When I walk into the brightly lit bathroom to check my appearance, I’m shocked to discover that I’m bald. “Where the hell did all my hair go?” I ask my reflection. There is no reply, that would be daft. “Damn it!” I shout out, then I run my hands over my smooth head, watching the brown skin wrinkle as my hands rub harder and harder. I feel surprisingly calm considering all my lovely black hair is no more. It doesn’t stop the confusion, though, as I continue to stare at myself. I turn my head to the left and then the right, checking out the shape of my head. I laugh as I realise it looks like an egg, an easter egg. I never knew that my head looked this way without hair. The sight before me is enough to elicit a deep bout of cackling laughter. It takes an age for me to stop laughing.
Some women suit a bald head, I think of Demi Moore in ‘G.I. Jane’, now she looked sexy as hell when her head was shaved. Britney Spears didn’t look bad either, I laugh again.
The laughter stops as I watch my reflection start to disappear, what the hell is happening?
I start to scream, frightened.
“Brenda?” I feel a gentle shake to arm. “Brenda?” There it is again.
When I open my eyes, I’m relieved to see that I’ve been dreaming. I see Simon standing beside me, he’s smiling, but I can see the underlying worry on his face. I’m in hospital. How did I get here? I immediately reach up and I’m so happy to feel my hair is still there. I sigh with relief. “Hi Chunky,” he smiles again, but it doesn’t light up his face like it normally does. He’s worried about me, I can see that and he’s probably aching inside. I know, because if it was me, I’d be feeling the same.
“Kids?” I manage to croak out, because my throat feels like sandpaper.
“They’re fine,” he says, looking down. “Dad has them, he’s taking them to school today, then picking them up this afternoon. So, that means I’m not going anywhere,” his smile is brighter this time. “You’re stuck with me.” The affirmation within his tone suggests I shouldn’t argue with him, but I can’t help myself. The needs of my children mean more to me than anything else.
“I’d rather you were with our children, baby, they need their father. I’m in good hands here,” I say. It’s not fair that our babies should suffer not having either parent around. I love Gerry and he’s great with them, but he’s getting on a bit and I would just feel more comfortable if Simon was with them.
“I can look after them,” I hear a voice. I didn’t realise someone else was in the room. When I look to my right, Clarissa is sitting in a chair looking frazzled. She looks like hell. It’s then that I remember the last time we were together. She left me, she walked out on me and I was left feeling like shit.
My heart feels like lead. Just seeing my best friend sat there looking rough and clearly upset feels like something heavy weighing me down. “What are you doing here?” I ask, knowing that it’s a ridiculous question. Of course she’d be here, she loves me. I’d be in her shoes if the tables were turned. She gives me a look that tells me she knows its daft question, and that I’m being a dumbass. “Sorry.” I start twiddling with the pure white cotton sheet covering me up to my thighs.
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” she stands up, then pulls her chair, dragging the heavy wood across the floor so that she can be nearer to me. “I behaved childishly, I’m really sorry,” she says, sitting down and making herself comfortable. She reaches over and grasps my right hand in both of hers. I feel her soft, warm skin against mine, it feels heart-warming and consoling. The pain in her eyes is clear as day, it’s clearer as a tear escapes.
“Don’t cry,” I softly whisper. “I don’t want you upset, any of you,” I say looking at Simon then back at Clarissa, but meaning all of my friends and family. “When I’m gone, I want you to remember the happy times. Smile when you think of me; don’t spend the hours, weeks or months crying over something that cannot be controlled.” I feel my voice crack after the last couple of words. I see Clarissa wants to argue with me again, but she’s respecting my wishes by keeping quiet.
“Well, I think it’s time for a drink. Would you like some coffee baby?” Simon asks as he stands up, slapping his palms on his thighs.
“Just some water please,” I reply. My throat still feels sore; I need something cool to soothe it.
“You got it Chunky,” he leans in to kiss my cheek. “Back in a flash.” I watch as he leaves the room, leaving me alone with Clarissa. I’m worried about what she will say now that there is no one else around. If she wants to have another go at me, I will stop her, I don’t want to hear it.
The silence is causing a thick layer of tension to surround us. I can sense it, it’s a horrible feeling when I know my best friend wants to try and change my mind again. I don’t want there to be any friction between us, all I want is for everyone around me to respect my wishes. There is nothing that can change my mind, it’s made up.
“Say something, please,” I whisper. I know she can hear me, she’s sitting right beside me. Still, as cool as a cucumber, she just sits and stares at me. “Clarissa?” I give her nudge, willing her to verbalise her feelings.
“I have a few things to say,” her eyes have left mine and she begins to look around the room, focussing on anything but me. “Okay, what I said the other day…” I cut her off.
“The other day, what are you talking about?”
“You passed out on Monday, today is Wednesday,” she says looking sheepish.
“You fucking what!” I shout out. “How come he didn’t tell me?” I ask, pointing to the door and referring to my husband who is not in the room so I can shout at him.
“Calm down,” Clarissa says firmly.
“I won’t calm down; I should be at home with my children.” I feel the tears welling in my eyes, and the sound of my voice cracking at the mention of my kids.
“Trust me Brenda, the kids are fine. I promise you,” she reaches out to hold my hand once again; her thumb rubbing across the back of my hand is soothing.
I manage to take a few deep breaths and my raging pulse has calmed down, “okay, what were you going to say?” I’m not sure I want to hear this.
She licks her lips and swallows, a sure sign that she’s nervous, but she begins to speak, “please don’t be mad, I know you’ve not noticed yet. But…” she swallows again, then brushes her hair out of her eyes with her hand. “We’re in a private hospital…”
“What?!” I shout out, cutting her off. I take a look around my room, taking the time for my surroundings to sink in. It just looks like any other hospital room. Nothing special about it, except there is a massive flat screen TV attached to the wall. I’ve not seen any doctors or nurses yet. The walls are painted in a pale terracotta colour, not the usual clinical mint green or baby blue that you find as standard in most hospitals. The blinds at the windows are a soft cream and there is a vase containing artificial flowers sat on the window sill. But still, to say this is a private hospital, I wouldn’t shout it from the rooftops. There is nothing spectacular about it, considering someone is paying for this and not on the NHS.
“Simon and I agreed about this,” she says, looking sly. I know what they’re both up to.
“Do you really think I’m stupid? I know what you’ve done.” My suspicions are confirmed when she looks down at her hands.
“We just want you to have the best care,” her voice is really quiet.
“I don’t want this. I’ve already told you, and he,” I say, pointing at the door again, “he’s a bloody coward for not sticking around, knowing that I’d kick off.” The tears unleash and start to fall.
“One of the perks to Simon’s new job is private health care; it includes all of his immediate family. Not only is Simon covered, but so are you and your children. It just makes sense to use it,” she says, trying to reason with me. I see her logic, but I’m pissed off that she’s gone behind my back. I would be perfectly fine in an NHS hospital, treated and as soon as I’m fit and able, I can go back to my own home.
“You’re not listening to me!” I wipe the tears away. Clarissa hands me a tissue from the box that’s sitting on top of the small cupboard next to my bed. “I’ve told you and Simon, this is not what I want. I’ve had time to think about all of this and finally to accept what will happen to me. You should too.”
“I will never accept that my best friend is going to die, way before her time. I refuse to believe that you’re not fighting.” She’s not shouting, but her firm tone tells me she’s just as stubborn as me.
“Where the hell has he got to with my bloody water?” Simon has been gone ages, “how long does it take to fetch a glass of water for Christ’s sake?” The frustration I feel is all because of my meddling and interring friends and husband. I know they’re just trying to do what they think is right, but I’ve explained, over and over again, that I don’t want any of this.
“I’m here Chunky,” Simon says, walking through the door.
“Were you listening to us out there?” I point to the door for the third time.
“Yes,” he says honestly. He places the glass down on the table in front of me. I take a mouthful and swallow down the ice cold liquid, it’s just what I need. “I was just giving you girls some time to chat,” he speaks in a lucid style. My husband is always so eloquent. He leans over and kisses me, I ignore the fact that I haven’t brushed my teeth for a couple of days and my breath probably smells like a tramps underwear. He doesn’t seem to mind, though, as his lips linger against mine for an untold amount of time. “You should listen to what Clarissa has to say,” he says with a voice as smooth as satin. His voice very rarely wavers, even in distress, he is calm.
“Go on,” I prompt Clarissa, giving her permission to start badgering me again, telling me that I’m a coward for refusing treatment against the growing tennis ball in my head. “You’re a pain in the arse Clarissa Ross,” I say using her full name so that she knows just how annoyed I am. I’m annoyed that I’m even here. I’m fine.
“While you were out of it, the doctors did another MRI scan on that thick skull of yours,” she says, mocking me.
“Hey!” I remark, feeling offended. She is right though. “Okay, so what did they say?”
“The doctors wanted to come and talk to you themselves. I said no, I want to be the one to tell you.”
“Okay, don’t keep me in bloody suspense. What did they find?” I ask starting to feel irritated.
“The good news is, the tumour has not increased in size since the last scan.”
“What’s the bad news?” I ask, fearing the answer.
“The bad news is that if you agree to surgery, it has to be soon. There is a huge risk, but it is operable and they think they can get most of the growth out, then zap the rest with radiotherapy and chemo. I don’t know all the technical terms, but that’s basically it, in a nutshell.” She sounds so strong, it makes me realise that she’s totally invested in my recovery, if that is even possible.
“But the first doctors said that they wouldn’t risk the surgery. It’s inoperable and I would die on the table.”
“Well, this neurosurgeon is from America, he says otherwise and there’s a good chance that you could come out of this with up to three years of your life increased. They’re under no illusions that because it’s GBM4, the most aggressive and terminal of brain tumours that you will die. There is also a good chance that the cancer has spread to other parts of your body; they want to do more blood tests to make sure. Also, if they do get all of the tumour out, and the chemo and radiotherapy finishes it off. There is still the chance that the tumour could grow back over time.” That is a lot of information to take in, in one go. She’s being completely honest with me, I really appreciate that. “Of course, there are risks and it’s a huge gamble, but I know you. You’ve always been a happy-go-lucky kind of girl. Surely the risk is worth taking. I’d understand it if you didn’t have so many people who care about you. If you were all alone in the world, no family, no friends, then yes, go ahead and call it a day. But, we’re here, we love you and we’re willing to go through all of this with you. We don’t want to lose you, not yet.” I see the salty tears in her eyes. Her long winded speech has touched me, I’m thankful that she’s being so frank. This is normally not like her. I’m the one who is usually so open and gives my opinion. This is a side to her we rarely see, but the way she’s speaking to me tells me that she means every word. She’s obviously been speaking with these doctors while I’ve been dreaming of losing my hair. Perhaps those dreams are a sign, but I can’t figure out if they’re telling me to listen to my loved ones, or listen to my head.
I think for a moment.
The room is silent; I can feel two pairs of eyes gawping at me. The unmistakable energy in this room is alive as I see the hope on the faces of the two people I love the most. I feel the need to placate them, for now anyway. “Let me think about it.” I tell them.
“Well, that’s progress,” my husbands voice has a tint of hope in it. I don’t want them to just assume that I’ve changed my mind. I have a lot of soul searching to do.
“So what’s been happening since I’ve been asleep for days?” I ask, needing to get off the dreary subject of my broken head.
“Quite a bit actually. Carla has gone AWOL, I’ve hired help in the salon and Davina’s mum has come to stay for a while.” I feel like I’m being bombarded with news.
“Okay, one at a time,” I tell her, I can’t handle all of it in one breath.
“There is even more important news,” my husband interrupts. When I look towards Clarissa she’s smiling like an idiot.
“C’mon then, spill,” I demand. I never noticed it before, I’ve been so absorbed by what’s happening to me, that I didn’t even see it. I watch as she raises her left hand and starts to wiggle her ring finger. The diamond sparkling back at me is so bright.
I feel a flurry of excitement, I squeal with joy and start jiggling my sizeable backside in my hospital bed. “Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” I shout out. I feel joy take over, I’m so happy and for a brief moment all the stuff going on in my life is irrelevant.
I feel happy, but Clarissa looks like someone just killed Marmite. “What’s wrong?” I ask her, dreading her reply.
“I’m being selfish,” she says with a tear in her eye.
“Why? This should be a happy time; it’s something you’ve wanted for so long. So why are you so sad?”
“I want you to me my Matron of Honour. I want you to help me plan; I want you to be with me when I walk down the aisle. If you’re not there, the day wouldn’t be special. So yes, I’m being selfish. If I don’t have my best friend with me to celebrate the most special day of my life, I don’t think it would mean as much.” I start to cry – again. She stands up, then takes me in her arms. Holding me and squeezing me so tight I think she’d bust a rib.
“Okay,” I whisper in her ear. The news of my best friend’s engagement has sealed the deal, I have something else, other than my family to fight for. I have to fight so that I can be with her when she gets married.
Clarissa pulls away from me, “okay?” She asks.
“I will do whatever it takes. I will fight. I will be at your wedding.” She just smiles a knowing smile, letting me know that my decision is a big deal, but she’s not making it so. When I look towards Simon, he’s crying. In this moment, I realise that I’ve just made them both really happy.
“That’s my girl,” he says with a wonderful smile. It’s bright, with not a hint of sadness.
I spend half an hour in the company of my friend, my husband and three medical staff. The American neurosurgeon, the anaesthetist and a nurse fill up my room, all standing around me like I’m some kind of guinea pig. I feel crowded, and besieged with information about my condition. They’re honest with me, just like Clarissa was. The words that stand out the most, and the ones that scare me the most are, die, GBM4 and surgery. Most of all though, I think I’ve fallen in love with the American doctors’ accent. New York I think, but wherever he’s from, the way he speaks is really sexy. I think I will keep that information to myself, Simon would be really annoyed.
I’ve agreed to do whatever it takes, I am strong enough to go through all of this, but my main worry is my friends and family. Are they strong enough to endure all of this? Are they strong enough to sit by my side and watch me suffer? Are they courageous enough to watch my tug-of-war with The Grim Reaper and to watch me lose? These are the questions that race around my head as I listen to these people tell me what they’re going to do to me. They’re telling me that the oncologist will be paying me a visit soon. He or she will run through all of the things to expect after the neurosurgeon has fiddled around with my brain. I see their lips moving, most of it is registering, but some of it is going in one ear and out the other. Absorbing medical information is tough. I understand that they have to inform me of everything, but giving me all that in one go is hard to take on board.
When the three people vacate the room, leaving me with Clarissa and Simon, I sit and stare at the wall. I’m wondering if I’ve made the right decision.
I don’t want to think about it anymore, the lump in my head has taken up enough of my time. I wish for some form of normalcy, I want life to return to how it used to be.
“So, tell me about Carla. What the hell has she been up to now?”
“We don’t know, no one has heard from her since we came to see you that day. The same day I stormed off.” I see the worry on the faces that are looking at me, probably with the same expression.
“Have you called her? Have you been round to her house? What about Hassan, does he know where she is?”
“We have done all of those things. Hassan hasn’t seen her or heard from her, we’ve called and got no answer and when we’ve been round to her house, there is no sign of life.” Clarissa tells me.
“I’m going round there again tonight.” My husband says. “I will break down the door if I have to!” I’m so proud of him, I show him how much I appreciate him by pulling him down so that I can wrap my arms around him. Feeling his strength and love for me and those around me makes me feel ten feet tall.