Or, I Wish There Was A Different Word That Better Expressed Exactly What Hope Is

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.

Shakespeare, Macbeth

I used to hate ‘hope’.

To begin with, the word reminds me of Days of Our Lives characters Beau and Hope, a pathetic pair from 1980s daytime television who endured outrageous misfortunes (mistimed proposals, kidnapping, amnesia, faked deaths – you know, everyday stuff) only to somehow always be reunited, even after we had long stopped caring. But also, ‘hope’ is a sappy word that puts me on my guard – the very notion of hope is in constant danger of being over-sentimentalised and tritely trotted out Pollyanna-style. But those are not the reasons why I hated hope. I was once on a repetitive 28-day vicious cycle of hope and I can tell you, hope was not my friend.

We are socially conditioned to expect to be capable of having children. We all assume we are fertile, until we find we are not. And worst of all, there can be no reason for it. Some people get to have kids, and some don’t, and that’s all there is to it. Or is it? Hope (the abstract noun, not the Days of Our Lives character) whispers in the recesses of your mind: if there is no reason for this not to happen, then surely there is still a chance that it could? So, half the days of the monthly cycle are desperate and dismal because your period arrived and that was the end of it, but by Day 14, you start to hope again, and you go right on hoping through Day 28, until Day 1 rolls around again with the worst evidence that you’re not bloody pregnant (pun absolutely intended). And this cycle of hope and despair goes on for years.

So, as sensible people, you get some help with it all. You accept that you can’t make it happen, just the two of you, so you get a team of people behind you. Your partner gets semen tests and blood tests and a full body physical, and you get blood tests, and laparoscopic surgery, and injections, and hormones, and ultrasounds, and follicle counts, and egg pick-ups, and with all this intervention, you think this really has to happen. And hope becomes your worst enemy and yet it’s your oldest and most stalwart friend. It builds you up, buoyant, and anything seems possible, until the crushing realisation comes again, that some things aren’t possible, some things don’t happen the way you want them to. And there is no logic, no equation, no philosophy, no written word, to explain it. And no art or music can make it feel better.

‘Hope’ is an inadequate word. It masquerades as something quite simple and knowable and straightforward. You know what hope is. But really, there is so much more to it. You can dread having hope. But you also can’t control it; you can’t stop it from springing up from nowhere, and when it’s there, you can try and shove it away, squash it down but it won’t go. It leaks in under the cracks of the doors without you noticing. It is just there. Uninvited, compulsory. Like the flat and unflattering glow of a fluorescent light blinking on again when you know you’ve turned it off. Pure torturous evil and sweet blessed relief. How can ‘hope’ be both those things? Why doesn’t the word express it better?

After a time, our punishing ritual had to stop. Hope wouldn’t let us completely close the door; we just stopped resorting to the production line techniques we had undertaken. We let things go for a while, using potions and ‘nature’, and trying to rein in our expectations. We made plans for enjoying ourselves and being thankful for what we had.

We got pregnant.

Hope, I really hate you.

Hope can transform from a humble, tentative wish into a full-blown monster of expectation. It can multiply and expand, changing from that dreary fluorescent light into bursting conflagrations of sun-like rays beaming throughout the universe. Hope morphs into gargantuan emotions like joy, a word which people hardly ever use because what it represents is so elusive; or it goes unrecognised in lives that revolve around flat screen TVs and almond milk lattés.

If ‘doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother’*, then disappointment is Hope’s ugly unhygienic inbred cousin with halitosis. There is a direct relationship between the magnitude of the hope and its corollary, disappointment. Find the inverse of bursting sunrays and you begin to have some idea. The cruel joke played on me by nature served up joy, swiftly followed by worry, then fear, then dread. The ultimate dish – loss – was followed by two large servings of disappointment and grief, side by side. I was full to overflowing with this indigestible muck. I spat out the joy, and swallowed the worry, fear, dread and disappointment whole, but I keep chewing over the grief. Grief for my lost pregnancy – my only chance for a child – is the millstone around my neck.

I could have chosen to put it down, but hope wouldn’t let me. Even as my final ‘fertile’ years are traded for cancer treatments and surgery, as long as it hurts it shows me that deep down no matter what I say to myself, I still want it. I still want a child. It is my deepest and darkest hurt.

But I am infected with hope. I am contaminated with it; its reek is all over me. It dogs my steps and stalks my dreams.

Because the best news I’ve had in a year occurred this week. My cancer count is down to the level of someone without cancer. This result comes at my halfway milestone for chemotherapy and eases the remainder of my course of treatment. It brings forward my expectations of recovery and changes the landscape of my thinking. Those big bursting sunrays happened in my life just this week, and I felt joy. If this can happen, then what else might be possible?

Hope, my old friend, you stink. Welcome back.

* Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

(Blog Post 15th April 2011 – edited)