The Body/Healing/Mortality Tag

After a long dry spell without access to a pool, we are longing to swim. There is still the shock as warm flesh hits cold water, and a sharp intake of breath once I have inched in deep enough to lean out into the first lunge. It feels as though my skin is being stroked by silk as I acclimatise to the cold. I remember how it feels good, as I dry off. Sunshine and the sea breeze toast my skin, drying beads of salt water. The smell of the sea, mingled with sun cream makes my nostrils flare with pleasurable associations.

Seagulls fly low overhead, scanning for fish and chips. I can hear the squeals of both children and adults as they encounter cool water. My companions swim at the far edge of the ‘marine pool’. Just beyond is the sea. All around me, there is a burble of happy holiday sounds.

In full sunshine, the landscape of sky is inked in cobalt blue and the sea blends olive green with Prussian blue. Later, overcast, it has a different colour palette. Hazy bands delineate pool, the Severn estuary, windmills and industrial silhouettes of Wales behind. Then there is sky and a few distant smears of cloud. Bands of neutral tones mark each layer, with hints of pink, blue, brown and green. The sea recedes, shimmering silver grey.

I am falling horizontally towards the wooden floor. In the moment that this takes, I have enough time to know that this fall isn’t going to end well. My arms, which were yanking at something, are now strangely absent. I see the floor, then mortality punches me in the face. The sound of the crash wakes Dexter. I am confused. There is blood, and a gap in my jaw. I wonder if I have broken my nose, and reach my hand across the floor-boards in search of my tooth. “Help. Help. Help,” I cry out. The impact lands slowly, with shaking, and a new awareness of terrible vulnerability. Dexter, unexpectedly awake, rests on the stairs with me, and holds my hand. He is well versed in emergency protocol, speaks in a gentle tone. Carer/cared for roles reversed, “Don’t worry,” he soothes, “it’ll be okay.” His voice comforts me, like a turmeric latte. Cocooned in the immediate aftermath, my other helpers navigate what to do next. My inner monologue trickles back. “I disregarded that ‘stupid’ warning. Why was I rushing? What a ridiculous pratfall. You should be more present. What have I done? What does it mean?” I float into the dental chair, the patient who makes everyone else wait. The dentist peers through his visor at my crooked tombstone teeth. Behind the protective layers all I can see are two kind brown eyes. “I’m feeling wobbly, and might cry,” I confess. “It’s okay if you cry,” he says. This permission allows me to sink back in the chair, and I listen to ‘Staying Alive’ pulse through his speakers as my tears fall. I am very glad to be alive, grateful for this kindness, even as he wields the pliers to retract my tooth. My head swimming with anaesthetic, I hear a distant little voice say, “Thank you.” “You’re very lucky,” he replies. “It could have been a lot worse.”

I sit beside your punctured hand. Always so stoic in the grip of pain, it makes it hard to know how severe the sensation is. You avoid needles, often faint during blood tests. I know that this is a new edge for you. Still, you remain sanguine. I sit beside you reading. You are plugged into headphones. Your father is leafing through documents. We are all simultaneously recalibrating. “How serious is this? How long will this last? What are the implications?” We have handled medical emergencies abroad before. We are a flexible team. We know the ropes here. But riding on a bus in the middle of nowhere while sepsis began to crawl up your arm has shaken us. Now we have found a good hospital, doctors, and the relief of an IV drip. But we all saw death around a bend on the road, and it sent us a message. I see the vulnerability in the flesh of your hand. I feel the bond of family. We are navigating another rite of passage. Love is the only thing that seems to matter.

In his memoir ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, Paul Kalanithi writes with elegant clarity about his journey from euro-surgeon through cancer toward death. He writes with poignancy looking back at his life. First through literature, his family life, then medical training and neuro-science, he is “Seeking a deeper understanding of a life of the mind.” He struggles as a “Physiological-Spiritual Man” (Walt Whitman) to find a way, “that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts and heart beats.” A cancer diagnosis brings a different perspective to his life’s purpose as “the future I had imagined…evaporated.” He sees with new eyes as he experiences being the patient after years of being the doctor. He grapples to find, “What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” He seeks to act “as death’s ambassador,” to show us in both medical and human terms, “Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.” Kalanithi is unflinching in his portrayal of the feelings which make him afraid, frustrated and joyful. He says he “started in this career, in part, to pursue death; to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking.” This is a book about the responsibility those who care for us hold, and as a reminder for all those who will die. (If you think that’s not you, think again). He writes, “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis I knew that someday I would die but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.”

This is a bowl, a container. Like my skin it holds water. A large percent of me (60% ish) is made of liquid. Inside me thoughts and feelings are continually in flux. My blood and lymph circulates. We pour water in grief rituals into this bowl. Painted with ‘Spirit Bird’ by Stephen Wright, it feels an appropriate vessel for this symbolic movement. Water connects us to the flow of life, reminds us of the movement of our feelings. When a group of strangers come together to stir their grief, Tony and I aim to create trust between all of us, to build an energetic container. Within this space things are expressed, feelings are given time, each person receives the attention of the group. People reveal something of who they are inside, unmasked. The intensity of the words, sounds and actions that are expressed inside the ritual container makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It feels real. It feels extremely special to witness, whatever the content. Gradually there is a change in the current of feelings and we shift back into our outward facing selves. Afterwards we take the water to the garden, ask the land to receive it as a blessing.

We are sorting through the sum of a lifetime’s accumulation. There are boxes of papers, books, CD’s. Moths have beaten us to the clothes, which are relegated to bin bags. Four decades of creative output – drawings paintings, writing and recordings of songs are jumbled in piles amongst old water bills, every birthday card I ever sent to them, and scraps of paper with scribbled song lyrics. If there is a scheme or order to things it has been obscured by descending chaos and dust. Things that were acquired lightly have been weighted through being kept for years. I struggle to declutter my own things that hold most emotional importance for me; but with someone else’s collected works it’s easier to see where the bonds of lost dreams, unfinished projects, regret and significant memories have made things difficult to let go. This inevitable clearing can happen either voluntarily, or as this process is, by necessity. Lifting each cardboard box full of potential, I vow to resolve my unfinished business and label things better. One painting remains tall among the redundant furniture.  It is a prophesy, a portrayal of a guitar long before its painter became a musician. Sadly, it’s too big for their new living quarters. It is a vibrant portrait of the artist daubed with oils in 1985 when the possibilities of the future seemed infinite.

According to the optician my sight is becoming more myopic. It seems to be a normal part of aging. My eye balls are becoming more ovoid. To write this I am wearing spectacles. I also wear other glasses to see longer distances. I start the day putting drops in my eyes. Changes in the eyes are markers of increasing years. I have faced an acute life threatening illness, but this gradual spectrum of chronic change is part of the daily reminder that my life is finite. My mind does its best to sideline this information. I enjoy my visit to the friendly opticians. I admire the cyber-punk contents of the optometrist’s case. I submit to the cleverness of science in the face of my own fallibility. The house is scattered with previous generations of glasses to be worn because the most recent appear to elude me. While this process of deterioration is going on, there is a parallel process of learning to see more. I notice things, I spot details of body language, I witness, I observe patterns. This seeing is growing in me. I am receiving more information in sensory ways, allowing my vision to become more than the pictures projected on the back of my eyes.

My life changed when I learned how to regulate the pattern of my energy. The key for me was rhythm. I now try to follow a daily schedule of waking, walking, working, eating and sleeping. When I’m tired, I need to sleep. The energy drink has become a necessary boost for many who work too hard, too long, in irregular patterns then play hard too. I feel sad that the loss of self-regulation has become so normalised. Our circadian rhythms dictate brain waves, cell regeneration and other autonomic body functions. A life with a good balance of diurnal activity and nocturnal rest creates a foundation for healthy body and mind. I see the havoc played in those close to me who juggle shift work. The lift and subsequent blood sugar post Taurine drop of energy drinks are symptoms of a disregulated cycle, a different kind of disconnect from nature. I wonder who drank these – the workmen on the near-by building site, or self-medicating occupants of the church gardens?

Always too busy, with self-imposed deadlines and unreasonable expectations of myself, today I have come to a standstill. My energy is low and concentration poor. I fitfully sleep then read. I am marooned on the sofa with the animals for comfort and company. Gigi uses my immobility as a chance to cuddle up and share warmth. I have slipped into a state of exhausted helplessness. A cold has delivered me briefly to ‘the kingdom of the sick’*. This is a temporary visit, but it’s a familiar place that I have spent long bouts of time in…I fall away from my engaged active life. My vision shrinks as though I am looking through a macro lens at my surroundings in close up. My eyes swim with the magenta of my shawl, my hands drink in the soft velvet of the cushions. A trip to the kettle seems an epic voyage. From moment to moment I track the aches and pains that circulate round my body – sore throat, swollen glands, headache, blocked nose, sneezing. I notice the heat ebb from my feet, squeeze knots of tension around my neck. I let myself off the hook, give myself to rest.
*from ‘Illness as Metaphor’ by Susan Sontag.

My second hand book arrived in the post. I love pre-thumbed pages, corners turned and if I’m lucky a margin note or dedication. To my delight an envelope fell out. “Open in case of zombie apocalypse” it reads, in green slime-like lettering. I have seen ‘Sean of the Dead’, so I know what a zombie apocalypse looks like. I take the Overground at 5pm where bodies cram close without communication. Pouring off the train at Highbury there is a collective movement towards the Victoria line. I see the signs – unsmiling faces (blank with dead eyes), that don’t connect, stiff limbs, movement that lacks verve, drab clothing in grey and black. I feel the intolerance as I reach out my arm in an individual action. It’s time to open the envelope…