The shock. I am removed from my daily existence and everything that is familiar to me. Marked as distinct and transported to some foreign land inhabited by the sick.
Kind hands have been busy, taking notes and temperatures, administering plastic cups of tranquility and reassurance.
Now that a diagnosis has been made, there is a call button draped for easy access over my shoulder. I can press this if I need to know how long I may have to wait or what demeanor I should adopt.
I am expected to know how to act in any situation. Others look to me for answers. But I have nothing at all left to offer. I am depleted.
I have been searching for something recognizable about myself these last few weeks, but it seems there is much less of me than there was before.
A nurse arrives and tells me what to do. I willingly comply with her instructions. Take off all of your clothes, she says, there are hangers in the wardrobe. Then wash your whole body three times with the liquid antiseptic. I pour the antiseptic into my palm, it is dark and heavy, the amber rich and the smell as earthy as wet soil.
In the shower cubicle my hands hesitate to travel over familiar forms, to trace an outline around thighs and shoulders, to hold a breast and support its weight in my hand. The journey has no ultimate destination and there is no reason to hurry. Water and memory flow in a steady stream and I am grounded. Hands take time to search out and find again, the once fractured bone, the now barely visible scar, the swelling of a purple-ochre bruise.
After the shower I should put on only the hospital gown, but I have decided to also wear my floral panties because they belong to me.
Telling lies to my children had never been an option, but deciding how much or how little to say is difficult. I fear that knowing too much would make them frail. But if I tell them too little they might say, after everything had taken its course, that I had failed to spell out the probabilities and left them unprepared. Aren’t mothers supposed to nurture their children and protect from them from hurt, not be the cause of it?
But now that I am laid flat on the trolley such decisions are no longer required of me. On this day I am allowing myself respite, refusing to feel. I am already numb, and calm beyond belief. Resigned that just now, there is nothing else I can do to make things better.
The corridor is long but the journey is swift and with purpose. There are no diversions or alternative routes.
I am positioned alongside a wall, cold and still under a thin cotton blanket, when a face in a disposable shower cap looks down on me. What’s your date of birth Sweetheart she says. When I tell her she pauses to take it in and then sighs, oh, it’s your birthday today. I am silent now, but she seems to understand that I have been unable to bring any words with me. So she holds my hand and says, I wish there was something I could say to make it better. And I believe her.
Distant noises. Doors closing. The brake is applied to the trolley. Stillness for a while then movement again. Another corridor? A lift? A voice greeting another. The trolley comes to an abrupt stop. Voices. More movement. And I am back.
My daughter is soothing herself with a cool cloth across my brow. My son has made himself comfortable on my bed and is playing with the remote control, wishing he could put the television on. I am suspended above the bed. I am floating and have nothing to hold onto. I am outside the physical laws of the universe, defying gravity, light and insubstantial.
Sharp needles come and go throughout the night. If I have any pain, I can ask for more. I am written up for it.
Starched sheets pulled back and hospital gown off, the nurse is preparing me for a shower. Thin plastic tubes emerge from beneath a surprisingly small dressing. I am sitting now on the very edge of the bed, and my shoulder seems horribly turned in.
There are tubes trailing from various parts of me, but where are they going and what are they attached to? There is a weight at the end of one. I pull on it and it pulls back like a stubborn puppy on a lead. Whatever it is attached to is under the bed and doesn’t want to come out.
Standing, I am disoriented. Step into the shower, says my attendant, I’ll stand outside in case you need me. I step into the shower trailing the tubes and the heavy weight, which I’ve been told is a drainage bag.
Now, says my nurse emphatically, you are not gross. The wound is very neat and it’s clean. You can look at it when you feel ready.
I look. What a thrill. I am pre-pubescent. I had forgotten what my chest was like before I had breasts. The right side of my body is ten years old, and I am delighted by the thought of being a little girl again. It’s alright, I call from the shower cubicle, I’ve looked and it’s okay. I am not sure if I am trying to reassure myself, or the nurse.
But when I look again at my little girl’s chest, it is not all right. It is all wrong. There is no nipple. It is entirely flat, bruised and asymmetrical. Bony ribs protrude and the skin is so horribly stretched that it looks transparent. Can it really succeed in holding me together? The drainage bag lies on the floor of the shower. Like an anchor, it stops me from floating up to the ceiling again.
Yellow mop buckets are propelled across linoleum. Breakfast trays are collected. Hospital corners tucked and water jugs replenished.
The room is pleasant enough. The light from the window is filtered through a curtain of diaphanous gauze. Despite the harsh sun there is still some fluttering green outside the window. But the prognosis, now it has been fully understood, is gnawing at me, consuming me in little bites, so that soon I might disappear entirely and there will be nothing left of me.
If only I could find exactly where this relentless ache is coming from. I move my hands around my body feeling the dry skin on my legs and the goosebumps on my forearms. I touch here and there, but I cannot find the exact spot so it is not possible for me to sooth it or whisper there, there. I exhale very slowly and, quite unexpectedly, there it is, a groan, an utterance that is barely human. Did I make that noise? Whose depths did it come from?
The surgeon tells me I should go home. I will recover much faster, he says. I am to return in one week to have stitches, plastic tubes and surgical paraphernalia removed. I must follow these instructions: I may lift nothing heavier than a teacup. I must not drink any alcohol. I must rest.
Once home I immediately change into clothes that do not smell of hospital. I tuck the length of plastic tubing into the pockets of my skirt along with the puppy who is sulking and sits heavy. Then I lift the basket of just-washed laundry and put the pillowcases and a little bit of myself on the washing line to dance in the sun.
It is two days since the surgery and my closest friends are visiting. I put tall-stemmed flowers into glasses and open several bottles of red wine. Come in, I tell them, and do not lament. So instead, we lounge and laugh. We eat crumbly cheese with doorstep slices of Christmas cake. My friends keep telling me I am astonishing, they shake their heads in disbelief and tell me I should sit down. My children run around, excited at my return. My husband stays close to me and is quiet. He is my mooring post.
Night time is the worst. Tonight at two o’clock my body is shocked by what feels like a sudden impact. It reverberates through my whole body. I wake in fear and find myself sitting bolt upright. It is much darker than usual and I am not absolutely sure where I am. It is cold. I am drenched in sweat and there is something disturbing and not quite right about me, and the place I have found myself in. I slide my hand between my legs and expect to find that I have wet myself. Instead I find the inside of my thighs are silky smooth with sweat.
In the bathroom mirror my skin is pallid and my pupils are an inky black. I wrench thin strands of damp hair from my scalp and feel relieved when it hurts. I bite the inside of my cheek again and again and my tongue frantically searches to find even the tiniest taste of blood.
I am relieved, when I turn on the bedroom light switch and find that I am still in a room that has two Laura Ashley lampshades.
Now I walk back to the bed with my left arm outstretched like a somnambulist; reaching for my partner and the reassurance of his body. I smile because I love his soft, flabby skin, and because he is warm and breathing and because I am alive and still with us. So I thrust my knees into the back of his and I know immediately that I am exactly where I want to be.
Now I have determined that I am still alive and that it is fear and not death that is visiting me, I intend to go back to sleep. Its presence is intense and will never be defeated, but perhaps I can find room to accommodate it. So I beckon with my index finger, move in closer I say, and I open my arms to entice it. I have to wait a long time before it yields a little, then eventually relaxes into sleep with me.
There is a way that I might travel in this foreign land. My companion is not one I would have chosen but better, perhaps, than being entirely alone. Fear will be my anchor now, and against it I can measure anything.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: W.carter [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons