matter!) without benefit of chemo the interrupted hair that grows back is bristly stubble. Post-chemo the texture and colour of the hair was always different to my natural accustomed hair. Initially, it comes back as soft, downy baby hair. I used to call it my Judi Dench hair and I rather liked it. But it didn’t stay like that. Before too long it became ‘poodle-like’ which is an expression of how damaged it has been. It lacked sheen, was harsh and curly. I would lie down for a rest and when I got up it had been flattened into a cartoony sort of ridge shape but, filling a basin with water and dunking my head, it was easy to run my fingers through it and push around until it looked more normal.

I learned a lot from losing my hair. Maybe the most important thing I learned is that you can have a lot of fun with anything – even when the prospect of it horrifies you.

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Looking For Love In Some Very Dodgy Places Part 2

There have been (and I dare say there still will be) periods when my life rockets out of control and improbable and dramatically disastrous things happen to me. I call it ‘Going Soap Opera’. The way I saw it is that there is a deceased Soap Opera writer (I call him Algernon) up there in heaven who ‘has something’ on God. He makes demands with menaces and for some reason God periodically placates him by giving him my life to play with and he comes up with some very creative but pointless dramatics. I like to cheat him by playing down the drama and becoming ultra practical. Eventually he gets bored and gets to play with some other poor sap’s life.

The days following the publication of my ‘ad’ turned out to be worse than my most pessimistic projections. I lasted without a fag for about 12 hours after The Easy Way to Stop Smoking and, on some days, my consumption was nearing 60 a day. This may seem excessive to you, indeed it did to me, but when life is spiralling out of your control and seeming to confirm that you are just as useless as everyone thought you were at school it is reassuring to keep doing something you that know you are really good at. Smoking was one of my few natural talents. I had all the toys; long cigarette holders, glamorous lighters that I could open and ignite in one seamless gesture and I had perfected all the moves based on every movie I had ever seen where smoking was a glamorous device. All that and a nicotine hit as well! How could I stop when every single night of my life my inspiration to keep going came directly out of Kipling’s poem, IF.

That last line (“And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son”) bothered me a bit, I mean you are going through all of that and your reward is to ‘become a man, my son.’ Do me favour! I had no ambitions to be a man. I wanted to be a terrific grown-up woman and I was miserably aware that I had lost all my sassiness and personality in the last few dreadful years of my marriage. Aware too that I might not have much time left to regain it, I was in a rush to find out who I really was.

Reading Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus had been a revelation to me. It had depicted a world where there could be meaningful communication and consideration between the sexes. I had tried to interest Robert in it but he was not big on books and had seldom been known to read a book without pictures written by someone other than Harold Robbins or Dick Francis so that was a non-starter. As soon as it was evident that our marriage was dead in the water I had started reading Mars and Venus Starting Over and Mars and Venus On A Date and learned a whole load of things I wished I’d known earlier. I think my ‘ad’ could be construed as a device for road-testing this new information.

There were over eighty men who, it appeared, were interested in meeting a quirky non-numerate couch potato with a penchant for Mae West one liners. I was amazed to discover what a universal currency ‘walks on beaches’ and ‘glasses of red wine in front of roaring log fires’ seemed to be. Mostly the respondents seemed to be sincere but, with Algernon playing Soap Opera Script with my life, I was in no shape to respond to anyone. It took all my strength to cope with the whirlwinds of heartbreak and stress that he cooked up on a daily basis. It got so bad that it seemed I was starring in six separate soap operas going out daily.

The letters and phone calls (this was the 1990’s!) enlivened my mornings, when the postman delivered envelopes in unfamiliar hands, and my nights when my son, who was devastated by the separation, was finally asleep I would have the furtive pleasure of listening to my voicemail messages at The Times. I donʼt believe I thanked them all for responding and giving me some distraction to get me through the endless days and nights of worry and pain. Some even provided amusement and a good story to lighten the otherwise depressing life landscape.

One caller intoned in a deep, rather actor-ish voice,
“Hello Kit. My name is Norman. I am in my late 50’s and I live on the coast of East Anglia. I really liked the sound of your voice and I found your advertisement intriguing. I enjoy walks on the beach followed by a blazing log fire with a glass or two of some good bordeaux and am looking for…”
A woman’s voice cut in, “Hello…?” she said and Norman’s voice (a couple of octaves up the range!) exclaimed with real horror, “Oh my God!” and he banged the receiver down. The woman’s voice said, “Hello? hello…?” and then the line went dead.

The ad first ran on July 4th but it was not until August that I responded to anyone.
His message stood out for me. There was a vigour to it. His voice was attractive and managed to sound both brisk and warm. There was humour and an upbeat cadence that I liked. I could hear the intake of breath as he paused for thought, which was effective and strangely intimate. After Justin departed to go on holiday with his father for three weeks, I finally got around to leaving a message on his voicemail. When he called me back we chatted for about ten minutes. We laughed in the same places. Let me repeat that, we laughed in the same places. Words truly cannot convey how that one detail stands out. I can still recall the feeling it gave me and that feeling is the sole reason that I surprised myself by agreeing to a meeting.

“So, shall we meet for lunch?” He was a successful business man and knew well how to move a conversation smoothly to the desired outcome.
“Yes, why not?” I said before I could stop myself.
“Where would you like to go?” I hadnʼt thought about that.
“Well,” I played for time, “where would be good for you?”
“I can come to wherever you choose. Where would you like to go?”

All of a sudden I thought of Mimmo dʼIsshia on Elizabeth St. It was local and I felt comfortable there. He said that was fine. “How will I recognise you?” I asked, thinking of green carnations and bowler hats.
“I will book a table and be there at 12.30. When you arrive at 12.35, you will say you are here to meet me and they will show you to my table.”
Wow! Was this man a bit smooth? Or what?
“It sounds like you’ve done this before,” I said and we laughed together.
“It’s just common sense,” he assured me.
We laughed in the same places and therefore I felt brave enough to agree to a meeting. A lot of very clever people have remarked on this through the ages…
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” said Plato. Viktor Borge observed that, “A laugh is the shortest distance between two people,” while Rabelais asserted that, “I’d rather write about laughing than crying. For laughter makes men human, and courageous” (of course when he said ʻmenʼ he meant women as well!)

We arranged to meet a few days later. As we rang off, I remembered an important thing I had omitted to tell him to aid with the recognition factor.
“Oh dear, I forgot to tell him I was bald.”

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LOOKING FOR LOVE IN SOME VERY DODGY PLACES Part 1

Several days after Robert moved out I awoke with the sun glowing through the pale apricot curtains. Being alone in the apartment didn’t bother me. With Justin in boarding school and Robert so often away in New York I was accustomed to having all the space to myself.

I wasn’t even really sad about the break up. It seemed somehow cleaner and more hygienic to have acknowledged and amputated the toxic, festering gangrenous stump that was all that remained of my once happy marriage to the man who had swept me off my feet in 1977 and adored me for the next 20 years. Those years had given me an enviable lifestyle and inflated my sense of self worth. But there had been a steep price to pay. Facilitating the lifestyle denied me many of the things I had taken for granted all my life and somehow we had degenerated into a morass of mutual misery.

But I was not going to look backwards. Tomorrow was here and tomorrow was another day. It was essential not to wallow; to keep moving forward into my future with all flags flying. So I got up and ‘jumped into the shower’ as the phrase goes. Of course I did no such thing. I turned on the tap and let the water run until the hot came through. Then I ascended the three wide, carpeted steps up to the top of the enormous bathtub and climbed carefully down into it. The tub was slippery but I steadied myself on one of the tiled columns that lent the bathroom the air of a Greek temple.

As the hot water ran over my bald head and body, newly streamline by stress and ill health, I forced my thoughts towards the future. “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I asked myself. There was nobody around to overhear so I spoke to myself loudly above the whoosh of water in order to, literally, hear myself think.

“What’s happening today? Well it’s nothing to write home about. Today is the day Jenna is arriving to live with Robert.

“It’s been very civilised up till now but I have a nasty feeling that that is going to change things. It’s not” I added humorously, “so much a foreboding – more a five or sixboding.”
I didn’t even chuckle at my little wordplay. It was a Robert joke originally, well worn over the years. Yet another sad thing to chuck on the pile of things superfluous to this strange new life.

“and – oh joy! – this afternoon I get to go to a fun little party near Wimbledon.”

The Easy Way To Stop Smoking session I had booked three weeks ago when everything seemed reasonably stable. I was probably smoking thirty a day now, which was a lot better than it had been. At each lurch into crisis it had risen to about 60 a day. Stopping was clearly a good idea if I planned to make old bones. Still the timing was looking a bit bleak. I had to admit I’d like to be planning something Fun if only to affirm to myself and the Universe that I was going to live and be well. That there would be a future despite what Robert and the oncologists believed. I was going to pull off a miracle if it killed me! But I couldn’t pretend that The Easy Way to Stop Smoking sounded like my idea of Fun.

“What can I do for Fun today?” I wondered aloud. And suddenly out of the blue, the answer came to me.

“I know! I’ll put an ad in the Lonely Hearts column of The Times. There is an enjoyable almost bodily throb that happens to me when I recognise an idea of genius and it happened then as the water poured over me.

Before I climbed out of the shower I’d composed my ‘ad’. I wrote it down before I flushed the lines in my chest because it seemed perfect to me and Chemo Brain wasn’t going to rob me of this ideal inspiration.

“Why not come up and see me sometime…I drawled as I wrote. (My Mae West voice expresses a certain side of myself and had become second nature to me) “when I have nothing on but Radio 4?” I chuckled again as I wrote that. It seemed to convey a sensual sense of Fun as well as the idea that I was a thinking person, a Radio 4 listener. I thought there was a good chance that a man who found that sentence provocative might be a man who I could have some fun with.

“Modesty and space forbid a catalogue of my virtues but be warned, if you are looking for a numerate, athletic partner you WILL be disappointed. If not why not reply? It could be fun.”

I phoned it in to The Times before I even went down for breakfast. The first ad would run on July 4th, Independence Day in America. That seemed apt as well but before I got my first response all the seemingly settled points of my life would have been flung up into the air again as part of the seismic shifts that were happening to me…

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I was nervous (but not incontinent!) when Simon and I drove to London for the day to get the results of the MRI…

Woo Hoo!  My MRI results were another ‘All clear”!!!    

The relief was amazing because, as you may have read, I was in full grip of the Dreads of Check Up Syndrome.  I could think of every reason in the world that it would have come back and very few that supported the positive hypothesis.  I refuse to meet trouble halfway so I had resolutely refused to entertain those thoughts and had occupied my days with happy and satisfying busy-ness so that every moment was a memory to be cherished and not reviled.  But the facts remained.  I had taken myself of the anti-oestrogen medication, Letrozol, in May because the side effects were ruining my quality of life.  My hard-won experience has taught me to focus on Life and Health and that is what I do, to the best of my ability. 

This time the release of the inevitable tension took the form of endless yawning and as Simon drove us home I succumbed to irresistible sleep.  Once home I had a cup of tea, left Simon to forage some supper for himself and went to bed.  I was asleep in less than 20 minutes.

In the morning I felt miles better but began to build a head of steam in resentment at the memory of a little exchange with Mr Gui who was concerned at my abdication of Letrozole which he weirdly claimed had been responsible for getting rid of the tumours.

“I distinctly remember you saying that it could not have done the trick.” I protested.

“What else could it have been?” he asked in his reasonable way.

“All the things I was doing to regain my good health.”

“That might have played a part.” he conceded.

I said nothing but after my long sleep that was playing on my mind.  So here is the question I have come up with, 

Why do Medics insist on claiming that it MUST be their treatment that does the trick?  This is not my first experience of it and I absolutely KNOW in my case that the work I do to focus on Health and Life is effective – and more effective than anything the Medics have done for me.

It reminds me of what my sister, the nurse, said to me when I was first diagnosed, “Darling, you have to remember that there’s only one difference between doctors and God and that is that God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.

This is why I have taken a while to update my Blog.  And why the book I have spent eighteen months writing has begun to change into a whole other approach…

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Check Up Syndrome

UnwellIt’s 2.42 a.m. I semi-rouse myself to go to the loo and when I return to bed I lie on the right hand side and there it is! The pain in my left breast stronger and deeper than ever!

It has been getting stronger for a while. I put my hand on the breast and breathe trying to soothe the pain and the panic. “Calm. Love. Heal” I repeat like a mantra as the stabbing sensations continue at an alarmingly uncomfortable level. I breathe and soothe for perhaps five minutes until gradually the spasms slow in frequency and the sharpness blunts. It goes but all hope of going back to sleep has flown as I face the spine-chilling possibility that the cancer is back. 

My acquaintance with cancer began in February 1992 when I was diagnosed with ‘incurable but treatable Follicular Lymphoma’.  Thus began a torrid time of gladiatorial chemotherapy, violent reactions, dramatic interventions and, on one occasion, an extraordinary return from a near death experience.  In 1997 it had become aggressive and I underwent a Stem Cell Transplant, relapsing less than a year later.  I was told that I’d had the limit of every chemo drug available except two.  I would be given the balance of those in an effort to extend my life but after that there was nothing left he could do except to promise me that he wouldn’t let me suffer. 

I decided I wasn’t ready to go and I wanted a miracle.

Cutting a long story short, my life has been blessed by an extraordinary series of unbelievable miracles and although I am still here both my oncologists and my ex-husband, who were all predicting my death, are gone.  

When you sign up for miracles you never read the small print.  The small print specifies that you also get a series of overwhelming challenges to test your commitment and facilitate your growth.   In my case these challenges included two further cancer diagnoses.  Both breast.  One Right (2014)  One Left (2017)  More miracles.

My MRI Is due. Is this just Check Up Syndrome? I identified it about eight years ago when that Lymphoma-Clinic-at-the-Marsden time of year came around. 

I hadn’t realised until I’d got the results that the tension had been ratcheting up tighter and tighter until I was strung up like a drum. So anxious I’d been, that I’d called to make my appointment before Christmas instead of in the New Year. It was all clear.  We went out for a coffee afterwards and for twenty minutes I sat and sighed compulsively. It was only then I realised that I had literally been holding my breath for weeks and, in my relief, it had just come rolling out in a series of huge sighs.

As a Health Creation Mentor with a clientele of mainly cancer patients I began to research others’ experiences and discovered that I was not alone. Many people identified strongly with Check-up Syndrome and other symptoms emerged causing many Ah-ha recognition moments, “Oh!  That’s part of it too…? Wow.”

Do you recognise Check-up Syndrome? 

Please comment on Facebook and Twitter

How does it affect you?

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Amanda & Nighties

AmandaMy darling friend, Amanda, was bright, beautiful and quirky and whatever was going on in our lives our conversations always bubbled with laughter. Once, after I had been on the phone with her downstairs, I walked upstairs to where my husband was. “Were you talking to Amanda?” he asked. “Yes. How did you know?” “Oh, you always laugh a lot when you talk to her.”

One thing we agreed on was exercise-for-the-sake-of-exercise; we hated it. So we started a group based on the idea of making exercise fun. We would take an iconic dance, say the ‘You’re the One that I Want’ routine from Grease and, with a couple of key costume or prop items, get our dance instructor to teach our group the routine. So while we worked at perfecting the steps with plenty of attitude and improvisation we would all have an aerobic work-out and lots of laughter.

Soon after we started it, Amanda got pregnant with her fourth child and it came to a natural end when complications forced her to sit on the sidelines. The goal of trying to turn it into a business partnership was clearly going to have to take a backseat for a while so our laughter returned to our more natural sedentary state and she and her husband honoured me by asking me to be the baby’s Godmother.

Three months after she gave birth, Amanda had a catastrophic stroke. She was only 33 and, initially she was unable to walk or talk or do anything for herself. She was confined to hospital for months while friends and family rallied round to help her husband to cope with carrying on with the demands of working and looking after their house and four children under seven.

Each time I went to visit her in hospital it seemed I had to find her in a different place. It was a big, multi-roomed public ward and her place in it was constantly changing. She still looked the same in repose, she was still beautiful but it was hard to know how to communicate for the laughter had stopped along with the easy verbal communication we had always enjoyed. My heart broke for her; she had always been so full of life and lark-y laughter. There was never a dull moment with Amanda and her brood and I longed to be able to do something meaningful to help the arid landscape of her hospital existence.

One day I thought I would take her a nightie to wear as a day dress. I had recently bought a cheerful plaid flannel nightie for myself and I thought it might brighten up her days to wear something more vibrant than the normal hospital wear so I bought one for her too. The day I took it to her, on an impulse I took mine along too. Because her speech was so impaired it was tough to know if her understanding was too and I wanted to explain that I had one just the same. Perhaps I was conscious that I was missing my friend and the easy camaraderie we had always enjoyed so this was an opportunity to share something – even if it was only matching nighties.

When I arrived I gave her the nightie. She gave me her lop-sided smile she nodded her thanks and then indicated that she wanted to put it on. I helped her clamber into it and told her she looked beautiful in it. She nodded and tried to speak and I tried to decipher what it was she was trying to say but our communication was laboured – almost embarrassing. So I got out my own nightie and showed it to her with the kind of pantomiming one does to someone who doesn’t understand your language. This is the same as yours. This is mine. Do you understand?

She laughed. That was a sound I hadn’t heard in a long while and it seemed to refresh the stale hospital atmosphere like the chuckle of a mountain stream. The same laugh. My same friend.

“Put it on.” she mumbled.

“Put it on?” I queried in pantomime.

“Yes!” she nodded back vehemently.

All I wanted was to hear that laugh again so I did. There we were together dressed identically. She on her bed and me on the visitors’ chair beside the bed. She looked at me and I looked at her and we laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed together. All the sadness and frustration and loneliness and lack of communication that we both felt in our different ways was laughed out in an ascending series of stepped hilarity. When the laughter slowed down, all we had to do was to look at each other and off we’d go off into peals of shared laughter again.

Into the midst of this walked her ex-husband. She was not delighted to see him. In the past he had treated her badly and they were not on good terms. But it was not just that… he was inhibiting our laughter. This laughter with which she was expressing all the stress of the past weeks and, because we were equals in perfect communication and matching nighties, it may have been the first time for weeks that she had not felt isolated and handicapped. That didn’t mean we stopped laughing because we didn’t. We kept looking at each other and dissolving into giggles.

He was uncomfortable, excluded by our laughter but also our rising tide of giggles defused the cloyingly patronising triumph of his pity for her. It was obvious that there was no way in the world she was going to be grateful for his magnanimity in coming to tell her how sorry he was for her. Finally, “Fuck off Perry.”

She said it clearly and emphatically with all the sounds and stresses in the perfect places. She made it crystal clear that no-one was going to pity her – and certainly not him! We were both surprised at the success of this unorthodox sentence and we looked at each other and laughed in a perfect accord of thrilled incredulous surprise. I don’t remember Perry leaving. One minute he was there and we were melting back into the irresistible communion of laughter and the next time I looked around, he was gone.

Later I felt sorry for him. Nothing could have prepared him for the reception he got and from his point of view I know he believed that it was big of him to visit, but Amanda was my only concern and the fact that she had not had to submit to being grateful to this man, when she was so ill and vulnerable was extraordinary. We never again achieved that same ecstasy of uncontrollable laughter but I like to believe it was a factor in her amazingly complete recovery.

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