This chapter covers the time when George had failed to get into remission after the first line of treatment and had just started a clinical trial.
Weeks. Weeks and weeks of planning it had taken us to book our flights to Naples for Christmas. And less than a minute to cancel them. One day we were planning our next adventures and chasing our dreams, the next our cheeks were stinging from the violent slap life had dealt us. I wanted to stamp my feet in protest, to shout to the world how unfair this was, to pull my hair out. But I knew that would just upset us both even more.
Wrapped in our warmest jumpers one freezing December evening, while chatting over a mountain of spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino, I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh. George pushed a rebellious spaghetto into his mouth and swallowed.
“Mariacristina. What’s up? What crazy thoughts could possibly stop a chatterbox like you in mid-flow?”
“You know what?” I said, gripping my oily fork. “This is going to be the most special Christmas of our lives.” Tears streamed from my eyes, now open and fixed on his.
He pushed the Vietri pasta bowl aside and leaned across the table to clean a drop of oil off the corner of my lip. There was a long silence before he whispered in my ear, with a conspiratorial look: “Let’s make it one to remember.”
This would be our first Christmas on our own, in our own home. And it was going to be a happy one, despite everything. After all, when else do you get to enjoy it your way without all the chaos, exhaustion and arguments that spending the holiday with relatives brings? The idea of eating home-made canapés, sipping prosecco as we curled up on the sofa in the candlelight, just the two of us, almost felt comforting – even exciting.
But it was not how I had meant Christmas to be. No remission was a dismal present.
The thought of being stuck in London when life felt so uncertain, away from the home I grew up in, brought a knot to my throat. Like a stale mollica of pane casereccio, it refused to budge, making my eyes water as I gasped wordlessly for air.
All I could see was my mum’s warm hugs, the reassuring look in my dad’s eyes. The comfort of my parents’ cooking in their open-plan kitchen while my uncle and aunt argued – their arms frantic – over which bottle of wine to open: the Aglianico or the Fiano di Avellino? Animated, exaggerated family arguments that would always end in laughter.
Countless nights over the past few weeks I had closed my eyes in the darkness of our bedroom, taking refuge under the duvet and imagining how it would have been back in Naples: the scoppiettio of anellini di calamari dancing in the sea of burning hot oil in the huge copper frying pan – and my aunt reeling off a string of Neapolitan curses every time a spitting drop landed on her face or hand; the lingering smell of frittura napoletana in the air; my mum’s hands, covered in flour as she worked the pizza dough, forwards, folding back, forwards, folding back.
I could taste the softness of the pizzette fritte di cavolfiore melting in my mouth. I could see the splashes of ragù staining everyone’s Sunday best with bright badges of joy. But as I slowly opened my eyes, the exquisite tastes would slip away, to be replaced by the bitterness of overcooked Brussels sprouts. The sense of warmth would drain from my body, leaving me shivering.
Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve. Back from the shops, I walked into the living room, where our little tree crouched in the corner between the sofa and the chaise longue stretching across the large bay window. Despite its modest dimensions, I was proud of it, still alive after a year of nurturing in a pot outside.
I dumped the heavy shopping bags on the wooden floor and plonked myself on the pale blue rug that spread across the living room. I crossed my legs and stared at the tree. I had assumed it would celebrate countless more Christmases with us in our home. Now I asked myself whether it would even survive one more year.
I felt the tiny claws of fear gripping my heart, but I fought not to let it take over. Instead I slipped into a daydream, imagining what the tree could look like in a few years with presents crowding its base – and a small child, perhaps, waking up early in the morning to discover what Father Christmas had brought for him or her.
But there was no comfort in this dreamed-up projection of a brighter future. It just hurt my bones even more; I could only feel bitterness about how things had turned out for us. What did we do so wrong to deserve this?
I reached for my phone, but stopped. A stream of social media updates at the weekend had felt like knives in my tummy: “Ta-da! Our Christmas tree finally completed!” I read. “Here we come, Saint Lucia. Ho Ho Ho!” And the best of them all: “SOS! How do I fit in fourteen invitations to Xmas drinks in ten days? Ideas anyone?”
To hell with you and your cancer-free life. I felt sorry for myself, envious of the excitement our friends were revelling in as Christmas approached. Having all this easy happiness splashed in my face from all corners made me feel sick to my bones.
I reminded myself what George had been telling me since his first diagnosis back in 2005: “My darling Mariacristina, enjoy the little things we are gifted with every day. We’re blessed to have each other.” But I didn’t want to feel upbeat. I just wanted to stew in my bitterness and anger: a luxury I could not afford, knowing this might be our last Christmas together.
No one knew for sure how many more days, weeks or months I might still have with George, but the odds had been getting worse. Treasuring each day, making the most of every single instant with him felt like a duty, one that weighed on my shoulders like a mountain.
A Christmas to remember, a special one, our last Christmas together. I kept bouncing the words around my head, over and over again. My temples throbbed, my mind spinning.
“If George isn’t going to survive this leukaemia, you need to be happy together now,” George’s father had texted me a few days earlier.
Be happy, I kept telling myself.
I slowly detangled my stiff legs, stood up clumsily and went to fetch the box of decorations hidden behind the sofa. It was full of trinkets collected on our European getaways to Christmas markets. Each one brought up memories: cups of hot mulled wine sipped in Munich alongside huge, German hot dogs, dripping with mustard and buried in krauts; the magical aroma wafting from the warm, chocolate-and-banana-filled crepes we bought from little kiosks near the Jardin des Tuileries; a big cone of struffoli drowning in honey and colourful sprinkles in the twinkling festive lights of the narrow alley of San Gregorio Armeno, in Naples. As I searched in the box for our golden initials, I caught a glimpse of a pair of woollen, child-sized boots. My heart sank at the reminder of what would never be for us.
I looked up and sealed my eyelids against the tears. My attempt to make our house look cheerful was not going to end there. I might have been incapable of feeling it inside, but I was determined to splash some semblance of happiness across the walls, the furniture and the shelves – and in the air, with fake Christmas scents.
I picked up George’s favourite set of baubles, hand-painted with ukeleles and banjos on the transparent glass, and started to fill the gaping holes between the sparse branches. Before long I was draping one last piece of tinsel around the top, wrapping some more around the mirror in the entrance and lining the wall over the fireplace with Christmas cards on a piece of string. Stepping back to take it all in, I was jolted by an unexpected sense of excitement at seeing the house transformed from tired drabness to festive sparkle.
I Skyped my mum, proud to show her how beautiful the living room looked. I wore my reindeer hair band in the hope it would cheer her up. “Your house looks a lot more festive than ours,” she said with a mixture of surprise and sadness. For her, there was nothing to celebrate that Christmas, but I could see she was reluctantly impressed by what I’d achieved in spite of the circumstances.
“Mamma, I’m going to make it easy for you and dad,” I repeated to myself. I wasn’t going to share the sadness I was burying. They would see that all was well. My eyes would give nothing away about how I really felt. My voice wouldn’t tremble. No tears, either. I could save those for the times I was alone, when no one could hear or see me.
“Look at how many cards we’ve been sent!” I told her, gesturing towards the fireplace. “People are thinking of us. And see how gorgeous the dining table looks with the centrepiece you gave me.” I smiled as I gave her a tour of the house, decorated at last.
All I really wanted, though, was to open her eyes to the river of fears in which I was drowning. “Mamma, I’m scared. George may not make it and I just want this to be the most beautiful Christmas of our life because… because there is nothing else I can do for him. Or for us. This leukaemia is slowly killing him. This damn leukaemia is taking away the love of my life. And nothing, absolutely nothing seems to be stopping it.”
At 6pm on Christmas Eve, as I stood in the kitchen in my bright red festive pyjamas and opened a packet of tarallini al finocchietto, I heard George’s steps approaching. I turned to look at him so I could guess whether he had managed to get any sleep. His hands were buried in the pockets of the long, dark blue dressing gown I had given him five Christmases before. He walked towards me and wrapped his arms around my waist, under my top.
“Cold hands, warm heart,” I said, before pulling myself closer, breathing in the sweet mango-tinged scent of his hair and letting my hands sink into the softness of his dressing gown.
“So what’s for supper?” he murmured, clearing his throat.
“Your absolute favourite,” I answered with a cheeky smile as I moved towards the oven. I knew he’d never guess what I meant: every time I cooked another Neapolitan dish it became his new number one.
That night, however, I wanted the chef d’oeuvre to be us. For once, food and drinks had to take a back seat.
I opened the oven, releasing an inebriating smell of golden puff pastry, crackling pancetta and the sweet aroma of leeks and onions. These little parcels were the first dish we’d ever shared at a table together as 16-year-olds, more than 14 years before.
I turned towards him to see his face lit up, a smile stretching from ear to ear. “Mini quiches! I honestly didn’t see this coming,” he said as he came towards me and kissed me. The night needed nothing else – apart from a bottle of Aglianico del Taburno.
We left the kitchen and walked to the drawing room, still holding on to each other. He sat down on the white and duck egg blue sofa, the one he had never really liked. “It’s too smart to be able to relax on,” he never stopped telling me with a frown. He’d been ignoring my request that he take his jeans off before sitting on it since he’d realised it wasn’t an amorous approach, but to avoid staining the cushions.
Now I no longer cared. He could have stained it with red wine or dirty feet and I wouldn’t have flinched.
I lit the candles, placed a tray of mini quiches on the coffee table and filled our glasses to the brim with the wine we had drunk at our wedding reception. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” the radio crooned. “Let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight.” We sang along, giggling whenever George forgot the words or I failed to stay in tune. We nibbled our snacks and sipped the wine, gazing into each other’s eyes as we curled up on the sofa. We couldn’t stop smiling.
“Best Christmas ever,” George said, his eyes wet.
“I never thought this could be so special,” I smiled.
“I guess we have leukaemia to thank!”
We burst into laughter.
Neither of us had spent Christmas away from our families before. Now it was just the two of us: nothing and nobody else. Outside our little bubble, everything was going wrong and our future was filled with uncertainty. But that didn’t matter. We had each other.
We were going to open our stocking presents the next morning, as George’s family had always done, but we’d decided to follow my Italian tradition of opening our presents to each other on Christmas Eve. He insisted on going first, and with a solemn look he handed me a small green box.
I recognised it immediately. It was from Tiffany. “It’s a heart locket,” he said, seconds after I removed the cover. “Whatever happens to me, I will always be there, close to your heart.” I opened the silver locket, revealing a tiny picture of him. He put the chain around my neck and said: “I am the luckiest man in the world to have you as my wife.”
I looked into his eyes. “I will always love you, no matter where you go,” I said, my voice broken. He pulled me closer and held me tight, a flow of warm, salty tears stinging our lips as they met. Knowing it was likely to be our last Christmas together could have broken us, but in that moment we felt invincible. Never had we been so close.
Right now those premature white cells multiplying madly and crowding his bone marrow could be left to their own devices. To hell, you little fuckers. Enjoy your fun now because we’re not giving up. The treatment hadn’t worked and nobody knew whether George would get a shot at the lifesaving transplant he needed. But it didn’t matter. Nothing could stop us.
I turned up the volume on the radio as the first notes of “All I Want for Christmas is You” started to play, before pulling him into the middle of the living room. We danced to the music until we could no longer take it and collapsed on the sofa again.
“Life is good, isn’t it?” he said, his eyes sparkling.
“As long as you’re around, life is phenomenal,” I said and curled up next to him.
Our gazes converged on the table in front of us, settling on the last mini quiche.
“Don’t even think about it – that one has my name written on it,” I whispered. He waved his hand to encourage me to go for it. I grabbed it.
“No.” I smiled. “This is for you, my love.”
The last boccone of any meal is always the most precious. I handed it over to him. This is just a mini quiche, I was trying to say, but I would give you anything and everything if it could save you. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, we were in this together: with our pain, our fears, our loneliness and our hopes. He took a bite and handed the other half back to me.
“Happy Christmas, cuore,” he said.
I took a long, deep breath.
“Happy Christmas, my love.”
If you want to give other families affected by blood cancer a chance of more Christmases together, you can donate to Blood Cancer UK and/or sign up to the bone marrow register at Anthony Nolan (ages 16-30) or DKMS (17-55)