The last few days have been tough for my Bear. This isn't his first encounter with the Freeloader. He has a whole gallery of pictures of him on the back of his eyelids, and all those pictures have black drapes around them.
First, his mother. Her mastectomy was many, many years ago, before surgeons considered the welfare of the woman lying on the table. All they were interested in was ridding her of the disease. The word 'butchery' comes to mind. Her operation was invasive, radical, ugly. He looks at that picture in the night as he tosses and turns, he replaces her face with mine, and all the logical talking in the world can't wipe out that vision and that fear.
And then, of course, his mother banged her elbow nine years later, and her arm shattered from wrist to shoulder where the bone tumours had silently reappeared and eaten her humerus away. My bone scan, and the hideous wait for results, was just the first of many as my doctors try to anticipate and counter just such an outcome.
That will be hard for me, of course; but the Bear is already seeing an infinite corridor full of hideous waits ahead of us, and a lifetime of fear that history will repeat itself.
And then he moves along to the next room in his gallery, and it's full of portraits of his previous partner going through the many and various stages of treatment for terminal cancer. I don't need to describe those pictures to you. I'm sure you have some to refer to in your own head.
What you may not have in your head is the gallery of overwhelm right next door to those portraits of despair. It's one thing for me to be overwhelmed at this stage, but my Bear knows what's ahead for him.
Let me put it to you straight: we're trying to run a farm here, a farm which moves us towards self-sufficiency. That means that every day while I'm incapacitated, on his own, he'll be caring for the stock (a complex and many-faceted task involving thrice-weekly trips to town) and the vegetable garden, maintaining and repairing the farm infrastructure and looking after hygiene, trying to hold down his part-time job on the farm up the road (heavy, physical cattle work) so we have some money for jam, doing the household chores that he has always done (he is a damn fine man and does more than his share- always has), supervising and contributing to the construction of our unfinished extension, and adding to his job list everything that I used to do around the place. Like, paying bills, dealing with the mail and finances and doing all the cooking and shopping, on top of my share of the farm work.
Look how long that paragraph was. And I'm not finished yet.
He will also be making sure I have appropriate food and medication, dealing with my emotional and physical roller coaster, driving me everywhere I need to go (including to hospitals and doctors' surgeries, which are full of terrible echoes for him), and trying not to load me up too much with his own frustration and fear and pain and anger.
For most partners of cancer sufferers, this mountain of expectation and the endless winding road of physical and emotional exhaustion creeps up on them. For mine, the landscape gallery is already cluttered with pictures of the fucking impossible. And so he is, already, in meltdown.
For a few days last week, he took the usual male cop-out of choice- he left home for hours on end, hooked up with his mates and got himself absolutely shickered. Plastered. Rat-faced, and belligerent to boot.
As you do. Who am I to judge him, really? Look at all those god-awful hideous pictures. Look at the hand he's been dealt. If I'd been through it all before, I'd probably want to do the same- hide my head under the blankets for all time, roll myself into a ball of misery, put in the earplugs and scream angrily for room service.
But of course, that won't do. I can't leave him there, rolled into a tight little knot and looking at life furiously through the bottom of a beer bottle. When you're with a man's man like my Bear, you accept that talking about feelings has to be done on his terms. It's not something you can just force out of him. Anger and shouting just make him curl up tighter. Emotional manipulation just makes him more angry. He's intensely private; he won't talk to strangers about his feelings at all, so professional counselling is out.
Thank god I'm Aunt Annie in another life.
I'm just lucky, I guess, that through long experience and a lot of careful listening and watching the signs, I've learned how and when to prise the lid off his bottle. I'm lucky too that I've learned the first lesson of love, the one that most people trip over at the first hurdle of a relationship: above all, do no harm.
Use no sharp weapons. Take off your own anger before you try to solve a problem. Look at the world from where your partner's standing.
Between us, Jools and I managed to sneak into the Bear's bottle yesterday and let his tears out. There was A Lot of crying. There was an ocean in there waiting to be released. By this morning, he was able to talk to me about what he saw in the gallery of fear.
And so I set about reframing some of those pictures. There was nothing I could do about the pictures themselves, other than acknowledge their presence; they are what they are, and they can't be changed until they're painted over by a new experience. We don't learn deep truths by being told- not as children, not ever. We learn by doing and seeing things for ourselves. Aunt Annie knows that much.
And so I took the portrait of the Freeloader, the one with horns and a trident, and I showed him what I saw.
"This is a journey I didn't choose to take, but because I've got no choice about doing it I have to choose how I approach it. I'm choosing to see it as intriguing, and challenging, and not entirely bad. I know I won't like a lot of it. But I'm going to find out how strong I am, and that's something I want to know."
"You're very strong," he said, because he knows that already, from experience. And he picked up the paintbrush, and dabbed a little bit of my strength over the Freeloader's evil eyes.
"But I won't know how strong until I do it," I said. "I'm almost looking forward to the fight."
I looked at the landscapes next, the endless chores and expectations.
"And I know I'm going to learn a lot, too. I'm going to have to learn to ask for help. I'm no good at that, and neither are you, are you?"
He was silent for a moment, looking me in the eye.
"No," he admitted at last.
"You're going to have to learn," I said.
Talking to a man like mine requires patience. You have to know when to just be quiet and wait. I waited.
"I know," he said eventually.
"I'm learning already. I asked Jools to come, even though I felt guilty about disrupting her life. I accepted when Vi offered to come, even though I know she's been through so much already and I feel bad for putting her through it again. So let's talk about who you can ask for help."
And so we did. We went through a mental list of friends and neighbours, the ones we could rely on not to be blackbirds; oh yes, my Bear has experienced the Blackbird Syndrome. It scarred him badly, being so let down by people he thought were there for him. But he had to admit that there aren't many blackbirds along our road these days.
We talked about who we would ask for help, and what we could ask them to do. We talked about how he needs to go on working at the cattle farm, because he feels free there, walking alone under the wide sky with just the gentle sound of contented munching and the calves nuzzling his hands now and then; but he needs to come home afterwards, not to join up with people who'll encourage him to blot everything out.
That's not friendship.
As he'd put it, "No loop theory." He's not going back to the rat-faced belligerence. That is likely to impact on my recovery. He knows that. I told him, but I didn't really need to- other than to let my own feelings out. He already knew that, in his heart.
We wondered who else he'd feel confortable talking to about his feelings, other than me. He acknowledged that his very best friend, the man he calls his brother with heart-felt passion, would never let him down- yet still he has trouble letting out his feelings to him.
"Well, you'll just have to keep talking to me then," I said.
And hugged him tightly.
Yes, I think I'll still have to be his emotional catcher. It'll take my mind off me, I guess, and that might be a good thing. It'll make me feel that I still have my uses, even if I'm lying in bed like a beached and lopsided whale. Nobody likes feeling useless. Maybe his emotional limits are my get-out-of-jail card; maybe his need for me will save me from self-pity.
So we lay in bed holding hands for a while, just being together. We got up and hit the chores, and I tried unsuccessfully not to feel angry that, just as I felt healed enough to do some of the normal things I do, I was heading back for round two of surgery.
I waved him off to the cattle farm and saw that his forehead was smooth, the smile was genuine, his eyes were deep brown and glossy again instead of the furious, opaque black I'd seen for the last few weeks.
We will get through this. I know we will.