A life interrupted

I remember this feeling. I remember this.

I’m walking along the hospital corridor, my footfall is echoing loudly and my legs are heavy.

It’s getting darker. I feel like I am going underground.

And the familiar feeling is there.

I wish it wasn’t.

It’s the feeling of knowing that something major and tragic has happened in the life of someone who I love beyond condition.

It’s the feeling of knowing that in a few seconds I am going to look upon the face of the person that bore me for many months, the person that gave me life and the person who sacrificed so much.

And it’s the feeling of knowing that the moment I look upon that face, it’s going to hit me, a huge jolt of turbulent and violent emotions; shock, love, horror, grief, guilt and sadness.

I am bracing myself for this moment.

I’ve already been through the rite of passage of dealing with the death of one parent. The wounds have barely healed, the scars are still fresh. I’m not ready for this again. Not yet.

The child in me wants to run, to scream, to cry, to find comfort in the embrace of a parent. But the adult in me knows that one parent is dead and the other is fighting for life in a bed, just the other side of this door.

I am on my own now, and my mind is wandering. I pause by the door.

I’m thinking back to the moment when I found out.

It was a normal day. They always are.

It was the text message from my brother. There was something not right about it.

Call me as soon as you can

These are plain, casual words. But the sterility of these words belies the fact that this text was screaming in my inbox, like a silent alarm.

Instead of immediately calling my brother, I started a conversation with a colleague.

At that point I wasn’t to know my brother had sent the text from the back of an ambulance.

I wasn’t to know that the ambulance had been called five minutes previously by my sister-in-law.

I wasn’t to know that she had just found my mother, whose brain had been annihilated by the ravages of a massive stroke. And that my sister in law had found my mother in a pool of her own bodily fluids.

And I wasn’t to know that she had been lying there for nearly four days, drifting in and out of consciousness, on the floor, on her own, unable to move, unable to talk,

And all the time, the rattle and hum of everyday life had been going on around her; people calling on the phone, visitors knocking on the door and getting no response, newspaper delivery….everyone blissfully unaware that behind that door a terrible drama was playing out.

I am jolted out of this reflection by the sting of the hand soap hanging on the ward door as I apply it.

The clinical fragrance lifts my sinus, it’s a familiar smell. It has immediate associations with death and then of childbirth. I think back to my son’s birth close to two years ago now. This is a pleasant thought in an otherwise dark day.

I am in a hospital, but I am barely aware of it; I’m numb,
going through the motions, a weird state of consciousness somewhere between passive acceptance and airport lounge autopilot. 

Hospitals; these are places of hope and despair. These are places of extreme emotion. Despite the veneer of busy efficiency, clinical precision and sparkling cleanliness, the walls are thick with it; Scratch a layer of paint of and the walls drip with the cries of life coming, or returning, into the world, and the silent gasps of lives as they leave.

We are in the ward. I brace myself.

On first impressions my mother looks better than I had imagined her, but then again I still find myself catching my breath. Her face has slipped on the left side. One of her eyes is heavily infected. I learn later that this is a result of her having lied in her own vomit for days.

Her skin is sallow, grey and translucent and her mouth hangs open and heavy.

She opens her mouth to speak and a sound comes out. This sound doesn’t belong to her. In fact it is barely a human sound.

There is fear and terror in her eyes. I’m trying to be brave but I suspect she can see these things in my eyes too. The child in me wants to start crying, to grab onto my mother’s trouser leg for comfort.

The consultant explains that my mother has suffered a haemorrhagic stroke. I am listening, but I am not hearing the words.

My body is standing there, my head nodding, my mouth forming words and forming those into questions which I find myself asking of the consultant.

But my mind is somewhere else, drifting, numb.

We try and offer reassurance to my mother. It is hard to know if she has understood what is happening. Her thoughts are confused. She is anxious, frightened. I realise I am crying, hot tears streaming down my cheeks.

Now we are standing at the door to my mother’s house. The last person to leave this house was a paramedic. The child in me doesn’t want to go in here. I am frightened of what we will find.

But it has to happen. We have to go in and try and piece events together, secure the house and clean up.

I take a deep breath and walk in.

The smell is overwhelming, almost agricultural.

I think back to what my sister in law must have walked in on those few days ago. I am glad it wasn’t me. But I also wish it was me.

I wish it was me so that it could have been one of her sons that my mother saw first, a reassuring sight of familiarity in an otherwise terrifying nightmare.

I wish it was me so that I could have gently lifted her head off of the floor and wiped away the blood and everything else she was found lying in.

I wish it was me so I could have cradled her in my arms whilst stroking her head and whispering reassuring words about her future.

I wish it was me so I could have done all of these things – just like she did with me some forty one years ago.

We begin tidying up, doing the best we can. Everywhere we look, there are the signs of a life interrupted.

There are immaculate diary entries. The computer is still on. The long list of efficiently worded and business like emails stop on the Thursday evening.

There are the drawn curtains, the vacuum cleaner lying abandoned on the stairs and the unheard, unanswered voice messages on the answer machine.

There is the Friday paper on the door mat which lies there accusingly – why didn’t you call her on the Friday night like you were going to?

And in front of me I catch sight of something which causes me to choke back some tears. 

There is a bowl of apples on the kitchen floor.

And I imagine my mother being distracted by some other mundane task and placing them there as a half-way holding position between where they came from and where they were meant to go.

In that moment she wasn’t to know that they would never get to wherever they were meant to go.

And now a few days later, I am stood here wondering if she will ever recover enough to find out where I was meant to go; to know where her grandchildren were meant to go; to know where any of this is meant to go.

I’ve lost it. My shoulders are shaking and I am crying uncontrollably.  




The forty eight hours of me

Peace. Quiet. Alone

Peace. Quiet. Alone

It’s Friday night, I am 41 years old, I am home alone, and I have temporarily forgotten who I am.

Just a few minutes earlier the front door had closed shut. The muffled sound of small, crackly and excited voices faded. I heard the car door shut. The engine was started up, the car pulled out of the drive

And now here I am, left standing in silence, like a forgotten old sock on a radiator.

Complete silence.

My wife has taken the children away for the weekend and I don’t quite know how I feel, or who I am.

I turn and walk away from the door, a familiar paradox forming in my emotions – those uneasy bedfellows of joy and sadness jostle for primacy in my heart.

As soon as the family are out of the door I breathe a sigh of relief. But it is a sigh tinged too with the vestiges of regret. Regret that I am not going with them. Regret that I will miss all those little moments that have become so important.

That moment after dinner when we have a disco which always ends up with everyone collapsed on the floor in a panting pile of giggles.

That moment when my son puts his arm around his sister as she talks him through a book.

That moments when my daughter will whisper that she loves me in my ear.

That moments when my son fixes me with his gaze, stares into my eyes and somehow connects with my very being.

Moments when all the drudgery of the routine has been completed and we can glow in the precious embers of the day, nestled under the duvet sheets and cuddling close as the much loved and familiar bed time stories are told once again.

Moments when my wife and I look at each other and with one weary but happy expression, count our blessings that we have got them safely through yet another day.

They have been gone for a few seconds and I am already missing all of this and more. The house seems quiet. Too quiet. The toys are strewn across the floor, a multi-coloured legacy of what just was.

Children enter our lives in a whirlwind of noise, energy and emotion and from that moment on, there is no let up. As a father this is like a drug.

But it is moments like this, when the drug is taken away, that I miss it, need it, crave it back again. My personality has become so intrinsically linked to my children that it feels like my identity and character are collapsing without them. Again, I am home alone. I am 41 years old. And I have temporarily forgotten who I am.

But it doesn’t take long before I remember. The sadness begins to make way as a positive realisation dawns on me. I am home alone. I am home alone.

I walk over to the toys and start putting them away, one by one. And as I do so, a wave of nervous excitement passes over me. I start to think who of my friends I can call.

I can go for a pint. In a pub.

I can have dinner. In a restaurant.

I start to recall all the films I want to watch and make a mental note to check the listings of the nearby cinemas. I make a mental note to check the timings of the live football on TV. I start to think about the work that needs to be done in the garden and all the other things I find hard to do with children swarming around my ankles, pulling at my trousers and demanding attention.

I start to excitedly break the next two days down into units of time. Some units are about getting jobs done, but some units – in fact most units – are hedonistically and selfishly dedicated to me.

One and a half units will be spent on getting my hair cut. Two units I am budgeting for a lazy Saturday morning breakfast in our local Cafe and a read of the papers. Another two units will go on televised sport. I start to calculate how many units are left.

The weekend is shaping up. I am home alone. And already I am starting to feel like a man again. I am no longer a husband or a father. I am a man, it is just me, and it is starting to feel really good.

I catch myself and I feel guilty, but not so guilty to rein in the flights of fancy that are now coming in thick and fast. I could get the train to London and take in a show. Why not Liverpool? I’ve always fancied a night at the Cavern Club. Hell, why not get a last minute flight and check out Amsterdam…….?

I decide against these things. I am home alone. I have the weekend to myself and my primary goal is to wake up in my own bed, at my own pace, and to do those things that I don’t normally get a chance to do. This is “me” time with a capital ME. This is my one weekend where I can be selfish and hedonistic.

And I know that come Sunday evening the car will pull up the drive, I will hear the car doors open and the muffled sound of scratchy, excited little voices will get louder. My daughter will reach up and press the doorbell and run off screaming with excitement, my son will be jumping up and down on the spot, shouting unformed words, fingers coming in through the letter box.

Before I open the door and get bowled off my feet by a tidal wave of sticky hugs, noise and unbounded enthusiasm, I will breathe in the silence one last time.

And in that moment I know that there will be a tinge of disappointment. Disappointment that I didn’t get to do everything that I wanted to do during the 48 hours of me. Disappointment that my peace and quiet will be broken. Disappointment that Time will once again no longer be mine.

But there will also be joy as the old, selfish me makes way for the new improved me; the father, the husband, the carer, the anchor, the port in a storm.

I will be euphoric that they are back. I will acknowledge that being just me is great, but that actually my life has far greater meaning when my wife and children are around. They define me in ways that I never could on my own.

I will reflect and acknowledge that the only reason I can properly enjoy time alone, is by knowing that they are coming back. It is that, and ONLY that, which will make the next two days – the 48 hours of me – so precious.