Interior design as a way of coping with cancer?

by Hilla Duka

My living room after a year of redecorating

When I was told I have cancer, I thought my life was over, then and there. I wont attempt to describe the first weeks after finding out - you either know because you've gone through it yourself, or you just can't understand, no matter what words I use to explain, and some things just hurt too much to relive, the mind instantly recoils from it.

 

One of the first things I wanted, that I could really feel I wanted, other than to just not have cancer, was to fix our home. Before the diagnosis I had just started making plans to buy a house; about twice the size of our current flat, a room of their own for each of the children, a garden where we could hang in the summer, Jonathan could grow things... All of that was lost as soon as I found out about the cancer. I had been so ready to walk out of our little flat, and now I just wanted to decorate it - weird right?

 

I think there were two reasons I took such an interest in decorating our home. Firstly, I've known Ilir for years and years, and while he has lots of great qualities, interior design and decorating aren't it. Not even a little. I guess I just thought that however our home would look when I died (I stayed in the mindset that I was going to kick it any day for a really long time), was going to be how it would always look, so I'd better make sure it looked nice, and was practical.

 

Also, because I've never had any heirlooms, or inherited furniture of my own, or really anything from my grandparents or from before them, I wanted there to be things in our house - furniture, paintings, whatnot, for my boys to inherit. Rather than mope around and feel sorry for myself that I didn't have anything from the generations before me, I wanted to do something positive with that feeling - take control and create something for my family. And I wanted our home to reflect us, not just be filled with off-the-shelf things, but things we'd made or salvaged, antiques, stuff like that. Very far from the ideals I grew up with, with my architect family, where patterns instantly equalled bad taste.

 

We'd reached the stage that it was time to through out our old sofa - while it had been heaven when Milo was a baby and I luxuriated in the deep, soft cushions, it was now too small for the five of us, plus lots of company as we always seem to have people over, and the cats had shredded it. I had my eye on these more traditional looking, English sofas - you know the ones with short roll arms, looking like you just want to cuddle up with a cup of tea? Yeah, those. Quite far from where I come from - where everything had to be modern and clean, and have straight lines and light colours.

 

Really, this whole decorating journey has been one of settling scores with my past, and accepting myself and my own preferences. We looked at pricier ones, but in the end, IKEA won out, the one called Stocksund. It had the right look and feel, and when the cats have scratched the sides, and the kids have spilled things we can't get rid off, we can simply buy a new cover. Also, it was cheap enough that buying two of them to have opposite each other wouldn't break the bank.

Part of our living room IKEA Stocksund sofa and IKEA Vittsjo hacked coffee table

And with our new sofas in place, our old coffee table didn't work. At first I searched the auction houses, but I couldn't find anything close to what I wanted - all the tables were too high or too wide, so we went back to IKEA, and bought a cheap nesting table called Vittsjo. Ilir saw the glass top and looked at me as if I had lost my mind, but I had something different in mind. 

IKEA Vittsjo coffee table hacked with old looking wooden tops

Some plain pine cut to the right sizes, then beaten with chains and screws, a funny looking drill attachment with something resembling very coarse steel wool to get rid of the softest layer of wood, and then a concoction of vinegar and steel wool that I let seep for a few days. Finally I waxed the surface with dark wax, and now we have a table that will really take anything, while it's narrow (45 - 50 cm) enough to fit well between the two sofas. And when the kids grow up they will hopefully have some fun memories of me pounding the wood with chains and concocting awful smelling brews in the kitchen to dye the wood in a natural and non-toxic way. It wont be just another IKEA table, but something kind of unique that we made.

How I made old looking wood with vinegar and steel wool

I'm really happy we put the sofas opposite each other - it suddenly becomes a room for conversation, for spending time together, rather than a place to mindlessly watch TV. I love that I got the old fashioned, comfortable sofas in the dark fabric, and the dark wood to go with it. I love my brass lamps and details (brass was banished when I grew up, the only allowed metal was polished silver), and now when I come home and fall into one of the sofas, I feel comfortable, at ease. I've broken all the unspoken rules of my past, and by doing so I let my home become what I needed it to be, rather than what someone else thinks it should be.

The sofa part of our living room - IKEA Stocksund sofas, brass lamp from House Doctor and IKEA Vittsjo hacked sofa table

Strange how the mind works - I've really only ever had nesting / decorating instincts in two kinds of situations: when I've been pregnant and when I was told I'm dying... But there's a comfort in feeling that our home fills the functions that we need from it, that it's a place I can relax. I guess it's also a way of taking back some of what the cancer took from me - I can't have my house, but I can at least make sure the home we have is as lovely as possible. I can choose to not focus on the negatives, but create positive things to be happy about.


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