Sitting down to write The Story Of Our Life required three things: coffee (tick), a packet of chocolate digestives (tick) and a large box of tissues (sob).
The latter was a new addition to my writer’s resources, but, by the end of the book I’d dipped into it more than a couple of times – a puffy-eyed, emotional experience for someone who usually puts humour at the core of every story.
Of course, there are many funny moments in the book, and as always, the drama takes place among a close group of lifelong friends – this time Shauna, Lou, and Rosie – who love each other unconditionally, which is just as well because each of them is flawed in one way or another.
The concept of having friends that are as close as sisters is one that is very much rooted in my own life. I have some lovely family members, but my girlfriends are the ones who’ve been around for decades, travelling the path of life’s joys, successes, sorrows and disasters together. They are, and always will be, my “framily”.
Over the years, we’ve seen it all: marriage, childbirth, infidelity, divorce, financial woes, infertility, career changes, stress, anxiety, and the other theme in The Story Of Our Life, heartbreaking loss.
Shauna, Lou and Rosie are in their late thirties, a time that should be about enjoying the lives that they’d built at each others’ sides, when they are faced with a devastating bombshell: Shauna’s husband Colm is diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was a story I’d been longing to tell for many years, since a period when several people I loved were diagnosed with life-changing and, in some cases, terminal illnesses. There we were, carefree and wrapped up in every-day inconsequence, when suddenly there were limitations, threats, struggles and endings that we weren’t prepared for.
To preserve the privacy of those who made it through, and the memories of those who didn’t, I wont go into detail, but throughout that time I learned so much about human nature, and the incredible variations in the way we cope when our lives are touched by illness and adversity. There was anger, sadness, denial, rage, acceptance, determination, strength, regret, isolation, hope, optimism and, of course, love.
Over that time, relationships changed, recalibrated, as people reacted in different ways and adjusted to the shifting sands of the new realities. I learned how to mask my own feelings in order to be the person they needed me to be, whether that was strong and positive, or empathetic and reflective, or funny and frank.
I also learned that serious illness brings many practical challenges that add unbearable stress and worry, things like working, paying bills, covering the mortgage and taking care of children. How do you find the time and energy to meet these responsibilities when you’re ill, or caring for someone who is facing the very worst that life can throw at them?
And the final lesson I learned? It’s clichéd to say it, but you never truly know who will be there for you until you’re at the bottom of a black hole of despair. Who will stand by your side, who will bail, who will be practical, who will be a willing shoulder and who will make you laugh when your heart is crumbling to dust.
These are the things that Shauna discovers in The Story Of Her Life.
There are two narrative strands: one follows Shauna and Colm’s relationship from the moment they meet, and the other shares their experiences in the present day, as their vision of the future is shattered by a shocking turn of events.
I promise it’s not a depressing book, mired in sorrow and misfortune. There’s much to laugh at, and the usual blend of relationship twists and dramas. I suppose it’s just like life: sometimes happy, sometimes sad, frequently unpredictable and always made better when you have a friend by your side.
And of course, it’s best read exactly the way it was written… with coffee, a packet of chocolate biscuits, and a large box of tissues.