S T O R I E S I N T H E T I M E O F A P A N D E M I C
When I woke I didn’t know how long I’d been there. I could see but I couldn’t hear. And I couldn’t speak. There were no windows in the room yet it was full of light. Penetrating, inescapable light. I realised I was conscious, that once again I had the thing called consciousness. This meant that for a period of time that might have been hours or even days the world had been unknown to me, had carried on while I took no part in it.
I knew I was on the cusp of something, but not what that something might be. Perhaps we recognise danger even when we understand little else. I lay propped up like a child in a cot. Plastic arteries bled into my arms. My heart was a machine on a shelf, flashing sporadically. Channels conducted coloured poisons from my body. I was alive but helpless.
This was when the beings started to enter the room – two of them, arriving at intervals, one at a time. They were dressed identically; masks, uniforms and hair squeezed into caps. I could see the movements of speech beneath their masks, but it was only when they touched me that I knew they could be human, and that I was in their power. Although they seemed to do the same things, I could sense their intentions towards me were different.
I’ve questioned these memories many times. I’ve read that we form memories by encoding them, that each memory quickly becomes private and complex, born in perception, ever after dependent on interpretation. But experience has its own truth. By the time I understood I was being tended by two nurses it was obvious that only one wanted me to live.
I had to be vigilant. The senses available to me were sight and touch. Seeing I could do for myself, touch I could only receive. So I watched how their lips moved, felt the brush of their hands as they straightened my pillow, hooked and unhooked the strange extensions to my body, applied cool damp cloth to my face and legs. Soon I learned to anticipate this: each visit obeyed the same pattern, at first.
I can’t say how long it was before I began to see colours around them. Suddenly this became possible, in fact unavoidable. That was when the contrast I had sensed was made plain.
The nurse with a nimbus of soft golds and yellows changed the quality of light in the room whenever she entered. She made it gentler, took the glare away. Her movements were sure and full of meaning – almost another way of talking to me. She gave eye contact as she completed each task. Gave eye contact: in this situation it was indeed a gift. Her eyes said you are hidden but I’ll find you. And I’ll bring you back.
Her presence helped me retrieve a first hint of memory. There was a time, I realised, years before, when I would have prayed. The prayer of petition, the cry for help. But somehow I had let go of things I couldn’t believe in. Now I felt their absence. Except when she was with me.
The other nurse was surrounded by ambers tapering to a fringe of dark red near her shoulders. She followed an identical sequence to her colleague, and nothing she did caused me actual pain. Her facial expression was always neutral, the neutrality of someone who habitually withholds another self. Watching her, I was suddenly visited by a childhood flashback of being in hospital: the confusion of finding myself among adults who showed only kindness, next to those who made it obvious I was simply a task. Some gave, some simply did.
But the person before me now was not just bound to a routine. I could sense an intentional restraint, like someone who could feed you but chooses not to. This made me analyse her features. Her skin was unlined but taut. The corners of her mouth, set beneath flat cheeks, turned down slightly. Her eyes were hazel and showed little intensity, even in the act of concentrating. With her hair drawn out of sight, I was reminded of a death mask, the sort that betrays just enough clues to make you wonder who the person it was cast from really was.
I began to fight silently to regain my past, to bring back memories one by one. A cluster of images fell into my mind bearing the smell and hiss of the sea, the wash of spume across my feet, the sensation of running across firm, wet sand. That’s when I knew I hadn’t always been powerless. The images seemed utterly remote, but I knew that once I had lived them.
The next time the golden nurse came she looked at me differently. Perhaps my eyes told her something. There’s a type of kindness I’ve only found in very serious people. She was unsmiling and focussed, but in a way that unmistakeably transmitted love. Love that pierced me. I tried to read her lips. There was none of the exaggerated puckering I’d seen people adopt when faced with those who can’t hear. When she talked to me I felt sure she must be speaking quietly, and yet her eyes said I will lend you my strength.
Another memory surfaced, this time in the form of a dream. I was in some sort of tunnel, and my throat was constricted. Every part of me wanted to be rid of something. The tunnel seemed fleshy and moist. It undulated and pulsed around me. It was as if I was somewhere within my own body, unguarded and alone. Hot damp air passed me rhythmically from opposite directions, hotter still when returning. Just as I began to feel myself suffocating, I was thrown violently backwards and out, expelled from a place inside myself. The memory ended and I lay trembling, with cold sweat on my face that I couldn’t wipe away.
The amber nurse arrived to attend to me shortly after. I looked at her impassive expression, her competent but dispassionate hands. If she noticed I was disturbed she gave no sign. It was clear we had one thing in common. Neither of us, I’m sure, would have chosen to be where we were, although I sensed she was exploiting the situation in her own way. Strangely, it was with her that the first traces of sound started to return. Although she rarely spoke, when she did, I began to detect staccato patterns: sibilance and the percussion of hard consonants. I watched the shapes her mouth made but they told me nothing more.
‘Toxic.’ It was the golden nurse who gave me my first full word. I had searched her face, listened to the elements of sound, then reconstructed it within minutes after she left. I was re-engaging with the world and it had lost none of its complexity. In the few hours before I saw her again my hearing returned fully.
‘We think you’ve been poisoned.’ For a brief moment she brushed my cheek with her fingers.
I felt my diaphragm twitch but no words came out.
‘Don’t strain yourself, but keep trying,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you make noises.’
She knew I could understand her. And I knew then that I would speak again. For the first time she smiled, though her eyes were still searching, and I realised how much she had lived this time with me.
Fluids came and left my body, like a form of renewal. They began to wash away my paralysis. I learned again to move my feet and fingers. I hid this from the amber nurse. I still called her that although the colour around her was changing. The darker tints near her shoulders had begun to seep upwards, infusing the amber cloud around her head, increasing its sombre effect. It was as if what cleansed me contaminated her. I began to think of my situation as a battle of wills.
‘The toxins are slowly leaving your system. We’re going the right way.’
The golden nurse seemed more tranquil now. The tension had gone from her forehead and eyes and I sensed she had allowed herself to relax some of her vigilance. She could see that at last I was beginning to heal myself. Even if she’d said nothing I would have known that she thought the crisis was over.
I began to feel movement in my face again, my features reclaiming the gift of expression. I was able to smile when she came into the room. I wondered how many patients before me, as their faculties returned, had come to realise they were in love with her.
Her image lent me the strength to speak my first words, alone to myself like a rehearsal for whatever might come next. Slowly, I began to formulate short sentences, my voice dry and full of shadows. Before long I would be able to say what I needed to.
But even as this happened, the sensation I’d regained in my feet and lower legs started to slip away again. The amber nurse had changed the fluids on my drip stands – the normal protocol – but soon after I felt a dizziness, a disorientation. I remained passive before her, took care not to reveal myself, guarded each rudiment of communication I’d regained. In her presence I remembered, as if from some distant past, the burden of being aware. It was like a truth I’d held inside: the more awareness the greater the burden. I was not going to let her extort my energy or impinge on any part of my consciousness, providing such things were within my control. But perhaps they were not.
Nothing drastic seemed to happen. She was too subtle for that. But slowly my strength ebbed away again. I fought to keep concentration – in this situation it was a greater weapon than mobility. I became conscious of the notes stacked in a holder at the foot of my bed, taunting and unreachable. I imagined what they might say: failure to thrive. If I allowed myself to fall back again that would be no more than the truth.
There are many ways to fight. I counted each sensation, each fraction of acuity, as an asset. I imagined fluent speech, bodily strength, eventual agency in the outside world.
The golden nurse seemed to sense this. She spent precious minutes massaging my hands and feet, telling me simple stories about life beyond the four stark walls of my room. I watched her and realised why we speak of ‘recovery’. It involves bringing back what has been lost.
‘Thank you,’ I said one night, when I could see she was very tired. I managed to nod my head an inch or so. It was as near as I could get to a bow.
Her eyes opened wide, and for a moment the light around her expanded out, filling the room, penetrating my senses. And then it dipped away like a power cut, and I feared she might be losing strength too. In the end everything reduces to a matter of energy. As I gazed at her an image flashed before me of clear water, slowly turning cloudy. I found this more frightening than anything that had happened within the confines of my own body. Who would save me if she lost strength?
I remember that moment so clearly, and yet I’m told memory and imagination are formed in the same part of the brain. What can be trusted, especially when the mind is tired, the body weak, and the senses inflamed?
All I know for sure is that I began to deteriorate quickly after that. Perhaps the golden nurse had lost whatever fed her power to heal. Perhaps the amber nurse sensed our weakness and saw in it opportunity.
I thought I had been asleep. Possibly in a way I had. I looked down on my body from some place above. It seemed strange that such a fragile thing had been my vehicle in the world. As I gazed at it I realised I could forgive myself most things – could forgive most people most things. How can we be other than fallible when we travel so ill-equipped? My body, the object I had thought of as myself, was surrounded by darkness, the harsh glare of the room no longer apparent. But within that darkness my physical being emanated light, and I knew it was not yet time to leave it.
When I woke it was part of me again, or I of it. I felt a newness beyond any experience I could trace. At first I struggled to work out what this meant. And then I understood. I had returned free of fear. At least free of the only fear that had concerned me in this strange, unknowing time. I was free of the fear of death.
I could only speculate why this had happened. Perhaps I had seen what death is, entered a liminal state and chosen to return. Or perhaps I had seen the flimsy thing called life in its true reality: easily shed for something that is at least no worse.
‘We nearly lost you.’ The golden nurse took my hand and held it tightly.
‘Don’t fight for me anymore,’ I said. ‘Everything’s changed.’
She sat looking at me, and I was conscious of nothing except her eyes within the outline of her face. The room was utterly still, and I felt I was being granted a moment out of time.
“It’s just me now,’ she said. ‘My colleague won’t be coming back. You’ve made the choice to be well.’
header image: “quell” sculpted feathers by Kate MccGwire
©Literati Magazine 1999-2020. All rights reserved.