City Of

I arrived in LA on Wednesday night, 71 degrees, shorts and flip-flops (not me), my cousin’s boyfriend met me at the airport after an hour’s wait at customs. In the past, American customs have always scared the hell out of me. This time they didn’t, this time I went through without hassle or search, into the arms of a man whose girlfriend is very, very sick.  His partner, my cousin Linda.

That’s why I am here, not to party or work or see the sights, even my family and friends come second to Linda.  I am here because we are close, because she is an inspiration, because she really isn’t well.  She’s had cancer for 9 years, has had about 16 different types of chemotherapy and is now coming off a trial drug because it isn’t working.  I wanted to see her, to be with her, to be around her incredible energy.  I am with her, around her still incredible, but lower energy, lower because she is tired, she is frail, she is thin and beautiful and she still makes me laugh.

Yesterday I met an old friend whose writing career has taken off in the past year and I am delighted for him.  He is down to earth and genuine, a real friend.  We talked writing talk and politics, and despite him thinking he doesn’t have a west coast accent, he says stoopid not stupid…John, face it, you have an American accent.

Last night Linda insisted on buying us a Chinese takeaway, she wouldn’t let me pay, said there’s no discussion.  I ate a lot.  I enjoyed every mouthful.

I had a good night’s sleep, the man in the apartment (yeah, I’ve been here two days and I am speaking a different language) opposite didn’t wake me with his coffee grinder.  My cousin’s boyfriend left for NY at 4am on a special 13 birthday treat for his granddaughter.  He was so quiet I didn’t hear a thing.  I had a cup of M&S extra strength No 3 tea, in bed with my Time Out guide to LA and my flexi map.   I had a restful morning while Linda slept.

When she woke she looked outside and realised that the man who owns three houses, who lives in one, rents one and leaves the other one empty, had cut down the avocado tree in his garden, the tree that has borne fruit, which Linda and her boyfriend have helped themselves to with the help of what I can only describe as a fruit grabber.  The man has cut it down (and quite savagely) for the second time.  What kind of person does that?  He has an orange, grapefruit and lime tree too.  If he cuts them down while I am here, I may have to say something, I may have to say that I would give anything to have those trees in my London garden, that he should be ashamed of himself.  I know Linda doesn’t want me to say anything.

And after tea and chatter, my very old friend arrived to take me for brunch.  We met in 1978, had lost contact with each other, through no fault of our own, and blissfully found each other.   We had tea with Linda and we left.  And in those three hours we continued as if we had only seen each other a week ago, not 5-6 years ago.  And I realised how precious my friends are, the friends who have picked me up and dropped me off, who know why I am in LA, who will do anything I ask, who have put themselves out for me.

Then I took Linda to UCLA to see her Dr.  And things are not great.  That is all I am willing to share.

I spoke to a woman whose ten-year old son starts chemotherapy tonight for a brain tumour.  She had to go down to the pharmacy to get one of his drugs.  She was crying, so I hugged her and told her never to give up hope.  I had the conversation with people, the same conversations as I used to have when I took my sister to her chemo sessions, because people are people and disease is disease, it has no accent, no nationality, no preference for religion or colour or sexuality.  In disease we are all equal.  I spoke to Drs and nurses, became all stoopid when I read the Dr’s name, embroidered on his white coat, with the initials M.D.  I am British, I see those initials in films and on TV, not in real life.  As Linda said, he’s a medical doctor, I said yeah, but our consultants don’t have their initials on their gowns.  In this sad situation, I was weirdly excited by two letters of the alphabet.

We came home, Linda went to sleep, I had tea, went for a walk to buy milk, enthused at the supermarket shelves, I love American supermarkets, the variety, the magnitude of everything, the choice.  On one hand the USA is full of junk food, snacks (they are first-rate snackers), obesity, on the other, full of diets and organic and fat-free, face lifts and body beautiful, though I haven’t seen many of the latter in the two days I have been here.

On past visits, LA has always been a place I have never much cared for, not like NY which I love with a passion. This time round, I am in love with LA in a way I have never been and I am surprised. Perhaps it is because I am not here as a tourist. Yesterday, while Linda slept and her boyfriend played golf, I went for a walk, a thirty block walk to the sea – the what, a man said when I asked him, ‘is the sea far?’ ‘The what?’ I tried again. ‘The Pacific.’ ‘Oh, oh, about another 16 blocks.’ So I kept walking, because I have two legs that work, and because I can, and I talked to strangers, gave them directions, told them where a 7/11 store was (because I had just asked someone), I sorted my phone very quickly in a T mobile store, quickly and inexpensively. I went to the Apple store, they didn’t have what I wanted, just like the London Apple store – and then I arrived at the sea, sorry the Pacific, with the Santa Monica mountains behind me and I sat and stared and marvelled at it all. Slightly full of the sun (yes, I had spread on a good amount of factor 50) I took the number 1 bus back to the apartment, and I was in love with LA. With the stunning Art Deco, which somehow, in my youth, I had ignored, and not been the slightest bit interested in. I love the climate, the friendliness, everyone is willing to help. And I drove here…drove my cousin’s boyfriend’s car, his fabulous car, which has no actual hand brake, which has a button you press to start and stop, which has photo detail of the back of the car and the area around it when you park. I drove in LA for the first time, with Linda sitting beside me giving me directions. I am not that brave, I don’t want to end up on a giant freeway and find myself on the road to San Diego, but I enjoy driving and when I drive down Santa Monica Blvd, Sheryl Crow is singing with me.

So here I am, sitting in the living room of my cousin’s apt while she sleeps. Outside, the crickets make their distinct noise, the refrigerator whirrs away, the night is warm, but not too warm. I could be in an Arthur Miller play. I postponed going out with my cousins this evening because there was no way I was leaving Linda alone, because that is why I am here and my cousins understood and said, okay, you do what you have to, you are a good cousin.

And there is silence. The people outside who were making a lot of noise, the man singing in a latino accent, the group chatting loudly, have all closed their doors, gone inside. And I remember the woman who earlier today made me smile when she said mother fucker, the man with half a face in the hospital who seemed cheery enough, the woman who asked Linda if she needed anything, while I stood at the counter waiting for her meds. I was even allowed to sign her credit card, because she was too sick to. I think how lucky we are to have our national health, that here the cost for health care is so vast, I have heard stories during my 48 hours that have made my jaw drop and my blood pressure rise. We must do everything we can to hold on to our NHS, to stop the Tories from taking away from the poor and replacing it with nothing. The NHS is special and we are lucky, those who moan about it perhaps don’t know how lucky we are. When we don’t have it anymore, it will be too late for them to realise the luck they had.

And as I sit here, full of last night’s left over Chinese food and a Babe Ruth bar (like our Picnics), which I have a predilection for, two cups of tea and a head that is wide awake, I am thankful for my life and for my health, for being lucky that I have been born into this life, because it could have been another life, I could be one of the many people I have seen lying in the streets, in LA and London and countless other cities. My life is a good one, a hopeful one, I had some exciting work news this morning, and I am holding on to that excitement, because I want to, because alongside the sadness and decay the good things matter too.

Tomorrow we may be swimming in a Bel Air pool, more likely we will be here, and I will go down to the Pacific and swim and watch people watch me, the crazy London girl who swims in October. And I will tell them that I swim in London in autumn and spring and summer and winter in an unheated outdoor pool.

Linda sleeps, the night is quiet. This is okay.

7 thoughts on “City Of

  1. I saw this linked tweeted. I followed. I was so moved by this blog. I am sorry about your cousin Linda she sounds like a brave woman. I wish her well. I agree with your thoughts on our NHS. People always knock it but when I hear there comments made with true knowledge I simply respond that there is no better place to be when you are really sick or injured. The staff are great and many have great passion for their work. Thank you for the post and when Linda is not looking go remind that guy of how all life is precious and to think twice and less selfishly before cutting down any more trees.

  2. I look out at the Atlantic on this foggy morning and think of you sixteen blocks from the Pacific, as far from here as you are when you are across the ‘pond’ to the east. Stay well. I’m glad you’re there with your cousin.

    1. thank you darling. I have surpassed all expectations of my own capability. that is good. It’s strange how despite the sadness around me, I have gained enormous strength from Linda, who is an inspiration and force to be reckoned with. xxx

  3. Ah Shelley you write with such a mix of sad wisdom and bright vitality. Like life I guess. Keep enjoying what there is to enjoy and for the rest, breathe, little steps… you know. Sending our love xx

  4. And you are also an inspiration and force to be reckoned with and over many years I’ve seen your incredible capacity for supporting people through serious illness Shelley. xxxx

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