When friends talk of strength and bravery in the face of illness, it's a blessing, even though Ms T and I aren't brave.
Well, perhaps we are. Perhaps I am. I try. I get there sometimes.
There are the other times, though. The times I'm not brave: wishing things were otherwise at 2am, wanting a life less lonely, hoping the latest lump is nothing (it was nothing, this time), lost in the concentric circles of cascading cares.
When an old friend like Sarah (not her real name and not the same one as either of the other two) has a longish public conversation with me, spending most of it with at least one arm around me and often both, and talks of bravery, it's a support and a blessing. I know Sarah's battles – with cancer, a long time ago – her recovery, and she knows ours, and when she blesses our courage, it's in the context of a friendship of more than twenty years. Were I to break in the face of the enemy, falter in my resolve, cry in a corner, whatever: Sarah won't despise me for it, because she's a friend.
There's another bravery out there, and it's not a support, it's a burden.
It's the bravery not of a friend's arms, but of a pop-culture narrative. The pop-culture bravery, the “plucky survivor” narrative, given extra human-interest colour by the “never-say-die” carer who juggled everything, held it all together, smiling at the five-year mark as they embark on a new journey. Hooray.
Behind the cheery smiles and the media-constructed narrative are imperatives that have hearts of flint and do not forgive: “you have to believe you can win”, “you have to keep smiling”, “you have to be strong”.
In this world, dignity is a demand, rather than the real-world's desperate fight to look normal when you're bedevilled and in turmoil.
I can't be perfect or strong or brave, and I'm not even the one who's sick here.
The burden of perfection, living within the narrative, is imposed by people who lift not a finger to help – the TV producer who sees the perfect tear-jerker story in a still-youngish, still-photogenic Dick and Jane; the inspirational celebrity whose story is written in easy cliché by a lazy journalist (with a link for donations to a foundation at the end); today's success story who is mourned a decade hence with not even a nod to the misery that accompanied the end.
I'm not that brave, really I'm not. I can't live a narrative, only a reality. My imperfections abound and rebuke me at two in the morning.
But I have friends, and I hold them closer than the media narrative. Friends don't merely talk of strength and bravery: they are the means and the arms and the muscles and the love. And while the cold screen in the corner of the living-room chatters about a bravery that doesn't exist in real life, I'll be a loving coward and hope it's good enough.
If I can merely be good enough for Ms T and the loving friends that hold me and care, it's enough.