Ten Days of Normal
It was sudden and painless, a decade ago and perpetual, the emergency which altered forever my sense of time and space.
In the minute before it happened, I was normal. Playing at it almost. For ten days following the birth of my first child — spring thaw after three frozen years of tests and treatments — my life had synchronised with those around me once again.
The house was full of cards, and this was normal. Until then, my husband and I had never seen the need of shop-bought messages, and were immune to our parents’ disapproval as their birthdays came and went unmarked. But now it was delighting to have achieved this commonplace thing for a new human, and receive praise for it: Congratulations on the birth of your son.
Visitors came to see us, and we made pronouncements about his habits and character and did not realise how silly and sweet we must have sounded to talk so about this newborn thing with only a few primitive reflexes and inkblots for eyes still.
But again, this was normal.
What else? I was frightened by the length of time it took to fall asleep: night-feeds didn’t give me the saving sleepiness other mothers were talking about, no oxytocin rush. Something felt wrong — as if I were a motor running too rich? I said to the midwife (But how would right feel? She’d said back, and I shrugged, let it go). So we tried, my husband and I, to reason ourselves out of anxiety by reading manuals.
Yes. We were average, first-time, frightened parents.
Then the blood came.
It was an hour after the midwife’s last visit — Oh you’ve healed beautifully. What a neat mend! — and I felt proud in my skin. Relaxed, cat happy, almost beautiful. I got up from my armchair to reach for a sandwich and it began.
I fell back into the chair, legs apart, mouth open, watching my green dress and the red upholstery darken. Oh.
Quick. Come. Call Ambulance. I shouted to my husband just feet away, not understanding how each command came out smaller than the one before. Felt time spread out then like a parachute —
— the car accident on a country lane when I rolled across the carriageway and watched the windscreen fall like snow and had time to remember that cats and drunks often survive unscathed because they are relaxed and so if I breathed out then I might be pulled alive from it — and so I breathed out — aaaaah. (Not a scratch on you! The doctor attending said, shaking his head. You should be dead.) —
— and reading the Bounty book for new mothers just the day before. How the pamphlet fell open on a section about post-partum bleeding so I thought how strange it was I hadn’t. Not a smudge, not a stain. A clot the size of a fifty-pence piece or larger requires immediate phone consultation. If you see bright red bleeding call an ambulance. How only hours later, I felt something move like a mouse between my legs and found instead a brown lump on my gusset.
Should I really call an ambulance? The here and now. Present tense. My husband is holding the phone away from me and my incontinent urge to use it. A shy man, and quiet, and so disliking of fuss and bother that he almost forewent his life’s ambition of becoming a father rather than trouble the NHS for fertility treatment.
I spread my legs a little wider. We watch blood flow across the space between us. He calls the ambulance. There is one on the high street and it swerves immediately onto our little no-through road. Four minutes.
You might have been dead in six, they tell me. Later.
Years afterwards, when I am training and then working as a hospice life-story scribe — so that I get called to strangers’ homes and bedsides in their final months, days and hours — this is what they want to know: What happened next? Did I see the light?
Yes, I saw the light. It is the most private and least useful part of my story.
If I tell you that I travelled through spacetime, a darkness that had distance, volume (I borrow words I don’t understand — now in the writing, and when it was happening, my own everyday stock of metaphors being not useful). That there was a distant tiny whiteness that contained an immensity. Which was transformative for me whether it was the realm of religion, biochemistry or physics (or their conjunction). An inhabited light in which every being that ever lived had slipped its skin, creed, and limitations so that our lives here seem tawdry, misguided, and cheap. If I tell you that just saying that or writing it — as here, as now — makes tears sting in my sinuses still. That I hated the love of husband and son which began — lately, faintly — to exert a backwards force upon me. And had that love been a rope around my feet I might have bent over and loosened it. That instead I accepted, with regret and deep fatigue, the need to make every effort and return.
If I tell you it is all true, what happens next? Will you let it change you? Will you revise your life as I have? Strip yourself back til you go holy fool through the days, understanding nothing, wanting nothing, other than connection? However raw and risky? So you direct it towards service, vocation and strange liaisons, while doubting yourself daily? And while any use you are feels only a dim, distorted echo of the all-encompassing good you felt radiating from that place/state you never even got to?
[How I came back: I’m not dead. I’m not dead. I’m not dead. I shouted this over and again, with increasing force (although only my lips moved I learned later), and each time I moved a little farther back, with the same jerking motion got when rowing. I faced the light, unblinking, while going away from it. How sad I felt about that.]
A Working Day
A junior doctor and nurse were flirting at the end of the bed. He’d been working so long today already and just couldn’t remember: What was the formula for calculating blood loss from the weight of bandages? The nurse laughed, a thin and giddy sound that made me want to slap her, hard. Hysterical girl. Behave yourself. But she didn’t. Oh Doctor, she was so rubbish at equations in her Maths A Level.
How much blood had I lost? The young man didn’t look at me. He and the nurse were smiling at each other while hooking a spring balance to a large hammocky contraption. It’s rare to lose so much and so long after delivery, but in every other respect you are having a completely normal post-partum haemorrhage. Women lose bottles and buckets of blood with this. We’ve been keeping you topped up with fluids, and the drip is closing the vessels, stopping the flow.
Milk bottles? Perfume? My senior management voice. A warning sign if they knew me. But the young ones were looking at one another again, deaf to me. Silent, now. Frightened.
The spring balance dropped, and the sling thing. My used sheet also made a sound — flat and wet — when it landed. This was how I understood the equation about blood loss and the weight of bandages, even though I, too, had always been bad at maths.
Thirty Seconds of Conversation
— You are critically ill. We’ve been treating you for a normal, albeit late, haemorrhage but all this time you’ve been trickling.
— Trickling? That is good, surely? It sounds like a thing getting thin and stopping…
— No. Trickling is very very bad. We think you have an arterial bleed. The drip and the fluids were masking the problem all this time and now you are so weak that you may soon go in to cardiac arrest. We are preparing a theatre and will give you five minutes alone because…
— …You’ve probably not discussed what you’d do in the event of…
— …You may want to talk about what you’d like for your baby if…
Husband and wife are left alone together abruptly after a day of people, tubes, attendance. A self-conscious, slightly stagey feeling gets hold of them, as if they’ve been cast in an amateur version of the hospital soaps they watched in their twenties (and which they never will watch again after this day):
— Does he mean how shall we feed Little Man while you’re in the operating theatre?
— No, love. He means I might die. He means what do I want you to do if I don’t come back.
— Oh. Well what then?
— You’ll work it out. Take him home to Wales. Have him grow up in the mountains. Don’t tell him things don’t hurt when they do. I can’t stand that.
They kiss. Giggle. Go silent. Laugh again. Thirty seconds. That’s all they needed.
Back From the Dead
Once a year since that operation and its aftermath, I visit the underworld: My body goes about its usual business — school runs, birthday parties — but my mind is on the grave, how close I came, with the haemorrhage and what came after: How they had to bring me out of the induced coma with the huge breathing pipe still inside me — an excruciating thing, done rarely therefore and only when there is a real risk of the patient going into arrest. How my hearing began at the same time as the pain — a pain so raw, so vast, that I could only think myself declared dead during the operation and now autopsied: This was why I could not see — my eyes had been cut out! — and why it was so bitter cold — I was on a mortuary slab! Please not shut alive inside a locker? — and why I could not speak because my throat had been cut open and my lungs prised apart too — nothing else could explain the butchered sensation — but then I heard my name.
Tanya. You must show us you can breathe without the machine.
And so I learned what torture is — when you don’t die of pain that is unendurable, and that will only stop if you do what others insist you must, so that a part of you that is wholly, unassailably you, inviolate til now, so you were unaware of it (as we are of our organs til they go diseased or fail), this part of you
Breaks. Shatters. Spills.
I inhaled once, twice, and they delivered me of the dagger in my throat. But those first breaths after coma were posthumous: the me of my first 33 years died, I mean, and the whole slow decade of care-taking others which came after has been a tempering: a molten, raw state which time and patience have folded, hammered, compacted and cooled into something not brittle but strong, and serviceable.
I mother everything — kids, cats, elderly neighbours — when I was once an only child of a single parent, who’d got to my third decade without the care of a plant even.
I write things down for those who can’t.
I help people meet their end.
I ask them, and you reading me now: Will you let death — mine, others’ — change you?
The Longest Shit; The Quickest Come
After all that, how does life begin again? In the strangest and slightest of ways.
The first day out of Intensive Care, she is sitting on a commode, surrounded by family. She has to do a bowel movement. It is important and somehow risky. Days of opiates have made her insides black and slow and stinking: I am the San Andreas Tar Pits, she laughs, then cries.
— Come now. A care assistant comes in on them, large and jolly.
— Oh you mustn’t come near. I smell of death. It’s disgusting. I’m so ashamed.
— In my other job I’m a children’s entertainer. Rainbow Big Bottom. I’ve seen shit you wouldn’t believe doing that, so bend over and let me wipe your backside.
The kindness of strangers, they say when she leaves and comes back. The kindness of clowns with fat asses, she says, slotting a clean bedpan into place.
The second day out of Intensive Care, the three of them are reunited finally — husband, wife and son — in a tiny end-room of the maternity suite where their new lives had tried to begin a fortnight before. They feel wise and ancient to the ways of the ward and the husband, shy no more, advises newcomers on how to negotiate the dinner menu, their drugs schedule.
That evening, their boy is content on the first full bottle he’s been given the whole time. (His sucked raw fingers made her weep and rage as nothing else had: Breastfeeding Nazis. He needed milk, not me. I’ll bond with him when I’m rested, and strong again. For fuck’s sake. Get formula, bottles of it, readymade, and give it him. Quick.)
They flick through the hospital TV channels for some background noise, a balm. But it is all too bright, too happy. They turn down the sound. Then Hitler appears, pantomiming his rage and insanity in flickering black-and-white footage, and they notice how their child is entranced. It’s the contrast, look she whispers. It’s what they can see best apart from faces. Quick, climb in while he doesn’t need me.
Her husband, shy no more, does as he’s told and slides under the covers of the high-sided bed. Touch me, she says. Touch me too, he says back. And they do, there and then, despite the stitches, the baby, the nurses, and Hitler. She comes fast and gasping. Quicker than she ever has or will again.