RELUCTANT, RESISTANT, FRIGHTENED

Kilpack, Sarah Louisa; Salvaging the Wreck; Guernsey Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/salvaging-the-wreck-136547

I’ve been away from THIS IS THE MOMENT for a while. This past month, I’ve been thinking that if ever I succeed in shaping these pieces into a book, that it will have a long title, It will have to be named:

THIS IS THE MOMENT

 Cancer, Chemo and Covid-19:

Two improbable years in a clinical trial

 It’s certainly the alliteration that rocked my world. I wonder if the best portrayal of the person I was when I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in July 2018, is of a woman with training wheels: not yet competent and ready for the ride ahead?

But 2020, my gosh, what a year so far! Four months in, and I don’t dare look around the corner—which I think is a reasonable response.

* * *

In February 2020, Covid-19 wasn’t yet a familiar word. Instead, I was hearing warnings and reports about a new coronavirus outbreak in China…so many miles away…But Simon, versed in epidemiology, already understood that something was up, and was reading the available scientific literature about it.

By the first week of March, the coronavirus had begun to loom over everyone and everything, as we were starting to grasp the fact that it posed a very serious, yet still mysterious threat. It was Spring Break in Quebec. Many Québécois were gone for the week: to ski locally, to see the sights of New York City, to the beaches of sunny Florida, to Europe and on cruises. They had, in fact, for the most part, picked the worst possible destinations. The worst infection zones. My cancer keeps me welded in place, so instead, we had friends and family over for dinners, my grandchildren for a full day of jewelry-making and baking and fun.

The news grew worse. The expression “social distancing” was read and heard more and more. My inner alarms had activated. I knew I had to go into Montreal twice the following week, to the CHUM, for my usual chemotherapy but also the standard pre-chemo blood tests etc. Two consecutive days: March 9th and 10th, and that I would have to take the train and the metro and hang around at the hospital for hours, both days.

It was a torment. The word pandemic had emerged by then.

And my innards began resisting. I felt chronically upset and anxious. More so than I’d felt since I was first diagnosed. I didn’t want to go into the city and take all of those risks, but neither did I want to miss life-sustaining treatment.

I went into the CHUM that Tuesday reluctant, resistant, frightened. During the preceding days, I exchanged several emails with my research nurse, hoping she’d say something magical that would keep me safe.

The week before Spring Break, the strangest thing had happened. My oncologist, Dr. Aubin, who is always gracious and kind, but who also weighs every word carefully, had greeted me in her office with the warmest smile. Bonjour Mme Payette, she’d said, and continued to smile. And after the usual questions about any side effects I might have, she’d simply said (in French): “I’m so happy. You’re doing so well. Really! Bravo!” , and she’d looked at the spreadsheet with all of the information gleaned from my blood work that filled the large screen of her computer, and had said: ”I’m really very happy for you. This is the Nivolumab we see at work [the immunotherapy drug|. And honestly, you can’t really be considered immune-suppressed right now.”

Sedgley, Peter; Corona; Arts Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/corona-64096

 This never happens. This kind of unguarded, spontaneous revelation? Never. Reassurance that things are going in the right direction? Yes. That my tumours have shrunk almost 60% since I started? Yes. But this smile that revealed that, as an oncologist, this was truly gratifying progress (stage 4 cancer is at best a chronic disease)? Never.

For a few days, I got to live in an almost carefree state. Or at least, in a mind space that I could sprinkle optimism and a newfound joy into.

Ten days later, the human world seemed to be imploding. And still does. It’s a world smothered by Covid-19, the name of the virus we will all have been branded with, whether infected or not.

Daily catastrophic news and statistics poured in, and not so long ago, I found myself thinking: I don’t want to NOT die of cancer!

* * *

The empty commuter train

When I arrived at the train station early in the morning on Tuesday, March 9th, I was so stressed that I felt a bit sick to my stomach. There were two cars in the parking lot which usually accommodates more than a hundred, maybe even hundreds: mine and a blue one, side by side. It was 7:09 and I thought for sure that I wouldn’t make it up to the actual boarding area on time for the 7:10 train. But when I climbed the concrete stairs, the train was just idling there. Its doors open. No one in sight. Not a soul. A ghost train.

The empty commuter train

Unsure what was going on, I boarded, and saw a young man in the next car and felt immediate relief. And then the doors shut. Almost soundless. And the train started to move, with stealth. I was completely alone in my section. There were eleven stations left before I was meant to get off. I saw two or three people, at the most, get on at any of these stations. No one ever joined me in the section I had chosen. This should have been the most packed train of the morning. Standing room only. Rush hour. Instead, it felt dead. Post-apocalyptic. It took just a few minutes for my sense of relief at not being at risk of infection turn to a terrible, lonely feeling. I got a lump in my throat. I felt the urge to cry. I felt anguished. The part of my brain that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book, BLINK, was signaling unease, unease, unease, something’s off, something’s wrong…

When I reached Vendôme station to take the metro, it was much the same.

At the underground entrance of the CHUM, again, near desolation.

The empty commuter train

It was as though the physical world had transformed itself into the way cancer made me feel during those first months and seasons of treatment.

The cues that guide us every day had disappeared.

Since then, I’ve grown more accustomed to this strange, empty world. I head into chemo alone now. Only the very weak, those suffering the most, are allowed companionship and that’s the way it should be. I miss Louise, my precious friend, who accompanied me so regularly, then drove me all the way home after chemo, and stayed for supper. But I’m lucky, my son Jeremy who is now working from home, has come all the way to the CHUM to pick me up and bring me home several times. I miss Christian, who often popped in on a day he wasn’t working, to keep me company.

The desolate parking lot at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue station

Simon is here, teaching online. Keeping his energy up. Keeping me informed. Making delicious meals and, I’m sure, feeling starved of the physical company of the colleagues, friends and family he so happily mingles with and opens this home’s doors to at every opportunity.

In truth, my life has changed less than most people’s. I’ve been in training for the past 19 months, learning to stay put, monitor my health, avoid germs and stay out of harm’s way.

* * *

Last Monday, I had to return to the CHUM for my scheduled CT-Scan (every eight weeks, like clockwork). On this day, I waited a long time for my turn: several hours, sitting in a hospital gown, a catheter stuck in my arm, on a stiff plastic chair in a cool hallway staring at a wall. When I was finally called, I did as asked, and lay down on the sliding “bed” that is part of the scanner. And then the phone rang, and the technician told me without a shred of gentleness in her voice to get up, that someone suspected of having coronavirus was on the way, and I would have to go back to the waiting area.

And so I got up off the machine, and looked at this woman, and wondered why they couldn’t just do the scan which barely takes 5 minutes. And then I think I said (in French): Well, I’m not sure that after 19 months of cancer treatment, coronavirus is very good for me either…”

 It wasn’t my finest moment. I was imagining the virus lingering in the room. It’s what fear does. And being cut off from fellow humans. And getting worn down.

Waiting area in Cancérologie at the CHUM, .

I’ve noticed how, in the metro, the train, and all the enclosed spaces where we’re asked to practice “social distancing”, we’ve stopped making eye contact. We’ve reduced each other to mobile, possible threats to our wellbeing.

That incoming patient on the way to be scanned…

I don’t know who they were: man, woman, young, old. I don’t know if every intake of air into their lungs was agonizing. I don’t know if they were accompanied. But I’m sure they were scared.

I’m also sure that the CT-Scan technician has seen many such patients, and that the area she works in had to be scoured and decontaminated for the umpteenth time that day, that week, that month…

Her tone had changed when I was eventually called back in. Some of the stress had left it.

I will receive my scan results tomorrow. I want to say  “as usual”, but those words ring hollow.

Paul, Celia; Study: My Mother and the Cross; Lakeland Arts Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/study-my-mother-and-the-cross-145440

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT AM I AFRAID OF?

Stout, Jennifer; Untitled; University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-108170

October 31st, 2018

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

In my lifetime, a lot of what I’ve thought about is fabricated within the trap my mind has set for me by keeping me preoccupied with the future. I wonder if I haven’t spent at least a quarter of my life planning for the future, thinking of what would be, what might be… Worrying about what my children’s lives will be like (they are grown men of 27 and 35, for heaven’s sake) what will happen to them, and their children (with climate change and everything going on in the world, it’s hard to zig and zag away from those worries).

Until 2017-2018, there was also what would happen to me in teaching, as the school board went through endless personnel restructuring; how I would manage to hold onto my job and  do everything I wanted to do: teach, write, be a loving mother, daughter, wife, friend and grand-maman;, take care of my body and health; how I would fit it all in as I age, in spite of the cumulative fatigue and significant stress…How well I would live that “second life” (a life after life) promised to so many women who are mothers…

Peart, Tony; Fear of the Unknown; Darlington Borough Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/fear-of-the-unknown-44103

Would I be able to keep living with my husband? Would I ever find a way to redress the mistakes of my past that brought me to the place where I was: a mixture of daily passion, joy, love, buried sadness and marital stress…

When would my health begin to fail? (well, it was already failing, wasn’t it?). Would I be afflicted with breast cancer like my mum? Heart disease or lung cancer like my dad? Alzheimer’s? (I honestly never thought about a violent death)

How would I reconcile the different parts of me that pulled in different directions: the teacher, the emerging writer, the mother, the friend, the daughter, the disillusioned spouse, the person as yet undiscovered (because I feel that too—none of us ever stops changing and becoming)?

Aarrestad, Katharine; ‘This is the end of you’; Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/this-is-the-end-of-you-106556

Would there ever come a time when I got my life exactly right, that is, when I became the best person I could be—the very best version of Michelle, who got all her shit together and arrived at the end of her life having worked through most of the distractions and mistakes and simply become a genuine, good person?

(The worry generator in your own mind undoubtedly produces similar thoughts, like small, irksome movies that eat away at your serenity.)

And then there was my cancer diagnosis, that peeled away everything extraneous, and focused an intense beam. It brought all of my fears right in front of me, reducing my field of vision. What have been my worries since July? Not the big, broad strokes on the canvas. It’s the details of my life that are preoccupying. I have become myopic.

Brown, Neil Dallas; Shroud; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/shroud-83397

What’s chemo doing to my body? What is this change in the pigmentation of my skin? Is it dangerous? Permanent? Can a person develop melanoma while undergoing immune therapy and chemo? Are these changes to my body—its premature aging—reversible? Will my body recover its strength and musculature? How long will it take for my hair to grow in and for my body to return to its “normal”, familiar appearance?

And what about after chemo? Will there be radiation? Will every lesion in my body be hunted down relentlessly? Will there be surgeries? How many? What if the metastases make a spectacular resurgence? How much time will I have after this first wave of treatment ends before cancer returns? How many years like this year can I endure? How strong am I? What if cancer goes to my brain? How long will I accept to live with that before I choose release? What if it migrates surreptitiously to my bones? To my pancreas? (these are among the worse-case scenarios because they’re the most painful)

Deacy, Brendon; Stolen Woman; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/stolen-woman-19504

What if I can never teach again? Do I want to teach again? What if I run out of money? What if, what if, what if…There seems to be no limit to the apprehension my brain can manufacture.

So many waves of angst that could just keep rolling over me, drowning out everything else. Which they did for a while.

But something has happened. It rose out of my life and almost completely snuffed out the fear that I was stoking and that swirled around me. It emerged out of a thousand threads: from the thoughts, messages, prayers, benevolent intentions and wishes, warmth and LOVE of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who have hugged me, messaged me, called me, visited me and rooted for me since my diagnosis; from the impeccable, humane, professional and all-encompassing care I’ve received at the CHUM; from the radical transformation of my life which brought me to this peaceful house in this quiet town that is encircled by nature; from the tranquility I find here, which allows me to simply exist in moment after stressless moment; to the resolution of the sadness and pain of my marriage through separation; to the gift of TIME, which was foist upon me by the exigencies of chemo, and created large spaces of forced idleness that I filled by writing, napping, reading, thinking, listening to music alone, and watching television all curled up in a blanket…I know I’m repeating myself here, but it stills feels unreal to me.

Uhlman, Fred; My House in Wales; University of Warwick; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-house-in-wales-55850

The truth is, I’ve never been so stress-free. Imagine that. It makes no sense, but the fact remains that since I’ve learned that I have metastatic cancer, I’ve moved closer and closer to a place of calm and peace. Maybe that’s because these past three months have not only pulled me out, by the roots, of my previous life and patterns, but have also stripped away all of the weeds and strangling things in my life, placing me squarely before the starkest possible truth: that I am mortal, that I WILL die, that I have NOW, and that my future is unwritten. NO ONE KNOWS what lies before me, except that I will die, as will we all.  I don’t want to live for all eternity, so why should I be afraid? Or put another way, why should a fear of pain in the future cause me pain in the present?

On November 13th, I’ll undergo the first CT-Scan since I began chemo. The results could be crushing. They could also indicate that the treatments are working beautifully. They’ll be given to me roughly a week after that. There are indications from my body that there have been positive changes: certain symptoms of my cancer have simply vanished. What should I do with these thoughts in the meantime?

Mostyn, Thomas Edwin; Peace; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peace-205642

In a lovely, thought-provoking novel by Matt Haig that I’ve just finished, titled How to Stop Time, I found this series of questions. To the question: What am I afraid of? ,  I would add: Why am I afraid?

 And then, I would turn to this list of questions, which is nestled at the end of Haig’s How to Stop Time, and I would delight in the answering:

 “And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I?

If I could live with doubt, what would I do?

If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over?

If I could love without fear of being hurt?

If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss tomorrow?

If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal?

Yes.

What would I do?

Who would I care for?

What battle would I fight?

Which paths would I step down?

What joys would I allow myself?

What internal mysteries would I allow myself?

How, in short, will I live?”

 [This is an excerpt from Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, Harper Collins, 2018, p.314]

Mostyn, Thomas Edwin; Peace; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peace-8073

 

 

 

 

SAMUEL

Henderson, Anne G.; Life Circle; Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/life-circle-59910

June 21st 2017

My day had an upbeat beginning. My teaching engagements have slowed to a trickle, so I have more windows of time to fill differently.

This morning, that meant accepting my mum’s invitation to a tea party at her house with Anne, my daughter-in-law, and Penelope and Graeme, my grandchildren (now 5 and 3).  While my mum and Anne stayed at the table a little longer enjoying each other’s company, I was called to a higher purpose—that is, playing with P&G (or Beans and Chuck Norris, as their papa calls them).

Aside from a bit of teaching preparation for tomorrow that still needed doing, the only other thing on my agenda was (and still is as I write this) an invitation to attend the vernissage of the latest collection of works by members of the Montreal Camera Club.

In between, I spent some time in front of this laptop. A couple of hours ago, an email dropped into my Inbox. It was from Miriam, a former student of mine whom I last saw in class last fall. Its title is MEET OUR BABY BOY.

These are just words to you. Happy and upbeat.

But in me, they’ve set off something altogether different: a swirling wash of feelings that have completely taken me over. Even as I sit here typing, I’m almost entirely absorbed in the emotional memories Miriam and Abmel’s newfound joy has awoken.

I feel such bliss for them. Such empathy and euphoria. And something close to disbelief, because this event is sublime, and laced with a residual sadness that has made me cry and left me with a pressure in my chest from so many more tears still wanting to be released, and my physical self just barely able to contain them.

Miriam and Abmel became parents on June 15th, at 9:12 pm. Their son weighed 7 pounds one ounce. A lovely time of day to be born. A perfect weight. In her email, Miriam wrote: “We are very happy and just wanted you to share our joy.”

How perfectly normal.

Munn, Michelle; Untitled 1954; Birmingham City University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-1954-32987

But no, no, no. NOT to Miriam and Abmel, who are in their early forties, who have lost several babies, I think, to miscarriage—the last time, at more than twenty weeks—a baby they could hold and touch and recognise as having everything and yet still did not live. A baby old enough to tear their hearts out.

Miriam was a beginner when she first started French lessons, and more than once had to endure the litany of beginner questions like: Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What are their names ?—to which her colleagues responded so naturally, but which required of Miriam tremendous grace and discretion. I only realised this later.

When she first became my student, and those questions came up and Miriam answered “No, no. No children”, with a polite smile, I thought that perhaps there was a fertility problem with the couple, or that they’d just chosen not to have any. Miriam was always so private.

But when Abmel, who was more advanced in his French, became my student, things changed between the three of us. While Miriam is ebullient and expressive, Abmel is quieter and more intense.

Anima 1
by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

He was struggling with his pain, and with a weariness that was in part the result of dealing with family problems back in his native Cuba, but more profoundly, with an incipient loss of meaning in his life.

Miriam is always warm and optimistic, despite the trauma of her losses, but Abmel’s was the energy of someone aggrieved. It isn’t just that he had the words to say more; Abmel wanted to say more; to express his feelings of growing dissatisfaction with a life in which career pursuits seemed hollower, and in which there was nothing, yet, that he could imagine on the horizon, to quell his unease.

Miriam stopped coming to French class a month early. I’d heard that she was very busy with work; that her department was overwhelmed by the effects of a recent project. And then, one Friday afternoon in December, after his class, Abmel waited till everyone had left the conference room and told me that Miriam was pregnant again. No, that’s not quite right: he whispered that Miriam was pregnant.

Fisher, Samuel; Mater et filius; Solihull Heritage & Local Studies Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mater-et-filius-55683

I remembered an earlier class when, speaking of the last child he and Miriam had lost, Abmel had spread his hands out in front of him—the width of a shoebox—his opposing palms slightly curved, as though touching invisible feet and an invisible head, to show me that THIS was the immensity of their loss.

On Abmel’s face last December, I could read everything. He didn’t smile when he delivered his news and I knew why. He was afraid that Fate was listening.

He didn’t smile because he was afraid to hope and to believe that this time could end differently. He didn’t smile because he was now on guard. Again. Thrown into a state of powerless vigilance. There was fear in his face and a tightness—each experience having further compromised his capacity for carefree joy. Abmel’s face is beautiful, and lined.

MEET OUR BABY BOY detonated in my Inbox. I had resisted contacting Miriam, asking for news. I knew that she was on precautionary pregnancy leave and I worried that if something had gone wrong, my inquiries would only cause her distress.

Downie, Kate; 12 Minute Baby; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/12-minute-baby-83821

MEET OUR BABY BOY. And attached to her words, a photo of baby Samuel, minutes after his birth, resting on Miriam’s breast. And on her face, an expression of completeness and peace.

I lost most of this afternoon to a flood of feelings that I couldn’t contain and that left me spent and all upside down and, improbably, calm.

A Lullaby, by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

Miriam and Abmel’s son Samuel is like my Christian: the life that vanquishes a grief that seemed bottomless.

His parents are not sleeping very much these days. Their lives have just expanded a thousandfold and are no longer their own. Abmel’s search for meaning is over. And Miriam? Well…I like to imagine her in the moments captured by Abmel’s photo.

June 15th, 2017

 Dear Miriam,

                 Today, you sit up in a hospital bed. It is early evening. Your bleary-eyed husband stands next to you, staring in awe at the beautiful new son you cradle in your arms, who is as fragile and miraculous as life itself. And imprinted on his tiny head and body are all the joys, sorrows and pains that Fate will cast upon him. But you will love him enough to make his journey worthwhile.

             And then, you turn him toward you. You lift him to your face, feeling his breath, absorbing his scent. And you bring him closer, ever so gently, so that his tiny head might nestle in the warm hollow of your neck. And slowly, slowly, you rub your jaw along the silky down covering his delicate skull, and then it happens: that long awaited moment of absolute remembrance. It is exactly as you knew it would be. It is timeless. It is sacred. And at long, long last, you tilt your head and kiss your son.

Collins, Cecil; Dawn Invocation; Towner; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dawn-invocation-73112

 

                                                   

EMERGENCY

Nicholas, G.; Hospital Scene; Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-43150

At about 3:20 on Tuesday morning, the phone rang, and then rang and rang, piercing the silence and finally my sleep which was much deeper than usual. An unfortunate stroke of good fortune—my deep sleep, that is—because it took me a while to emerge from it.

This wasn’t a problem for my ever-vigilant husband who snapped into alertness and rushed to the ringing phone (we don’t keep one in our bedroom). I heard him speaking quietly and heard the seriousness in his voice.

He came back to our room and said, in French: “It’s your mum. She’s had a heart attack and there’s blood everywhere.”

His words exploded the quiet of night. But it still took too long for me to activate—precious, dangerous minutes for me to become fully coherent and functional. Mostly, as I struggled to get dressed and clear my head, all I could say was oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…Imagining terrible things. Unable to reconcile the cardiac event with the blood—why the blood?

John Bellany, Self-Portrait in Hospital; The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-in-hospital-233775

Because my mum lives so close by, we were there in a flash. It was a terrible time of transition and my husband drove too fast and not fast enough. With our own key to her house, we let ourselves in and there she was, lying on the sofa covered in a blanket, her bloody head on a smeared pillow.

Waiting for help.

This narrative ends well. I’ve no desire to build suspense. My mum had passed out twice. Falling to the ground in her kitchen, she’d hurt her face and ribs. She then made it to the bathroom and tried to wash the blood from her nose, her face, her hair—she’d lain in it. The second time she lost consciousness, the water was still running in the bathroom sink and soon spilled onto the floor around her.

Blood and water.

She woke up again and thought to turn off the tap, got herself to the sofa and waited till… (I can’t finish this: I can’t explain her reticence to call us asap).

And then she phoned us.

There was an ambulance and paramedics. Two women working in tandem like they’d always been a team, with very few words—spoken with equanimity—probing, observing, evaluating. And my mum answered every question with perfect lucidity. Out came the spinal board, the cervical collar and a long, narrow, dark oval wrapper that enveloped my mum like a giant synthetic canoe.

Carter, Grace; Miller Hospital; Greenwich Heritage Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/miller-hospital-193755

My husband and I reached the hospital before they did. He went to park the car and I walked into EMERGENCY. It was a weirdly dissonant, anticlimactic moment. Except for a security guard behind glass in his booth off in a corner, the emergency waiting room was empty. I’ve never seen this before and don’t expect to ever see it again. Stranger than fiction. There was an aura of calm after a storm. I was thrown by the sudden deceleration.

The ambulance arrived without fuss, or flash, or drama. My mum was unloaded right in front of me. The medical baton passed from the emergency medical technicians to the nurses, one woman and two men, all working the last few hours of their night shift.

I stayed close, then was sent to an out-of-the-way corner to sit quietly, and then allowed back to be with my mum. All permissible because it was so quiet everywhere in triage. Pumped up on adrenaline, my husband just couldn’t sit still and so he was released to go back home and try to sleep.

Fox-Pitt, Douglas; Indian Army Wounded in Hospital in the Dome, Brighton; IWM (Imperial War Museums); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/indian-army-wounded-in-hospital-in-the-dome-brighton-6030

My mum and I had now entered the stall zone, an area of time existing only in hospitals, which probably feels like an endless succession of shifts to the medical personnel, but is a state of static, passive half-life to patients and those who love them.

With her preliminary examinations and tests done, my mum and I moved to spot 15, one space from the window at the far end of the Emergency ward and right next to where I had spent several scary hours at my husband’s side along with my sons, in December 2012, after he suffered a serious, amnesia-inducing concussion.

Being in Emergency stirs up all of those past memories—layer upon layer of emotional scar tissue: a child’s badly broken arm, a slashed eyelid, a gashed finger, a scary virus and more. Long days, long waits and feelings of helplessness.

Enough time had passed so that the ward had filled up again. When we’d first arrived, my husband had read on a monitor mounted on the wall that Emergency had operated at 211% of its capacity the previous day and into the night.

During the twelve hours that my mum and I were there together, I came and went, getting tea, getting food, walking through the rows and rows of people on stretchers as I exited and returned, realizing that my mum had lucked out, that she was in fact in a sweet spot in the ward. Because by midday, there were patients everywhere, filling not only the small spaces defined by curtains, but what remained in the aisles between them.

Curtois, Mary Henrietta Dering; Ruston Ward, Lincoln County Hospital; The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery);

Whether patients or loved ones, we all shared the same sense of unease. Emergency is a terrible place to be and while we’re there, we’re trapped—by our injuries, by disease, by the ties that bind us.

Nobre, Manuel; Hospital Scene; CW+; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-178621

Emergency is the ground zero of health care and government bureaucracy, and everyone who enters knows this and feels the first tingle of fear. It’s a place of serious and possibly critical illness, trauma and pain. Sometimes, it’s just the first part of a long and harrowing passage toward death.

Every new person on a stretcher who gets wheeled into its corridors pushes every other patient that much closer to the indignity of anonymous suffering. Of being overlooked. Of being left alone for hours, exposed and vulnerable.

It’s a place where discretion and compassion must constantly be exercised. Women and men leave decades of conditioning behind and suffer constant assaults to their sense of personal modesty within view and earshot and smell of each other. Bodies are not beautiful in Emergency.

While I was there with my mum, I was struck by the number of older men who’d been admitted, having been fitted with oxygens masks or else tubes in their noses; many with COPD, diabetes, failing kidneys. Some with concerned and tired-looking wives by their side but too many, alone.

Such solitude is unimaginable to me.

Awan, Sara; Hospital 2; Durham County Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-2-43866

My mother didn’t have a heart attack on Tuesday. For want of a better explanation, the most likely reason for the two periods of unconsciousness she experienced was a vasovagal reaction to a bacterial or viral infection. As her condition improved and my focus was able to shift a little, I abandoned discretion and began looking at faces. When you look closely enough, you can see the invisible walls that some have built around themselves with the intention, I think, of containing the scale of misery and worry they have to endure. It looked to me like most of the time, the wall builder was the companion, not the patient.

On most faces, you can read tension, fatigue, worry, restlessness and fear. Sometimes, submission. Sometimes, combativeness.

As I came and went and even as I stayed by my mum’s side, I decided to make eye contact and smile at people. That’s how I met 89-year-old Mr. Pilkington, his wife and youngest daughter, and that’s how I met the tiny, mischievous Italian woman who immediately took to calling me la bella signorina every time she stopped by on one her short and restless walking tours.

My mum was badly shaken, but has bounced back. She’s such a marvel. I didn’t realize how affected I was by it all until the following day, when it was all I could do not to cry when my thoughts slid just slightly sideways to her and how close she’d come. I was so tired.

Emergency is a reminder that our daily wellbeing is built on clouds and  can be undone by something as simple as  a night-time walk to the kitchen for something to settle your stomach.

It’s a place full of dangers, the very worst of which, in the tumult of medical care, may be the breakdown of human solidarity.

Pomeroy, Tim; My Old Men, Hospital; Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-old-men-hospital-105860

 

EXPRESSIONS OF RESISTANCE

I arrived home yesterday depleted. That’s really the only word for it despite the fact that it was a good day. Wednesday is my hardest and longest teaching day. Paying such close attention to people who are nestled so closely around me for hours on end may, in fact, draw out of me more than it does some of my colleagues. Perhaps more than I’m really able to give.

November Sunset, photo by me
November Sunset, photo by me

At the end of such a day, it makes sense that I just wanted to head home to lay low, to have several cups of steaming tea and soothe my vocal chords.

I dropped all of my bags, set the kettle on the stovetop and opened this laptop. I do this to reconnect with the world that I’m drawn away from by my work and my absences. I move from my email inboxes to Facebook, seeing what I’ve missed (or briefly caught on the screen of my IPhone before it flitted away).

It’s a highly interactive but quiet world that is both a highway of engagement with others and one of my favourite places of retreat.

November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window
November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window

I discover brilliant sites online that I subscribe to happily and which now fill my Inbox every day with notices. I skim through the online papers though there are too many.  I visit the surface of the lives of the people I care about, wanting to see the evidence, through pictures, posts and messages, that they’re well, that they’re still there. I’m apprehensive about letting any of them fall through the cracks of my awareness.

 

When I got home yesterday, Christian and my husband were sitting together watching something on Netflix. Everything about the scene and the feeling in the house was benign and calm, except me.

Victor Hugo, La Pieuvre

I couldn’t bring myself to go sit with them; it was too soon. So I opened up this laptop. And scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled. And was inundated by posts about the Trump presidency. Facebook’s algorithms saw to it that all of them—from the most considered and balanced to the most polemical and shrill—were unrelentingly distressing, worrying, disturbing, depressing and alienating. This stream was magnified by the posts of friends and their friends from both sides of the border who are, as I am, in agony.

 

This election year in the country of my neighbours to the South has filled me with a sense of dread. There’s a darkness in the world that has revealed itself and that clings to me.

I know how this sounds. But I also know that I’m a healthy and emotionally balanced, level- headed, very intuitive woman and I trust what I’m feeling.

I’ve been alerted.

Warned.

I feel the breath of something that wills ill. Something that’s tearing the social fabric in an unendurable manner. Something that it may take decades to heal from. Something that seeks to separate us from each other and divert us from what we must do and become.

More immediately, it’s a dark energy that will envelop and endanger the people I love: my students from all around the world, my children and grandchildren who will be more wounded than I because they’re still headed into the biggest portion of their lives.

There are so many voices crying out these days. Some of them (many?) screaming painful, ugly, vile things that infect everyone. But many, too, yelling out like sonar beacons in search of kindred minds and spirits and the reassurance of these connections. People of kindness and conscience.

I don’t feel that there is an US and a THEM.

This dark thing that hovers over us all is about inequality, despair, fear, tribalism, malice, innocence, ignorance, corruption, rapaciousness, cynicism, greed, misfortune, selfishness, the degradation of modern life, insecurity, exploitation, and a sociopathy that normalizes and institutionalizes everything that breaks down the connections between us and the planet which is our shared home.

Surveillance, by Levalet

Facebook has hugely amplified my bewilderment and sadness in the wake of the rise of Donald Trump and his entourage. It’s true. Sometimes, what I read there makes me queasy.

I think maybe that’s part of what was happening to me yesterday when I sat down after work. I just felt sad. It was a heavy and cold feeling. It was that longing for a good cry. It’s what creeps in when my energy is low.

In recent weeks, I’ve come to understand that maybe suffering is part of what I’m meant to experience. When there’s little else a person can do to effect immediate change in the face of a terrible wrong, owning the suffering that emanates from that darkness is something. It’s a valuable first step.

This seems to be a shared sentiment because, beyond the unrelenting stream of post-election news online, there are the cries of many voices expressing pain and distress. And also a desire for something good and just and universal.

Melancholy, by Alyssa Monks

From the pain comes resistance. I’ve felt this too and I watch its myriad expressions and modulations appear online every day, especially among artists and writers.

I’ve recently been invited to join other writers searching for a means to combine their voices in an expression of resistance to the darkness, certainly, but also, hopefully, to build pathways of understanding and unity between us.

I want to be part of this movement, but I know that I’m not a political writer. I hope I’ll be able to find a way to contribute something that’s meaningful and useful even though it’s personal.

On the table yesterday, I found a package from Amazon addressed to me (most of them are and most of them contain books). Inside, I found three volumes of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Lean, lovely books that weigh nothing in the hand but somehow have such import.

I opened the smallest one first, A Thousand Mornings, and read one poem after another. At first, I thought that I would break down and cry—her work is so beautiful—but I couldn’t stop reading. There was such grace and truth in the short poems I pored over that I felt them lifting my spirits almost immediately. I can only describe this as a moment of quiet bliss.

The ones I found most beautiful are the ones that spoke to the pain inside me yesterday. Who knows which will resonate in a week or a month from now.

Here are two of them:

 THE MORNING PAPER

By Mary Oliver

Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition

is the best

for by evening you know that you at least

have lived through another day)

and let the disasters, the unbelievable

yet approved decisions,

soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,

ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces

to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?

 

POEM OF THE ONE WORLD

By Mary Oliver

 

This morning

the beautiful white heron

was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this

the one world

we all belong to

where everything

sooner or later

is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel

for a little while

quite beautiful myself.