Yeovil, England, November 2010
I stand in the corridor looking through the glass-panelled doors. The close whoosh of shock muffles external sounds. The deep, steady thud of my heart contrasts with the frantic activity before me: the swing of the doors, a blur of blue scrubs, a tangle of arms reaching across him. Intermittent beeps and harried medical commands escape the room as nurses dash in and out. A pedestal fan whirs from the corner, at odds with the skeletal winter tree tapping the window, my heavy woollen overcoat, the snow still clinging to my boots.
In the middle of it all, my brother, eyes wide, dilated and staring, his gasps rapid, desperate, shallow, head swivelling from person to person. The door opens and I briefly hear his voice, barking single-syllable commands from behind the oxygen mask: “Hot!”, “Legs!”, “Fan!”.
Thirty-two hours have passed since the phone call. Six hours ‘til the next flight, nine hours to Hong Kong, two in transit, thirteen to Heathrow, another two – the longest – in the car service. The driver’s chatter: his time in the Marines, his grandkids, his impending cruise to South America, all the while obstinately sticking to the speed limit. Even his speech was slow, chuckling as he parroted the road safety commercials “better to get there late than dead, on time”.
But it wouldn’t be me who was dead.
The doctor’s initial briefing: insufficient oxygen to sustain life – organs shutting down – ventilator – induced coma – massive underlying infection – blood tests – wait and see – miracles happen.
Inside his room, bright orange power cables snake toward the bed, disappearing amid a cluster of plastic and chrome machines. One displays continually shifting coloured lines across a black screen. Another dispenses various drugs via clear tubes into my brother’s veins. The only odour, the softly sour smell of unwashed sheets and two-day-old sweat.
His face is more composed under sedation, although its stillness is rhythmically undermined by the shuddering of his chest each time the ventilator forces air into his lungs. His blonde hair, pushed back from his face, is greasy from fever sweat, the skin across his cheekbones glitters. Tubes nestle into the mouth, nose, the crook of the elbow.
I need to understand it all, but my mind is numb with fear.
What is wrong with him?
The night is long, jetlag exhaustion no match for the fear. My mind spins relentlessly: What is wrong with him? Will he die? What can I do? I nod off briefly around 1am, but then I wake again, my mind churning with anxiety. What is happening? I am desperate to know, but terrified of hearing the phone ring.
The night edges along like a glacier, slow and chilling. My head aches from crying and confusion. I am 10,000 miles away from my friends. My cyber-connection to them – my laptop – sits forgotten on the coffee table in Brisbane. At 3am, alone in the alien landscape of medically-induced fear, I reach for the only comfort available: my iPod. With its unnerving intuition, ‘shuffle’ offers up a song I have, up to now, entirely misunderstood.
Now I don’t have to tell you
How slow the night can go,
I know you’ve watched for the light.
And I bet you could tell me
How slowly four follows three,
And you’re most forlorn
Just before dawn
IT IS years later, after the coma has been lifted, after his bodily systems recover, after the sedation-induced amnesia abates, after he re-learns to walk, that I have the time and fortitude to read the memoir Patient, by Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl. I finally realise why the song soothed me so well. I understand what Tracey Thorn was singing about.
And we can’t run and we can’t cheat,
‘Cause baby when we meet
What we’re afraid of
We find out what we’re made of
As the years go by and the emotional healing progresses, I discover the tales of other people who have experienced that melting iceberg’s edge between life and death, knowing and not knowing, panic and despair. All the stories help. But Tracey’s was the one that reached me in my hour of need.
I spotted Tracey Thorn recently in the foyer of the Barbican Centre, London. Despite the kinship I feel with her, I didn’t introduce myself. Ours is a one-way connection. Art escapes the time and space in which it is born to whisper to us ‘I understand’, but the creator rarely knows the specifics of this communion. Although she doesn’t know it, Tracey Thorn was with me in my longest night, making me feel ever so slightly less alone.
© Hazel Wood