Learning from Illness (6) No turning back

I remember precisely the moment when it occurred. Like people say they remember hearing about the death of JFK or 9/11, I can see, sense it, even now, clearly and vividly. I can be back there in that moment as easy as flicking the channel to the Magruder tape or the towers in flames. Perhaps the moment had less significance for geo-politics, but it was, for me, like those events – the turning point from which there was no coming back.

We had finished dinner (Chicken Castrol, as the five-year-old would have it) and all the preparations for the kids going to bed had been done. They had even brushed their teeth, and (theoretically) gone to bed, though, as any parent knows, that’s merely the start of a process, not the end.

And there it was. A slight twinge in my back – almost identical to the pain that I had encountered a few evenings previously. It was much milder of course, but there it was. And I remember very clearly my reaction to it, which was to ridicule it. To disbelieve. It was, I cogitated rationally, in my head. An afterthought of my body. A hangover without meaning.

But as we settled down to watch television, the pain increased in intensity and duration. There was nothing to do but wait it out to see where it went.

We had, by this stage, decided that what I had was some sort of acid-reflux. My partner and I had come to this conclusion through no major investigations or anything, but it seemed to be the best (and probably least frightening) solution. It was some form of acid-reflux or ulcer – dependent on what I had eaten.

As the pain worsened in intensity, we began to go over the shopping list of what I had had to eat that night. And every innocent food was duly charged and convicted without the due process they would normally expect. By bedtime, the pain had made it impossible for me to do anything much other than lie on the couch and moan.

But, of course, one doesn’t do that. One imagines there is a cure and one goes searching for it. In my case, the usual suspects of paracetamol, Gavisgon and antacids of various kinds were pumped into the system to no effect. And then the intensity of the pain took over.

The question I put to the reader at this stage is simply, “At what point do you look for help?” It was, at this stage, 2.00 a.m. and the pain wracked my whole body. What had started as a pain which seemed to emanate from my stomach now manifested itself in my chest, shoulders, back and arms. I was also sweating profusely through my head, but my arms and hands were cold. When I touched my chest with my hands, it was uncomfortable. And all this had happened within the space of a few hours.

But who should I call or what should I do? When this had happened previously, I knew it had been rough, but it had stopped eventually. I was incapable of driving myself. If I were to visit an A&E, it would require waking my partner and children and her driving all of us to A&E – to wait for who knows how long – until I saw a doctor. And since I knew from the previous occasion that this pain might gradually die down, there was the possibility that by the time we saw a doctor, I might be fine.

So, as the old saying goes “What can’t be cured, must be endured.”

But of course I tried various gambits to alleviate or lessen the pain. I tried lying on one side or the other. I tried lying on my back. I tried lying on my front (no!) and eventually on all fours on the floor. But nothing took the pain away – it merely relieved it for a few seconds until the next attack.

At this stage, it’s time for prayer. There’s a problem there, of course, since I am an atheist. And they say there are no atheists in foxholes, but since I deeply believe in the idea that all religions and Gods are merely human inventions, there is no way to come back from that position. It’s a logical point of view (in my head, at least) not one that can be changed merely because I’m in pain or danger.

There can be no bargaining with God when you’re sure he doesn’t exist.

So I was forced back into reality. There is no God to save me – I can only save myself. But with what? The pain goes on and I am wracked – not merely with pain now but with tiredness as well. And inside me, that old silliness and macho-ism – the feeling that “I can take it”.

At this stage it was 4.00 am, and on the previous occasion the pain had died down enough by 8.00 am that I had been able to lie down, and shortly afterwards go to sleep. I began to think I could make it to 8.00 am. I didn’t have any plan for what I was going to do then, but to be free of pain would allow me to think, at least.

Who out there is over 40, and has had a pain in the night that shouldn’t be there, and not thought, this could be the end?

In my twenties I climbed drainpipes to second-storey windows that had lethal drops. I did it drunk. I laughed about it. I drove cars on roads with stone walls at speeds I couldn’t handle. I tried pills and shots without really knowing their provenance, I hunted with weapons without knowing basic gun rules, and I was pals with guys who made made Jim Morrison’s wild excesses seem like little girls playing ‘house’. In my twenties. Where risk is a fucking board game. Where it doesn’t count.

But when you have even a token responsibility for being around for family, when you’re the one they look to in a family, risk is a big scary number and there are no sure things. There are no certainties in horse races, nothing safe and sure except a mortgage at the end of the month, and much example to give before then.

Because you know that’s how you got it. Your Dad. Your Mum. The people who were their friends. Your family – uncles, aunts, cousins – even the people on TV. They all showed how life should be and how to live, and that’s the important thing now. You know you need that now.

And in the back of your mind you think, “this is not the time to die, this doesn’t make any sense” but you know it doesn’t have to. But you can’t think about death anymore, that’s something that also has to be put off for now.

And the pain begins to ease through those thoughts. It’s almost 8.00. Time to try lying down in the bed beside her. Time to try sleep. And there’s no time to think about this whole painful night because that just brings it all back. That’s for tomorrow. As U-2 once sang “Won’t you come back tomorrow, can I sleep tonight?”

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