The truth is that community theatre changed my life. I was 19 when I tagged along with a friend to join a community production of Sweeney Todd. Somehow I found myself with a singing role and no singing experience. A couple of weeks later I stood outside the door for my first ever singing lesson with a local opera singer named Sally. I had no real notion of what an opera singer looked or acted like, and I remember being stood there imagining a stern, posh schoolmarmy type. Instead the door opened to a beaming woman who grinned at me, like I was a friend she’d not seen for years and couldn’t wait to catch up with. “Hi!!!” she trilled, “how are you!!! You must be Laila!! Come on in!!”.
I had no idea that the house I was about to enter would end up my home for the next two years, that the family who inhabited it would take on cherished roles in my life, and that the woman beaming at me would end up more of a mother to me than I had ever known possible. Sally invited me to rent her spare room before I’d even sung a note; I wasn’t looking to move and they weren’t actively looking for a lodger, but it seemed to fit, so I said yes. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s incredibly hard to describe my relationship with Sally. I normally refer to her as “my singing teacher”, but that is a complete misnomer. Whilst I lived with her we were somewhere between best mates and mother and daughter, alternately sharing chores and doing food shops, Sally chatting to me about boys and uni work. We’d make plans, talk about careers, check in with each other. Sometimes we would stay in, cook healthy meals and clear out our wardrobes. Other times we would go shopping and grab a cheeky McDonalds. Her influence on both my life, and me as a person, are hard to measure. Really it was Sally that taught me the importance of female friendships, of confidence. Through osmosis I learned about taking pride in oneself and finding joy in life. Rarely if ever have did we find the time for a singing lesson. I go around describing her as my singing teacher anyway. It doesn’t matter, because the important people in my life have already met her and know. They love her as I do.
Sally went into hospital a few weeks ago, completely unexpectedly, around the time I last posted on this blog. I was due in Manchester to film a TV thing, followed by going on holiday. It was the kind of hectic couple of weeks where you are constantly making to-do lists on your phone and forgoing sleep to try and remember to pack a charger. The worst kind of week for a disaster (not that there is ever an ideal week). I scrambled around finding time to visit her when I probably should have been double checking details or doing something with a suitcase. Last week the verdict came; terminal brain cancer. An inoperable, incurable, stage IV glioblastoma. Sally texted me the news in response to a photo of a cathedral. Just dropped it in after commenting on the photos. “Looks stunning! By the way I got the results.” No fuss, no drama. No fear.
In my other family, the biological one, cancer is our national disease. Most of the family grappled with cancer in the 70s and 80s, before my time, so I never witnessed the effect and just saw the shadows left by loss. It seems a cruel and horrid prank that I should go off and find myself a new, wholesome, wonderful family only for stupid bloody cancer to follow me there. Logically of course, that’s not how it works, and I know the statistics. I know brain tumours can happen to anyone at anytime without any warning. But still. Still a part of my brain has weird superstitious thoughts like that, even though I know better. Death does that to you, makes you think in ways you don’t normally and find faith where you’ve never looked before. It is that faith we cling to now.
Right now, things are positive. That sounds ridiculous to say about such an awful situation, but somehow it is true. With most cancers there is some sort of fight to be had, some rallying together of positivity to face the treatment. This is a bit different, a bit more final, a bit more resolute. Initially it was hard to reconcile such an awful and oppressive thing with the kind of radiant and brilliant person Sally is. Sally herself is still beaming, poised with acceptance and purpose and grace. She is ready for the journey and has a kind of clarity the rest of us haven’t quite found yet. I am following her lead. Trying to do what I always do and take inspiration from her. The two of us are full of plans, of lists, of forward momentum and times yet to come. In the early years we would make meal plans, career plans, house to-do lists. This is just a progression. What are we if not a duo who truly excel at a well executed idea?
In a strange way I really am grateful, and I am positive, and I am happy. I’ve been to four funerals in the last three years and all of them were friends of my generation who died suddenly without warning. People talk about your twenties as though they are confusing, but nobody mentions that everyone will die. The worst bit is the suddenness, the shock, the unexpected and random nature of it. It’s difficult when the trauma and loss get mixed in with denial and confusion. I am grateful for the prior warning with Sally, grateful for sunny evenings we can spend together and taking trips we never quite got round to taking. I’m grateful there will be a journey and not just a cut to the credits. And I’m so grateful that when that journey nears completion, we’ll get a goodbye.
This is a justgiving link made by Charlotte for Sally, funds will cover travel to hospital for treatment as well as care/living costs during the later stages of treatment, and of course, ticking off some of the bucket list. If me and my words have at all moved you, or you have met Sally, or you would just like to help, then it would mean the world to me if you could donate something. Thank you so much. X