It’s only when we come face to face with mortality that we then realise, that at some point very soon, we all need to put our own lives into stark perspective…
I was wheeling down one of the back corridors of the hospital, empty and hollow, the steel silver floors washed into the same silver ceilings, like a cold sea folded into a grey, motionless sky. It was a Sunday, late at night, and I’d had another bad day. I thus found myself pondering, head lost to thought in a helpless headspace, completely apart from all the distractions of my current reality, as I prayed to be kept away from the hospital ward for at least a little while longer. Whilst in the silence of my own thoughts, lingering at a junction with another endless, grey corridor, a single trolley, led by two porters, chugged by before me. The trolley was high and boxed in shape, draped over by a waxy, dark blue cover. The porters passed me in this same silence; I thought it unusual for them to avoid the usual eye contact or nod of acknowledgment. I waited, until the now-empty corridor fell quiet once more. Just as the walls glared like concrete, blue lights buzzing overhead, time too felt motionless. I paused in some new thought, once again. Nobody needed to ask to know what lay beneath that blue cover…
It may sound strange but death never really used to ‘phase me’. After all, as a Medical Student going into my future Doctoring career, death would become a huge part of my day to day job, a day to day reality, for myself, my colleagues, and for my patients. Death, in essence, is a huge part of life, no matter how much we try to avoid it. Perhaps that is why I am so passionate about soon specialising within the field of Palliative Medicine. Sadly though, it continues to be a taboo to the topic of any conversation until we truly realise, that for every single one of us, it is absolutely inevitable. I know this, because I’ve been there in every form myself.
Yet, ever since being on the ‘other side’, being that patient, endlessly stuck in hospital, often ‘the place’ where many of us will eventually come to die, even just the thought, let alone seeing that trolley, shook me in my tracks. Indeed, I have been handed the cards of sampling near-death, through many admissions to the Intensive Care Unit. It is thanks to these admissions, these life experiences, and the psychosocial aftermath in my recovery, that I’ve been forced to revaluate my aspirations, happiness, desires, and what makes my life, a life. Perhaps then, it was just down to how I was feeling in the moment that day, my own personal circumstances troubling me deep down – vulnerable, imprisoned, out of control, uncertain. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life stuck within a place so full of death, dying and loss, when I could be out there ‘living life’. Too often though, chronic illness and disability makes life rarely about living. Instead, life becomes merely about functioning, and ‘getting by’, planning for the scarce hours and days ahead, not so much the broader picture, or any such brighter future. When your health comes into question, the endless challenges of staying afloat has you, not only accepting that we are in no way immortal, but also has you embracing the finite time we all have to appreciate the world around us, plus the invincibility of people, and all the things, within it.
As I approach the ‘1 year in hospital’ milestone, I have been reflecting on the many things concerning mortality, life choice, life experience, quality of life, and what truly matters to us in making us not just healthy, but happy in health too. Now with a multitude of chronic illness diagnoses, uncertainty scares me; before, it excited me, and enticed me in yearning for more adventure and for more of the unknown. The big questions that continuously cloud my mind and furrow the frown in my thoughts never seem to go away, hence, I lie here, wondering, over and over, if I will ever return to Medical School to complete my studies in becoming a qualified Doctor. I ask myself seriously, do I really want to return home to finish off where I left everything, where I left life just paused in a hanging balance. Just when I convince myself I have no friends, no routine, no purpose to return to, I then wonder whether I even have a home to return to, back there, or if the burden of ill health has removed my place from society altogether, my newfound isolation perhaps making me even more of a liability to the world I was once a part of. It then makes me wonder, having lost three close relatives in the space of just 3 months, many years ago, due to prolonged illness, whether they too felt the same, had the same questions stuck on repeat inside their own heads, and whether, realising none of these questions really mattered on the long-term, made it easier for them to gradually just ‘let go’ of everything before the inevitable.
For now, I am bedbound. I can no longer digest food or drink in the normal way, nor can I excrete things normally in either form. I rely on a cocktail of medication via deep tunnelled lines, bags to drain contents, strong pain relief via injections, and third parties, my family and nurses, to help fulfil simple everyday tasks. This time last year, albeit hiding my health battles in a secret struggle, I was at least up, walking, just about sustaining, and actively working on every life goal I had set myself thereon. It is to no surprise then that on some days I am beyond miserable. I squirm in utter frustration at not being able to just get out of bed and go somewhere independently. I twiddle my thumbs whilst staring at the wall clock which never seems to move, until you realise that, all of a sudden, outside has turned from a hazy yellow to a luminous violet. Another day gone, you mutter to yourself in regret. You repeat this one week later, one month later, then two, then five, then ten. And so on. As your grip on hope slips away like a chip, slicing away at your sanity and perseverance, and your only grasp on any kind of future, a bleeding imagination, slows to cool too, your next search for reasoning has you asking: ‘What really matters in my life?’ And there you have it, the solution to all of our world problems, because we finally open our eyes to the most beautiful and most important details, the stuff we’ve ignored for so long before. In that moment, I realise again, that amongst all the trauma, the unexpected and unwanted diagnoses, the things I can no longer do, the inconceivable, incompetent and immobile, I still have things like my beautiful family to hold dear, wonderful colleagues and friends to confide to and work alongside, a window to look out onto the green hospital garden from three floors below, and an empathic mind that allows me to appreciate the wonders of humanity and all its miraculous stories, having the yearn to still learn new lessons despite all the losses of old times, comforting habits, and old friends in between. In all of this, time has not been wasted, after all.
That next day, I found myself down that same corridor, still stuck in that same fruitless, helpless mindset. I guess I was pondering again, wondering what was different about today, compared to yesterday. Of course, nothing had changed in this sense, other than that the cold silver corridors had now turned a warm golden, humming from the heat of another busy workday morning. The hospital corridor was bustling. It was full of people, from all walks of life; patients and relatives, visitors coming in and out of the outpatient clinics, staff; some hurrying to attend urgent matters, others solemn in concentration as they take a few moments out to rest against the window ledge, expression glazed to their phone screens. Security, workmen, maintenance teams carrying clouds of sweet sawdust and rusted ladders with them, porters swinging their hips to a boogie as they whistle in and out of the warren of corridors, ones I still have not yet ventured myself. I had propped myself into a lift, again, trying to avoid any reason for me to return to my side-room, afraid to linger in this unfortunate reality for longer than needs be. Then, as the lift stopped off at the first floor, a tiny, tiny baby, cocooned in an incubator on wheels, came in with his care-team. I watched him, his little pink fist no bigger than a fleshy cherry stone. New to life, and new to the world, he made me smile contently.
I left the lift as it reached the ground floor again. My short-lived elevator adventure had come to an end and I was in need of finding another form of distraction, and quickly. In the depths of my distraction and fruitless thought, helpless headspace, I came across the hospital’s garden, an arrangement of feathered trees and wooden benches enclosed around a pond of flamboyant fish, their scales neon-orange and peacock-blue, where the gloopy pondwater glittered momentarily in the sparse sunlight that somehow made it past the shade of the red-boxed buildings. It was so…green, luscious and mossy amongst the benches that smelt and looked like coffin-wood. This little piece of sanctuary contained every kind of ambiguity you could imagine. I smiled, heaving my wheelchair over the chunky step and into the garden space. That baby – the one whose fists were like cherry stones, and the wavering trees, green and sweet in the singing wind – for the first time in a very long while, all made it feel so good to be alive, and living.
It was in this little newfound piece of hideaway, where, absent of any materialistic things, the attention to the smallest of details helped me appreciate the tiniest, littlest, living, breathing things, all blossoming in their own time, at their own pace, far away from the swinging drip-stands of potent intravenous drugs or the intervention of staff hurrying around in scrub-tops and sawdust. It made me realise that, actually, beyond those lost and lonely nights out in the cold, silver corridors, that really, there is so much life contained within this hospital – full of all the people that life touches, and all the people-stories that everyone carries around with them. It makes you wonder, those staff, the nurses in their scrub-tops, leaning against the window-ledges, solemn faces fixed on their phone-screens – had they just lost their patient, or been embroiled in an unfair workplace conflict? Why and how were they seeking solace from their emotionally difficult shifts? Same goes to those families, and every extended family member, who congregate to share the bearing of some difficult, life-altering news, as they huddle together on the farthest bench along from the hospital’s main entrance, the same benches that look and smell like coffin-wood, sweet and shiny to touch, new and out to the open.
I often go and sit by these benches, parking my wheelchair up beside them in a dodgy act of reversing. And especially now that the days are longer and warmer, accompanied by the light of the summer sun, I now spend even longer pondering on the thought of all things life and beyond that. As for the night where I saw the trolley, once a ‘someone’ and ‘something’ now having made their final trip down that long, motionless corridor, I did indeed ask myself, ‘Why them? Why today? Why now, when everyone else goes out to enjoy post-lockdown life and the start of a warming summer?’ But the unavoidable reality, the truth to every detail, is that every single one of us will have that waxy blue cover draped over us some day. When? Nobody quite knows, but we can’t waste finite time worrying about the inevitable, when, like the scenes in the green hospital garden, ourselves and all the things around us are never truly forever.
Even in a place so full of loss, appreciating the small victories, and the beauty of all living details, it well and truly reaffirms that there is more to life than just living. The water, the birds, the blooming flowers and sunshine, newborn babies with fists of cherry-pips, those deceased and resting in peace, the people and their people-stories that they carry around with them wherever they go – live for everything you have, and for all the beauty that is around you, for that, from birth to death, and all that our journeys hand us in between, is truly what living life entails. Never take that life for granted. Because you never quite know when that long, silver corridor will be stretched out before us…