FALLING FROM LIFE

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

April 7th, 2020

Stokes, Vera; Winners and Losers; ArtCare, Salisbury District Hospital; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/winners-and-losers-64803

I woke up at 5 o’clock this morning, feeling the effects of the 5 FU (Fluorouracil) that I won’t be getting tomorrow during chemotherapy because it has surprised me and my medical team, with side effects that harken back to the early days, when I was at full concentration, which, over time, has been lowered incrementally by 6 % (at least I think that number is correct).

All this really means is that my body has been struggling. A severe recurrence of swelling and burning in my hands that are now difficult to close into a fist or do much else with painlessly, and their almost mummified skin which, when it splits open, turns the newly exposed patches into areas especially sensitive to the alcohol-based hand soaps I had to use 20 times yesterday at the CHUM. And, something akin to being desiccated from the inside: burning corneas and sinuses that ache and fill with mucus that seems to petrify on contact with air; the interior of my mouth swollen and heat sensitive and unable to produce much useful saliva.

When I awoke, all of this hit me, all of the discomfort at the same time so, rather than get up and quite likely wake Simon up if I moved around, I stayed put and entered a cycle of trying to fall asleep, almost succeeding, being awoken by snorts that I was responsible for with my saharan nasal passages (so undignified), and starting over again…

(My complaints are now officially finished)

At 9 am, just minutes ago, my phone pinged (with an interesting COVID-19 related article link sent by Simon), and I looked at the time, and here I am. I dislike feeling that a few extra hours of life, bright and early life, escaped me. I am so happy to greet each morning.

But I didn’t awaken to a quiet house because Simon is at home, teaching his college-level biology students online, holding office hours online, orchestrating “labs” online.  Minutes ago, he was online with a student, and though I couldn’t hear everything—the door was closed and their voices slightly muffled—I could hear the younger man’s voice, and his questions, and I could make out bits of Simon’s data-supported answers. Simon was clarifying some of the confusion surrounding our coronavirus infection rates in Quebec, and why our numbers are what they are. They bantered back and forth and I could hear understanding in the student’s voice, the deliverance of knowing more, of making sense of the mess out there…

He seemed a lovely young man. His teacher, my son, is only 36. They are in it together, aren’t they? Their individual fates will play themselves out in much the same time-space.

Herman, Josef; Man Kneeling; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-kneeling-205182

Sitting here, it also occurs to me how different the two obvious threats to my own life are. Covid-19, a virus, is an INVADER. It’s out there, in other bodies, in the droplets that the latter produce when they sneeze and laugh and spit. It covers surfaces for a brief while before it dies. It attacks other people’s bodies and, if given a chance, will do the same thing to mine, because it is ALIVE and seeks to remain that way, and needs “living vessels” to do that. It can also mutate.

And this, from a human standpoint, makes it merciless. It’s alien and aggressive and our bodies single it out quickly and attack it ferociously, and we humans feel terrible in this predicament of having become a furious battleground. But it also offers, in most cases, the very strong likelihood of our survival. Death rates from COVID-19 are between one and ten percent, I think. It depends more on where it emerges and how prepared humans are to treat it. So we hate it for the fear it causes us, and the terrible loss of life that any percentage ALWAYS represents, as we wait for our bodies, all of them, everywhere, to win this fight to the death, leaving behind a life-altering perspective on the precarity of human civilization; bringing about, I HOPE, a sea-change in human attitudes toward each other and the life that surrounds us. What matters; what was only ever superficial and ephemeral; what can be taken away by a microscopic pathogen doing what it is programmed to do, nothing personal.

And then there is cancer, my cancer, which, in contrast with COVID-19, is NOT an invader, is not alien. Whose purpose is NOT to harm me. All of our bodies contain cells that can potentially change just enough to make us sick as they continue to reproduce and make more dysfunctional cells, as though they are the one and only cells. Mine were able to reproduce and cling to each other and sustain each other for a long while before I felt ANY ill effects whatsoever. YEARS, in fact. My body supplied them with everything they needed, not sensing that they would, in time, kill me. My cancer cells have no “reason” to kill me: they just could, and likely will. Sooner than I would wish.

Drummond, Blaise; Extracts from the Poetic Geography of Five Continents (No.20); Government Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/extracts-from-the-poetic-geography-of-five-continents-no-20-28099

And yet, when humans see a person whose complexion is sallow, often yellowish, whose hair is thin or almost gone, whose weight has dropped visibly and whose clothing just hangs on their shrunken body or who seems to be in constant pain, we feel as great a fear (perhaps even greater) of them and their sickness as we would of a person with flushed cheeks and a cough (though probably not these days). And we feel revulsion. We would prefer to occupy a minimum safe distance. But we don’t become hysterical, run out to hoard toilet paper and medical masks, and buy up so much more than what we need and what is our fair share.

Jackowski, Andrzej; Downfalling; Towner; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/downfalling-73256

We are each other’s keepers. Have we begun to internalize this deeply yet?

Downtown Montreal, near the Bell Centre.
Photo by Michelle

My long commute to the CHUM and my time spent there allows me to observe the emptiness of our city under lockdown. What it means to be living without life around us. Large cities spell this out in the most awful way. Montreal has become an architectural ghost town. The buildings still reach up to the sky, still posture and preen for our attention. But they mean nothing, until you remember that at least some of them, apartment and condo complexes, are actually human hives—swarming with social beings trapped there for a while yet.

Hudson Village, April 7th 2020, photo by Michelle

When I reach home in Hudson, its birdsong and plant life—it is spring after all and nature is bursting with reproductive energy— remind me instantly that life is everything. Not objects, not buildings, not a pantry or garage overstocked to the point of bursting with hygiene products, flour and sanitizers.

Life. People. We miss each other! We miss being touched by each other. We miss the astonishing, reassuring proximity to each other. And we’re learning to live in a decelerated, hushed world.

The appearance of a person at the end of the road with cancer very much resembles the appearance of things that humans have done to each other. That is, the way we found humans in prisoner of war camps and concentration camps, or exhausted and hollowed-out refugees, eyes wide in the dark, piled into boats like so much trash: emaciated, starved bodies that can’t take any more suffering. And maybe that’s part of what terrifies us about cancer: it’s also a reminder of what we’re capable of doing to each other…

; Falling Flowers; Scarborough Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/falling-flowers-236450

But when we enter stores and empty out the shelves, piling our carts full of “stuff”, to the detriment of everyone else around us, not caring; shoving, pushing, losing our shit in parking lots and aisles, then I think we’ve become cancer cells too, and it’s a horrible thing to witness: each person-cell seeking only its own survival, oblivious of the needs of the community—the social body. How ugly is this breakdown of human solidarity and this intensely focused desire to self-protect!

At the end of their lives, people with very advanced cancers, they just fall…they fall from life, the way the leaves on the trees do in late autumn and early winter.

Georgoulea, Stavroula; Falling Leaves II; ArtCare, Salisbury District Hospital; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/falling-leaves-ii-64762

 

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