Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much. Dear Readers and Writers,
Hanif - I started following your writings when I read about your injury in the NYT. I’ll admit my interest was in your recovery process and the incredible insights you were sharing because I am a physical therapist. I didn’t expect the gift you gave to me - you’ve opened a world of writing and literature to me. I’ve even started journaling - it’s cathartic. Thank you. I continue to care deeply about your recovery and wish you the best care and the will to work hard - I know we therapists can be awfully pushy.
Here’s my little story. All true.
A few years ago, I received a book in the mail from my best friend. It was entitled Recovering From Trauma - Stories from Victims. Cathee was really excited because her story had been included in one of the chapters. Indeed her story was pretty compelling. In August of 1967 her family drove from Kenosha, Wisconsin to the central plains of Kansas. Her mom had grown up on a small farm outside of Beloit, Kansas and it was a tradition for the family to come together and help with harvest. After a long 12-hour drive with 3 girls and a dog in the back of the Rambler they arrived on the farm Saturday evening. Her uncle was eager to show them the wheat fields and the new combine. Traditionally they would take one cut around the perimeter of the field to see if it was dry enough to harvest the next day. It was also a tradition to let the kids ride in the back of the bin. It was considered a privilege to sit upon the pile of cut grain and feel the flow of wheat pour into the back. Cathee and her little sister were lifted and placed in the bin. Her dad hung onto the ladder by the front seat and talked to their uncle as they made the lap around the field. Her uncle steered the combine over to the silo to unload the wheat. But lost in conversation, he forgot about his two nieces in the wheat bin and he flipped the auger switch on. Cathee was tall enough to grab onto the edge of the bin and she hung on with all her strength as she watched her six year old sister helplessly circle around with the wheat as it was sucked down towards the auger at the bottom of the bin. Her dad immediately screamed at her uncle to turn the auger off but it was too late – her sister’s foot was already sliced to ribbons. Her dad reached down and grabbed her sister as her uncle whipped off his shirt to stop the blood flow. They ran to the car but in the rush to save her sister, my friend was left hanging onto the wheat bin, terrified she might be sucked down next. She felt overwhelmed, frightened and alone. She states this trauma affected her for the rest of her life. And it was very cathartic for her to see her story published and her trauma validated.
But my reaction after reading her story was one of anger. Because you see my best friend is my sister and I was the little girl whose foot was cut off. I felt that if anyone was traumatized it was me not her. I was the one with a lifetime of strapping on my prosthesis every morning to make it to the bathroom. I was the one with endless appointments to doctors to manage my pain or replace the leg after it had broken. Surely my trauma was bigger, longer lasting and more painful than hers. Why would she still be holding on to that moment, that in comparison to my experience, wasn’t that big of a deal?
But in truth - I was the one who was pulled out of that bin and was supported from that day forward. My father hoisted me onto his shoulders whenever I was tired of walking. My mom took me to endless doctor and prosthetist appointments. My family encouraged me through swimming lessons and gymnastics. I married a big strong man and backpacked around the world with him. He carried the heavier load and kept me safe. I had friends and a wonderful profession in health care and a supportive family surrounding me my whole life. I cannot claim to be traumatized.
And yet I never took the time to understand that Cathee did. She still felt abandoned and forgotten. She has spent her adult life trying to understand the deeper mysteries of life. She channels spirits, she wanders off into the mountains, and luckily she’s found a good man with whom to share her itinerant life. But she always chooses solitude over friendships. And in her quietness she had been struggling with a trauma I had not recognized or even discussed.
I guess being a part of a traumatic experience isn’t the issue. What’s more important is what happens afterwards – the feeling of being pulled to safety.
Cathee chose to disappear 2 years ago and only recently reached out to us. I hope it’s not too late to pull her home
Here is my submission to your non-fiction writing competition. I hope you enjoy it. It's called 'Three Kinds of Injury'.
Three Kinds of Injury
A bunch of White kids from England off to teach a bunch of Black kids in a school in Zimbabwe. What could possibly go wrong? In preparation I’d bought a long, tan skirt, a paraffin stove, malaria pills, a pen that could write upside down and a water purification kit. There was a White priest who governed us public-school leavers, who sent us to our villages and kept an eye on us, who kept his eye on me in particular. During the week I stood before thirty primary school children and failed to teach them anything. In the evening, once the day was done and the magnificent African sun sent slanting rays across the grass, the White priest would roll into the village in his pick-up truck, arrange folding chairs on the concrete slab outside my room, open a bottle of champagne and pour two glasses, one for him and one for me. Months passed in which I learnt nothing and taught less. The White priest with his folding chairs and champagne glasses came and went. My boots leaked and I caught bilharzia. The pills didn’t work and I caught malaria. Milk warmed on the stove gave me brucellosis. The long skirt which swished so pleasingly through the grass picked up ticks and I caught a fever. And one morning while readying to walk from my hut to the low school buildings across the way a pain in my abdomen knocked me to the concrete floor. I remember someone running for the man who owned a car and being driven to the town where the White priest lived. The priest said he knew a surgeon, a mass of wild Scottish hair who was drunk from midday to morning but catch him between hangover and beginning again and he could do all right under bright lights. In a hospital he removed my burst appendix. I woke in the priest’s house, my left arm black with ants that had found me sleeping, a scar above my right hip, a bottle of whisky on the table beside me. My mum, who has a fear of flying, who at this very moment is lying in a hospital bed in the end game of life, did something reckless and caring and got on a plane and landed in Harare and found me at the priest’s house up to my neck in pain and sleeping pills and whisky. The priest, who was large and fat and liked to make out his pillarness in the community, had a wife who was small and kind with bobbed-hair and freckles but who turned a blind eye, she must have, how else could she stay with his wrongness, his plying young girls with champagne when they were upright and pills and whisky when they couldn’t get out of bed. I told my mum that he wasn’t the nice guy he said he was but she didn’t believe me, which was more to type than jumping on a plane, and the three of us, leaving his wife behind, went off to his farmhouse in the countryside. He crept into my room that night, carrying his bible, and lay on top of me while my mum slept in the room next door. The next day, we drove back to town. She sat in the garden having dinner with him, I sat in the kitchen, watching. We hired a car, my mum and I, and went on a tour of Zimbabwe getting stuck on roads pitted with elephant tracks, getting soaked on the bridge at Victoria Falls and then she delivered me back to the priest and flew home. She lies in a hospital bed now, forgetful of all these things and if she remembered them, would remember them differently anyway. She is seeing snakes curl the curtain runners above her head, she is seeing rats running across the ceiling which draw pictures with their eyes.
Hanif, thank you for sharing your experiences. Your bravery makes me want to share my own experiences to do the same for someone else.
Surviving A Life Interrupted
It’s 8:51 on Tuesday morning and I am laser focused on the clock on my hospital room’s wall.
Only a month ago, by this time in the morning I would have already packed my daughter’s lunch, dropped her at school, reminded my husband for the umpteenth time to get the trash cans to the curb for garbage day, and reveled in some alone time during my bumper-to-bumper commute to the college where I work as a professor.
But not today and every day since I woke from a two-week coma, the parting gift from what should have been a routine surgery to repair a nine-year old hernia acquired during childbirth, that left me with an internal flesh-eating bacterium that ravaged my insides. Given only a 10 percent chance of survival, I beat the odds, but was left paralyzed below the neck.
So now the highlight of my day is when the surgeons peak beneath the gauze disguising the massive hole in my abdomen; the site of the original infection and where the remaining infection is being sucked out by two wound vacuums attached to me at all times.
The remainder of my time is spent fixated on the clock’s second hand, with its audible and rhythmic “tick” until the minute hand advances putting me one minute closer to my next ration of ice chips. Like many reliant on ventilators, I developed a swallowing dysfunction making pneumonia likely, which for me would be a death sentence. No food and no tall drinks of water - only six ice chips each hour.
What remains, as a new constant in my life interrupted, is a kaleidoscope of emotions – fragmented and blurred together as well as intense and fleeting -- ranging from gratitude to be breathing to the more pronounced and vivid grief for the life I had once enjoyed and deep despair for the limitations of my current existence. My only solace is six measly ice chips.
I deserve a drink of water, basic hydration, for all that I have and must still endure. If only to alleviate the pain of my severely damaged vocal cords from the ventilator, which makes every labored syllable sound and feel like I choked on a mouth full of gravel. Even moving from my bed to the chair, so close I can touch it with an outstretched hand now requires one of those parachutes with handgrips toddlers use to propel balls into the air except my body is what is suspended in midair. Affixed to steel pulleys on tracks in the ceiling, the sturdy canvas folds me into a stork-like package used to deliver me to my destination.
And then there is physical therapy and my physical therapist, “Frau Blucher,” as I refer to her because she has the same thick German accent and invokes fear like the iconic character from the cult classic Young Frankenstein. Her therapies are equal parts torture and invention as evidenced by the hard stainless-steel table she binds me to with thick leather belt-like straps to simulate standing - a cross between an industrial kitchen’s work surface and the electric chair. I imagine I look like the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecture, restrained in a similar manner, meets Clarice. Frau Blucher, I am sure is a disciple of Hannibal Lecter given her affection for agony.
All these dreams, emotions, new and unwanted experiences taken together make me ache for a life beyond these same four cinderblock walls. I cling to the hope so desperately that my recovery, albeit long and difficult, will culminate in some triumphant return to my definition of normal. Like the payoff of a movie montage where the hero defies all odds. That my life interrupted can someday be condensed into some inspiring tale to regale strangers with in casual conversation.
Patience has never been my strong suit; I want my ice chips now just as I want my old life back now. The ice chips signify a promise of what could be. A future moving freely, talking painlessly and gesticulating wildly. But the wait is unbearable. What is left is the fear I will be bed-ridden and unable to care for myself or anyone else, leaving me utterly hopeless with only an empty glass. But once every hour, if only for a few minutes, I can suck on an ice chip, sooth my throat, refresh my spirit, and remember my old life with a glimmer of hope for what could be.
My grandfather lived on an island towards the middle of Australia, surrounded by buckled spreading white trunked gum trees and an unpredictable brown river. A small farmer-built bridge crossed the anabranch to connect it to solid land.
The farmhouse was ramshackle and you could tell it had weathered droughts, fires and floods. The farmer abandoned it for a shinier house on higher ground, so Pop got it rent free.
It was the mid 60s. Pop was 76 and I was 17, each on a different rim of the cusp of life. He was stubbornly old, I was fiercely young; he had grown wise into his years, my naive ignorance was shrouded by bluster; he bolstered his waning strength with deep courage and conviction, my strength was yet to reach the intensity of my imagination.
That summer, when the river was low, he dug an ancient row boat out of the mud and patched it up. He tied a long rope to a tree and let the boat drift into the current to do some fishing. He didn't have to row, just steer it into the bank when he caught something or the sun got too hot.
Mum yelled at him and told him to stop. He would kill himself, she said.
Better than waiting to die in some run-down nursing home, Pop replied.
We lived 50km to the north west so he was by himself on the river bank most of the time and did whatever pleased him. He grew vegetables, fished, listened to the radio, read - he liked westerns and crime stories - and slept. Maybe once a week he would coax his old grey ute into town to buy milk and bread and change library books. I tried to visit every week but it was hard with school and sport.
The first big storm of the season came to the mountains about 100km east of him. We got our storm about a day later. The rain was intense, mesmeric with its thudding grey beat for several hours. As always, it turned the black soil plains to clenching mud.
No internet, no mobile phones, we relied on the radio for news. No satellites to tell us where and when the rain fell.
You'd better check on your grandfather, mum said when the rain stopped.
The small bridge across the anabranch was just under water. I trusted that 50 years meant the bridge would last another day and drove onto the island. The track was wet but clear to the first rise; from there it was thigh-deep water to the walls of the house 500metres away.
Away from the river the water moved slowly. Pop's ute had floated towards the middle of this small lake. I couldn't see him, so I followed where I knew the track went and waded towards the house. He wasn't there. He was sitting calmly in the boat near the middle of the river being thrashed around by the roughly tumbling flood.
The rope was still tied to the big white river gum near the top of the bank, but the knot was under calmer fast flowing water.
Looking at his half smiling face, free of fear, I began to understand what courage with age meant, and I cried - tears of anger, despair, hope, hopelessness and love.
I waded towards the tree but he yelled at me to stay back. It’s too dangerous. I can wait out the flood. I won't die, I've got plenty of water, he shouted.
But my heart was full of love and some nascent fool hardy teenage courage and I kept going. It's not him or me, I understood, it's him and me.
Bracing myself behind the tree with the rope I slowly pulled the boat into the calmer water, tying the rope in loops as it came. I reached him just as he stood and began to fall. I held him tight and we waded back to the track and my ute. He wasn’t hurt; just my hands were bleeding.
Leave everything. Nothing's as useful as you. And don't tell your mother, he said.
When he was, finally, in that nursing home he told me he did once fall out of the boat when his fishing line got snagged, but he held onto it and kicked it back to the bank. All he lost was his battered hat. He pleaded with me to take him back there now. This time, he said, I won't try to swim.
I phoned my mother from outside Temple Meads station. I told her the day had been a success: I’d found a place to stay at a reasonable rent. Yes, it was clean. Yes, the landlady seemed pleasant. Yes, I’d received a receipt for my deposit and had taken charge of the keys (I even jingled them to reassure her, not that that meant anything without the ocular proof). I examined my voice for any hint of a jeer as I relayed this information, but her responses from the other end sounded tight-lipped, even accusatory. I couldn’t understand why. She’d told me I’d make a mess of things, that I’d either fail to find a room or get ripped off and return with a long face and a bleeding heart story. Instead, I was returning as an adult, someone capable of fighting his own battles. This particular battle, I’d won.
When I changed trains at Shrewsbury, I had the first inkling something might be wrong: a missed call from my stepfather and a brief message that he wouldn’t be able to pick me up from Manchester, as ‘your Mum’s had a bit of an accident. Nothing to worry about. Get the bus back if you don’t feel like waiting.’
Once home, I learned that my mother had had a fall, shortly after we’d spoken. She’d replaced the receiver, turned to step through the french windows into the garden, tripped, and fallen at an untidy right angle. Fearing the worst, my stepfather had called 999; they’d sent round an ambulance double quick (this was a long time ago, when such things were not a cause of wonderment) and the crew had pronounced my mother’s leg broken. Both she and my stepfather had been taken to the nearest A&E ward.
It didn’t occur to me there might be a correlation between my good news and my mother’s accident: these things happened. But the more I reflected upon the phone call, the more I wondered what my good news had meant to her. I was an only child. Like most only children - particularly those of unhappy marriages - I’d been brought up to believe myself important, even precious. As far back as I could remember, each trip I’d made on my own had been preceded by the injunction, ‘Take care’ made in the same heavy, careworn voice; I’d always promised I would, and I always had. And I’d always sympathised with the person who’d made the request, for she was the best friend I had or would ever have; I was part of her and should anything happen to me, she’d be devastated. I was too young to entertain the idea there might be anything selfish in this outlook.
When my mother returned from the hospital, with her leg in a cast, she didn’t seem chastened: the stupid thing she’d done was a stupid thing I might easily do, probably would do once I’d left to go to college and couldn’t be supervised. I’d skip my meals, I’d have no energy (‘empty sacks can’t stand’); in my sensorily deprived state I’d wander across a busy road and need to be scraped up off the tarmac. Whatever had happened to her would happen to me, ‘with bells on’, because I wasn’t able to negotiate the world.
That I’d proved I could negotiate the world, made no difference. I needed to be guided, just as I had when I’d taken my baby steps. I had a vision of a future where each milestone would be commemorated by some maternal calamity; but I laughed and dismissed this as the stuff of sitcoms.
Only it wasn’t: when I secured my first job on the other side of the country, my mother marked the occasion by breaking her ankle. Putting down the deposit on my first house caused her to shatter her femur. Shortly after, she attended my first wedding wearing a sling but managed to dislocate her shoulder while posing for a family photo. My divorce was, significantly, injury-free but my second marriage and subsequent relocation to Ireland was trailed by a series of minor breakages and concussions. Each step further I took from the apron strings was a personal blow, which she felt compelled to convert into a physical one. But when I was foolish enough to question her about this, she saw no relationship: ‘I’m old, that’s all. When you’re old, you break easily.’
For my own children’s sake, I wish myself a durable future.
Fall from Grace.
Weaving my way through Covent Garden, towards City Lit for my singing class, revelling in the positive conversation I had had with my agent that morning and feeling confident that my life was going to change.
When it did, I found myself on the pavement, having fallen from a great height, in unrecognisable pain.
A tourist had stepped back to take a picture and didn’t check behind her, didn’t check at all in fact, that I was just passing by and that she would change my life.
The rage was first in the queue of responses. The language used was appalling and under normal circumstances I would have been ashamed. The Italian lady (she of the must have picture) was smooth and unperturbed.
“Why don’t we call an ambulance?” she said.
Others were more in tune with the UK circumstances of strikes and some suggested taxi. Some asked where I lived. Some suggested St.Thomas’s. I said. No. I live in Bromley. I’ll go there.
I was still convinced I would be seen and discharged with a couple of aspirin and continued to call my daughter to tell her the good news that she would be curtailing her work day to come and sit with her mother for four hours in the local hospital.
And after that the blur of waiting, conversation, questions, overworked nurses, doctors, XRAY machines became a blur and the writer in me found the comedy moments very pleasing.
“My mother is on her way here and we need a wheel chair.”
“She’s coming here???!!!”
(Looking at the URGENT CARE sign above her head) “Yes. This is the right place?”
“We don’t have any wheelchairs.”
And so the process of ‘no we can’t’ or ‘wait there’ began.
On the bed before my Xray. “Can you move your leg over a bit please.”
“Sorry, no. I can’t reach. Can you do it?”
“No, we’re not allowed to touch the patient. Use the cushion”
“’Sorry it’s…Can you pull the cushion over for me?”
“No, we’re not allowed to touch cushions. Contamination. We’ll have to send you back”
It was then that I forced everything in me to pull the dreaded cushion to the correct position.
Xray done, back I went with a heart full of gratitude for cushions.
What seemed like hours later, a lovely lady with a trolley, with the demeanour of an air hostess hove into view, and smiling warmly at all of us, asked what we would like to eat or drink.
The awaiting ones were no longer interested in eating, drinking or talking and their faces had taken on the mask of gargoyles, no longer interested in anything resembling normal life.
And what of me? The changes in my life and future were not clear at first. I was convinced in my over-optimistic way, that I would be skipping about very soon and could return to my new project with energy and enthusiasm.
Neither appeared. Two and a half months later, I am still moving about with great effort and unable to think creatively or read a book.
Friends have been good but only up to a point. There is a thought that I’m all right now because I am moving but I find going out mentally and physically exhausting and wonder if I will ever recover from the tiredness that sweeps over me like a tide.
My memory has failed me many times and my brain is immersed in a fog.
I say what people want to hear. “Yes. Much better thanks.” And only say how I really feel to my therapist and my daughter. (Who is part therapist and part cheer leader.)
The biggest change is that self-belief has upped and gone and I feel my age with every step I take. I am scared of everything but grateful for some things. Mainly that there were no breaks and no fractures. Otherwise, I would have been much longer in recovery. But mostly, I am grateful for the new skills that have come my way. A screenwriting course, over five weeks and a new film project which I will start today.
I am still enraged with the careless tourist and now see danger lurking with every step I take.
But I also see the opportunities and am learning not to turn away from them. This was one of them. Thank you for reading it.
I waited all winter for the sun and now it was May. I was driving to the coast to go swimming with friends. I had worked extra hard through that beast from the east winter teaching guitar to kids in schools. Some six months before, my daughter and I had stood side by side as her mother was buried. She suffered severe traumatic brain injury after she lost control of her car on an icy February Norfolk country road. She had hung on for seven years. They told me she would never speak again...but she did when I played my guitar. I decided to play for the rest of my life. Then they stopped the physio and she declined.
My daughter was only 21, and after all was done, we went back for drinks and food in a large house full of people she had known all her life. She hugged me and said she loved me but needed some space.
"I am going to be fine. Just look after yourself."
"Yeah...but...I want to look after you."
A hug and a kiss and I went back to the fresh grave and sat there under a bright moon before midnight. W and I would sometimes get stoned and take turns reading a novel out loud that cracked us up with laughter - East of Wimbledon. So, I took that along. We split up over a decade ago, and then she became my best mate. So the pain was indescribable, at first. Then over the years since I understood better the rhythms that beat under the veneer of everyday life. So we still talk and argue most days.
I was mulling all this over on the road that led me away from work and to a beach, when a car coming in the opposite direction suddenly accelerated and came towards me at a very high speed. There was no space to manouvre in the three seconds before the full frontal collision that broke my neck, sternum, collar bone, ribs, and god knows what else. I didn't know that then of course, but that's what the
tortuous and noisy scans a few hours later showed.
I am still not breathing but there is no pain. There is no blood. There is a rancid taste that seems to be inside my head, behind my eyes. I didn't notice the smoke till it came through the radio, and under the dashboard and even from under my feet. I draw my first breath. It is an ugly and grotesque sound of a wounded animal. Each breath keeps me alive. My seat belt is now a trap. I break free and crawl out of the car shouting and clenching my fists.
"What the fuck? What the fuck?"
The traffic has come to a standstill. People crowd round both the smashed cars.
"You must lie down. Come off the road. An ambulance is coming."
"Where's my phone? My wallet? My guitars...^
A middle-aged man approaches me cautiously. He points to his wife who is lying flat on her back on the grass verge. The man gestures me to lie on top of her. Three people help me down on the woman who seems much larger than me. I am surprised, humbled, and comforted at the same time. She rubs my hair and forehead. I drift in and out of consciousness. Can I be arsed to live? It is such an effort to breath. My chest is so heavy. Someone hands me my jacket and I finally let go.
I am offered sedation and painkillers in the ambulance but I refuse. I phone my partner, a pschologist.
"No...not mucking about. Hospital. Yeah sure, see you at A&E...can't wait..."
Then...the answerphone as usual when I phone my daughter.
" Hi darling, dad here...Just had a little bump in my car. Talk later. Lots of love."
We didn't and that really hurt.
Postscript - Five years later.
The surgery went well that night and the titaniam pin secured C5 and C6. I was discharged after 48 hours with a mountain of medcations, which I never took, and an Aspen collar.
The other driver was an old lady who blanked out. Her insurers paid for my rehab - psychological and physical, over the next two years. My doctor was willing to write me off sick for the rest of my life but I dreaded the government's warped system. I was back at work in three months and driving around. I had to take medication for anxiety, heart arrythmias, and fluctuating blood pressure. I am off all that now.
My daughter is doing great.
Anything is possible...
Hello, thank you for your Chronicles, and for the non-fiction competition - my submission is below.
All the very best
It’s exactly as you see it on TV. A person falls. They lie on the floor, unconscious. The person with them tries to hold them, to still them, to do something other than the nothing they seem to be doing right now. They stab at their phone – they can’t recall how it’s in their hand, but there it is – and dial 999.
“Is the patient conscious and breathing?” asks a woman’s voice.
You’ve heard this phrase a thousand times. Except now it’s real, and the person on the floor is your little girl, and the person holding the phone – me – is losing their shit, shouting down the line for them to send someone, to hurry up, just hurry up, while my son looks down at the two figures on the floor in horror.
The woman asks for calm, and I relay the facts: my daughter was in the kitchen making pancakes. I turned to the cupboard to get flour, asking her a question. When she didn’t reply, I turned back to see her staring up at the ceiling. I opened my mouth to say -
“Stop being silly, what are you doing?”
But she collapsed before the words came.
I want to say to the woman on the phone: I’ve never seen anyone fall like that. She had left her body and her body, without her, was just a dead weight that fell straight back onto the stone floor.
Instead, I say: Her head hit the floor as she went down, really hard.
You know, I always felt that ours had been a charmed life. Two kids, good marriage, decent jobs, nice house. But I didn’t think I deserved it, and so I kept a watchful eye, turning over disasters in my mind as if so doing would offer us protection: what if I dropped my baby on the stairs, what if that truck swerved into us, what if my kids had been there when that bomb went off? But now I’ve thought these things – I’d think - I’m ready for them. For anything.
One May, as a late spring arrived and the sun finally shone, my son got ill.
“Mum,” said my daughter, “why are his wrists so skinny?”
When I pulled up his sleeves to look – beneath the fat fabric of the Nike folds was just skin and bone. How had I not noticed? What monster had crept in while my mind was occupied with accidents and crashes and bombs?
Soon, he was unable to get out of bed. At the doctor’s the receptionist told me there were no appointments for weeks.
I said – there’s something really wrong.
I said – he’s just a child.
A nurse saw us. Within 20 minutes we were at A&E. Admission, drips, drugs, and then, just like that, autoimmune disease became part of his life.
In June came a second diagnosis (apparently, autoimmune diseases like company). July, I broke my foot and, as summer bled away, I was told it might never heal. November, my daughter had a seizure, then COVID. Apparently, it likes company, too: Long COVID shaded her winter.
None of these things, individually, were the worst. My son is learning to live with his conditions, and me with my foot. My daughter recovered. But my watchful eye, still there, has proven its uselessness. Turns out that no amount of catastrophising can stop bad things from happening. There can be no protection. Just the dark, wet chaos of our bodies as they silently unravel, misfire, malfunction until – bang – the damage makes itself known.
Seconds after she fell, my daughter is fitting, and I’ve never seen that before, either: the way her eyes roll back, her hands curling into claws, her body rigid. I shout for my son, because it’s only us three in the house, and he must hear my fear: he pelts downstairs and is standing over us while she’s still seizing.
He gives me my phone. He listens as I shout down the line.
I am not that kind of woman, I think. I am not loud and shouty, I am not unreasonable and panicky. It’s not my job to lose it. It’s my job to be calm and strong. I was, when it was him.
Instead, I give in to the terror that something is happening - again, for fuck’s sake, again – to one of my children, and there’s nothing I can do except stand by and shout and shout and shout and wait for it to stop.
My that is a lot of subscribers! It's true, this is a great way to have your work seen. Thank you, Hanif, for your kindness and generosity to us, your readers. Since your accident many of us have become more aware of you. Your life has become part of my consciousness, though we have not ever met. We are all beings on this planet, moving across it endlessly in our minds, and your life is one of our feet now, one of the places we touch the earth, one of our senses of what it is to be human here. Sending you as always many good wishes. May you realize the fruit of your humanity!
Thank you for the opportunity to share and read each other's work. I attach my submission below. Best wishes.
I'll Tell Me Ma
My mother has fallen out of bed. She has recently arrived at a local hospital for respite care. I am met at the door of the ward by a charming, effusively smiling consultant. His unlikely presence to welcome me tells me two things; firstly - she must look terrible, secondly - it is their fault.
‘She is handsome, she is pretty, she is the Belle of Dublin City’
(We play this at her funeral.)
I am ushered to a small room filled with noticeboards, computers and mask-wearing staff who all tactfully ignore my presence. The consultant turns a warm and understanding gaze upon me;
“I hear your mother was a nurse”. He is trying hard to personalise this and make us feel seen. This makes me feel irritated but also strangely important which is an unexpected feeling. Or maybe I am simply my mother’s daughter. She adored consultants. I mentally punch myself in the face.
“Yes” I say. “She was a nurse for 55 years”.
“Amazing! Where did she work?”
“Well, she trained at St Andrews in London after arriving from Dublin.”
“Fantastic” he enthuses.
“She was a ward sister before she retired. She worked on a care of the elderly ward.” I let that sink in and watch him acknowledge the irony. He looks uncomfortable.
“As a matter of fact, she was the sister of this ward.”
He blanches and I feel a brief twist of satisfaction. The insult to her and to the care she has given others is obvious.
I sense I have the advantage and push for a referral to an already oversubscribed care home. I am told this will be done as a matter of urgency. The ease of this leaves me feeling grubby as I am probably leapfrogging over someone else but my job is to act in her best interest. Two years of wrangling with the health and social care services has left me battle-hardened. Nobody has intentionally hurt my mother but they have failed to provide crash mats around her bed and sensors to alert staff if she tries to get out of bed. She is a suspected vascular dementia patient with limited mobility and so the omission is inexcusable on a dedicated care of the elderly ward.
‘She never slips, she never falls
Double Dutch or Heel and Toe
She’s the one that steals the show’
He takes me to see her, prefacing walking in the door with “She’s a bit bruised and battered!” We step into her room and there is my mother or rather, the shell of my mother. She lies shrunken and defeated. Her bruises are blooming. Her face is the royal purple of a crocus, magenta as the buzy-lizzies she loved and red-ripe raspberries crushed in a toddler’s fist. Her gown has slipped off one shoulder and another bruise blossoms magnificently there. She has no teeth in, causing her mouth to collapse inwards. Her hair, styled without fail on a Friday by Nigel - her hairdresser for the last sixty years - is wild and undyed. Her eyes are widen open and terrified. She looks completely and utterly helpless. I realise that I would like her to die, that I could let her go now, that this is what she will look like when she is dead. This is the ultimate humiliation for her - being out of control and pitied. She dreaded the idea of dementia, having observed it for years on her ward.
‘Let the wind and the rain and the hail
And the snow come tumbling from the sky’
All of a sudden a low keening begins. A sound so peculiar I look around to check it is actually coming from her. Her mouth is contorted into an “O’ of distress. The sound builds to a wail - my mother is a banshee foreseeing her own death. The noise bounces off the sterile white walls and flies out the window. My heart is broken.
The following day I enter her room. She is weeping but unseeing, locked inside her head. Her sheets have been gathered up and swept away without anyone noticing faecal waste flying out of them and splatting against the cabinet door. I try my best to tamp down my anger and understand the pressure they are under. I remember the kindness mum showed her patients, the small acts of care which made them feel valued and I weep alongside her.
‘She is a courtin’, one, two, three
Please won’t you tell me who is she?’
The Wound That Never Healed (Me)
Growing up in the mid-1980s, my family had a giant red, rusty van that the whole street despised, and we adored. We called her Bertha. Sitting in the front carriage, I felt like a character in an action movie, "Mad Max" or maybe "The Goonies." The van was so loud that you could hear it coming from a full three minutes away. It had a gaping hole in the floor that we had to be very careful of, and through which I once dropped a newly bought ice cream cone. There were tears.
Having a van like that made you stand out. At home, the bright red monstrosity sat on our driveway, with its back protruding slightly onto the road, forcing pavement walkers to veer round it, adding to their resentment. It was a bit like being a black cab driver; you always knew who drove a black cab in your area. In those days, driving a cab held status, both for the skill of the driver and the magnificence of the vehicle. A cab was more than a car; closer to a plane or tank and most definitely in a different league to a clapped out van.
Marc Jacobs' dad drove a black cab, and this becomes important. Marc Jacobs was a bully, the kind of classic TV school bully you'd find in an episode of "Byker Grove." When I was six or seven, Marc decided to sit on my face, using his thighs as a stranglehold, from which he could give me a good ol’ punch. I had a bloody nose, black eye, the works. The experience was shockingly violent, even at milk and naps age. The school didn't do much to intervene, framing the assault as a "kiss and chase gone wrong." There was probably some form of punishment, but it wasn't enough for my dad's honour, as evidenced by his simmering in the days that followed.
Dad had his own tempers but never resorted to fisty cuffs and so I remember wondering, how would this be resolved? We didn't talk to Jacob's family, we weren't pals, so a civilised resolution seemed impossible. After dinner, my dad was always partial to a walk, a futile nod to exercise after consuming his bodyweight in whatever had been served. Lacking the family dog he always wanted, me or my sister would be taken to trot alongside. That week, the walk took on purpose. As we nervously approached the Jacobs, I thought my dad was going to have it out with his dad. Would he do that?! Protect my honour....no. That wasn't it. He resorted to the only revenge our family truly understood - street parking.
The Jacobs home was well known due to the two parking cones outside the house to ensure Jacobs Snr could bagsie a spot for his Cab each night, lacking the luxury of a two car driveway like ours. (What we lacked in sophistication, we made up for in paving). As we reached their house, dad grabbed one cone and then the other. This was no easy task - those cones are surprisingly heavy - even without a cigarette in your mouth and an obstructive belly. He then raced to deposit them behind the Jacobs family car on their drive, hidden from view. He wasn't stealing them, just misplacing them on their own property. It was a clever move.
Parking was a premium on the roads around our houses, within walking distance of a tube stop. My dad knew this - everyone did - and he banked on the space being taken before it could be claimed by its rightful owner. This went on for five nights, not quite as long as Chanukah, but close. It was a delicious, naughty and entirely juvenile revenge.
The thing about this kind of bully, as was often seen at the end of the Byker Grove episode, is that they were usually knocked about by their dads at home. Looking back, I think Marc probably was. In this day and age, would the equivalent dads talk it out? Would the school suspect something off might be happening at home? Would someone take the time to ask me how I was feeling after the brutal assault? I like to think these things might happen now but it was lawless back then. Emotions left to fester under the surface and pester you all the way into adulthood.
The three-fingered pinch
Most people have eight fingers of varying strength; Dad had seven, and each one contributed to the vice-like grip he still had in his 80s. This was bad news for my brother, when we were joking about an old TV show, of all things one day.
Those seven fingers went through a lot. Dad went down the pit when he was 14; he came from a small rural town, so he was given a job thought appropriate for his background: he had to look after six pit ponies that sighed in the darkness. When he retired, the ponies were long gone – replaced by clattering conveyor belts and roaring tunnelling machines. The hard work underground left his hands scarred and dented, and they fascinated me as a child, especially the tiny stump on his right hand, where his little finger should have been. Growing up, I’d ask him where it had gone; his grandchildren would ask the same question years later.
The answer he gave would vary.
“A badger bit it off,” was one explanation.
Then there was the department store escalator.
“I tried to rescue a toffee between the moving steps, and CRUNCH!”
Another story involved an older brother, who would grow up to join the army, train to be a commando and end up a prisoner of war. One day in the 1920s, supposedly, my then seven-year-old Dad was using a finger to try and free a mint fragment stuck between two molars, when his nine-year-old brother snuck up on him, possibly using the skills that would lead to his future commando role, and grabbed him from behind. The shock made Dad’s jaw snap shut, and that was the end of the finger.
I was told the truth, I was assured, about the finger, when Dad was in his 70s, and it really did involve my uncle. On a hot August day in the 1920s, Dad and his brother were playing catch with bricks on a building site; he tried to catch two at the same time – they came together in his hand and almost cut the little finger off at the base. A doctor with a bad wig, who’d trained in India with the army, was sent for and arrived at the family home on horseback. The finger could not be saved, and was removed on the kitchen table with a scalpel.
When the first TV arrived in our house, Dad used his strong fingers to jab at the controls on the set; later, he used them to crush the remote control into submission. He liked to watch gardening programmes, sport, history and current affairs on the TV. I was a late arrival in the family, and plump little me somehow talked him into watching Star Trek.
“It reminds me of Flash Gordon,” he said, and soon became an unlikely fan. He was still watching Star Trek reruns when they came on the TV, when a thirtysomething me and my fortysomething brother happened to visit him on the same day.
The three of us stood with our backs to the fire, in the council house Dad still lived in. I have no idea why, but Star Trek came up as a topic of conversation, or more specifically, Mr Spock’s unique ability to subdue opponents. Using his thumb and his fingers, Mr Spock would pinch the neck where it joins the shoulder and an opponent would fall unconscious. We laughed at how often this was used to get Spock and Kirk out of trouble, and then Dad decided to demonstrate how easy it was to do in reality.
At that time, my brother had a work-related shoulder problem that would eventually need surgery. But Dad had forgotten this. I can still hear the yelp of pain as a thick thumb and three battered fingers took hold. For a moment, my brother nearly did collapse like one of Spock’s opponents. Dad apologised with a smirk – I am ashamed to say that I found the whole thing hilarious, despite my brother’s discomfort – fortunately he recovered quickly, and I think the shock of this unexpected Vulcan manoeuvre was more lasting than the pain.
I’ve never met another 80something like Dad; certainly not one who could recreate Mr Spock’s neck pinch. There are some days when I still wonder about the things he did, his family and his stories. And that missing finger of course, and I wish I could still ask him: how did you really lose it, Dad?
I planned my wardrobe poorly for a head injury. I wore white.
I woke up in a ditch after being knocked unconscious. I saw both my mother and ambulance workers headed toward me. My mother had the lead. She was scrambling down the dirt hill, faster than those carrying the stretcher.
I was sixteen. My father had died eight months previously.
I felt his presence while I was out, along with a directive to open my eyes. My mother told me if my eyes had been shut when she first saw me, she didn’t know what she would have done. Because they were open, it was a sign I would live.
The white sweater I wore was soaked in blood.
I was at voice class fifteen minutes before. I had a crush on the boy who picked me up after. I saw the Budweiser cans on the floorboard of his truck and an uneasiness filled me.
If I could impart any information to young girls and women, it is to always trust that uneasiness.
But it was 1982 and not offending the boy trumped the warning signals.
We were in a subdivision with a lot of stop signs. My alarm increased. He was driving too fast and doing rolling stops. I was sitting in the middle without a seatbelt, in between he and his cousin, a boy so blonde he almost disappeared in the light.
I saw the car out of my peripheral vision, and that’s where time slows down. I remember the moments before only as freeze frames in a hand drawn cartoon panel. My brain was already at work protecting me from the memory of the impact.
Neither boy was injured. I flopped around like a rag doll in the cab. My jaw broke on impact, my head flew back and split open on the back window, then I came down hard on the dashboard and hit my right forehead.
They called in a specialist in the ER. His name was Dr. Allen. He was an oral surgeon. The nurses told me that he was frequently called in for car accidents because his stitch work was so fine. He was an excellent surgeon, they opined, but warned my mother he had a terrible bedside manner. It was worth putting up with him because of his surgical skills.
The back of my head on the right side was shaved and stitched up. I had a goose egg forming on the right side of my face. The jaw was broken on the left side, and the doctor told my mother that he would perform the surgery to repair it the next day. He said there was perhaps a one in a million chance that he could do so without leaving a scar on my face.
I was pumped full of Demerol and put in a private room.
The next morning, I woke up and told the nurses I wanted to see my face. I was told it wasn’t a good idea to look.
When I was alone, I got up and walked over to the mirror above the sink.
My hair was matted to my head, plastered down with dried blood. The lower left side of my face drooped, and the upper right was raised. My face was now on a diagonal.
I will never forget the absolute peace and acceptance I felt looking at myself. I haven’t felt calm like that since. I thought,
“Well, you are going to have to figure out some intellectual pursuit to follow in your life. Something that interests you. Because you will never have a romantic life looking like this.”
I went back to bed, unperturbed.
When I woke up from surgery later in the recovery room, the first words my mother whispered were,
“Darling, he was able to do the work from the inside. No scar!”
It was difficult to answer because my jaw was wired shut and would remain so for six weeks.
I lost 30 pounds. My mother took me shopping for smaller clothes.
When I left the dressing room and looked in the mirror, I panicked. I didn’t recognize this person. She was attractive.
Everyone acted like I’d hit the lottery. I was thin. But I should have listened to my inner alarm.
The worst injury was getting suckered into the idea that my looks were the most important thing about me. I’d have been in better shape with a face on the diagonal.
Sepulveda is the longest street in Los Angeles County, as well as my mother’s maiden name. From her, I inherited bad teeth, a bad temper and an interest in the paranormal.
My father — Scots-Irish and a Methodist preacher’s kid from Appalachia — wasn’t averse to the supernatural either. After a World War II tour of duty in North Africa, he lugged home an authentic mojo. It’s a mahogany-red, heart-shaped, leather-bound amulet, stitched with white reeds and topped by a tassel of leather fringe. It supposedly contains a monkey heart, but that might just’ve been my dad’s tip of the hat to a Swahili fairy tale.
Of uncertain age, it bears the patina of countless incantations by who-knows-who for purposes unknown. When Muddy Waters sang, “I got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you,” he was talking talisman. Friends injured by nasty divorces, child custody battles and bad neighbors often ask if my mojo's Hoodoo can solve their issues by getting rid of the problems.
I’ve never been asked to rub that mojo for pure purposes. There is enough Irish superstition and my father’s kindness in me to know what you put out is what you get back. I can imagine my dad tucking the charm into his flight jacket before bombing the hell out of combatants in Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Pacific islands. Knowing him, he hoped to protect innocents below from becoming collateral damage.
My mother, on the other hand, had no compunctions. She was all about retribution. Lore has it her family roots reach back to Island Carib, the fierce cannibal tribe of the Caribbean. Having seen that side of her, I believe it. Floating in and out of hospice care on seven occasions, she went down fighting at age 90 from a dementia that slowly ate her brain over the course of 15 years.
Long divorced from my mom (of whom he never said a bad word, despite her running off with a Colombian bombero, blowing her settlement and moving to Bogota), my dad’s end at age 64 was also heroic. He suffered an aortic aneurysm and lay on his bathroom floor for two days before being found. He got to the hospital too late for survival but held off dying for 48 hours until I caught a flight from the West Coast. He died 15 minutes after my arrival. “He was waiting for you,” the nurse whispered in my ear as I leaned over his bedside.
My parents were warriors, especially in death. That got me wondering whether elephants really travel to a tribal bone yard to bury what’s left of their life. Most cultures contain chapters on senicide, a concept I encountered as a child reading Jack London’s story, “The Law of Life.” There are worse things than being left to die in the forest or on an ice floe.
From my perspective, it’s never too early to think about where you’d like to die from the thousand tiny and large cuts that constitute life.
As a music writer, a big part of my job was searching for the entertainment gold standard in the coal mines of nightclubs. This butt has embraced more Naugahyde in more dive bars than I can count. When the heartache and thousand shocks that flesh is heir to finally catch up to me, I hope to find myself at the Sans Souci. A longtime press corps and ne'er-do- well hideout, Sans Souci— French for “without care” —harkens to the caveman era of highballs and unfiltered cigarettes. Legend has it that the bar opened in the 1930s to launder heist money for the Lavender Hill Mob of Los Angeles.
Sans Souci attracts all kinds, from the homeless to celebrities performing at the theater across the street. For old school patrons it's a huddle around the horseshoe bar sounding off on opinions others listen to, even if they ferociously disagree. An advertisement for the band exalts, “The Sewer Is my church!” Its dimly lit confines and jukebox are an antidote for the loneliness that ails us; for those not busy being born, who are busy dying.
For the bartender Sans Souci is selection 45-01, Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally."
For the gentleman nursing a schnapps it's 18-02, Brooks & Dunn's "A Man This Lonely."
Me? I’d be happy to end my life listening to 00-01 Nat "King" Cole's "Unforgettable."
Luckily, I have a mojo. Maybe it works for me.
Christ I'm late with this and pleased to join this community. Mr Hanif: big fan. Have been following this thread for months! Am in Rome too. Here is my piece (apols for typos but better to make the deadline!):
Revolving doors can spit out a new you – for Clarke Kent this was Superman, for me it was being blind in one eye.
He stepped out of the Daily Planet, I stepped out of the Daily Mail building.
Northcliffe House was also home to a liberal news website where I edited Obituaries, three days a week. It was the end of a particularly shit day in April 2019 that I found I had something stuck in my eye.
I rubbed it and rubbed it before going back through the doors to see if I could wash it out in the loo.
All I could see was a dark brown disc and a rim of white light – I wished I could pull myself up and peer over the 2p coin someone had placed in my skull.
Give me back ten minutes ago, I kept thinking. I just wanted it back. I didn’t know how lucky I was ten minutes ago. I could see in stereo.
Around the corner, in the Boots next to Kensington High Street station, I made a beeline for a bottle of Optrex. It won’t help, the pharmacist said.
How I would have loved to stand on my head and chant to fix this – maybe drink some ginger juice with charcoal or turmeric.
Get to hospital now, a friend of mine who is a doctor said, when I called him. Eye hospital, he emphasised, in case I’d head to the pub or the Lebanese across the road.
At the Western Eye, a few tube stops away, a nurse asked me what I could identify off a chart. Nothing. Nope. Can’t see that, I said. None of it. Really.
Dozens of people waited their turn and mine eventually came – didn’t know eye ailments were so popular.
Retinal detachment, said the doctor examining me through a device gently clamping my head. Off-macula.
I thought that’s a good thing – off, skirting a bigger problem. But a macula, it turned out – for I’d no idea – is the very kernel upon which our vision depends.
I will never be a superhero, I told the doctor.
Wouldn’t say that sir, he said. We can do an operation. Your Vision Will Never be the Same Again — eight words, devastating at the time, that now sound like an A-ha song.
I was offered an appointment in two weeks.
Forget that, said doctor friend, go to Moorfields or private if you have to.
At Moorfields, the next day, a short grumpy male nurse was not impressed that I had come there for ‘a second opinion’.
That’s not how it works, he said, poised to shoo me out. There was no law against it either, I pointed out, asking to speak to a supervisor.
I was injured but could hustle. Within days I was back. I took a selfie of the big arrow drawn on my forehead pointing to my right eye, just in case the surgeon got his left or right wrong.
In the waiting room, I texted my boss, who when drunk would proposition me or try and get me into her cab, to ensure I would receive sick pay.
Only full-timers get that – you’re a casual, she said. But I was being taxed and paying national insurance, so I was an employee.
It’s not happened in thirty years, she told me on WhatsApp. Well, watch this, I told her.
In the operating room they asked what kind of music I liked. Can’t remember what I told them. I was busy regretting the detachment was too advanced to be fixed by a gas bubble,
But I remember being put at ease by the team, the only time I truly felt visible, in this overloaded and underfunded NHS.
There is a picture of me outside the operating room, one eye neatly patched up, with my dad who’d turned up to support, sitting next to me – it must’ve been taken by a nurse.
I’d been told to keep my head facing down so papa had put an Evening Standard on my lap to make it look like I was reading.
Over the next two weeks, vision returned one bit at a time. I waged an email war on my boss and got my money for the days I needed off.
She was jolly miffed about it, forced me back into the office earlier than I would have liked to return, cold-shouldered me but... I had won – I was battered, yes, but Superman nonetheless.
Hi, it does say "injury in the broadest sense". :) so here goes, for the sake of participating.
A theater in Italy. Maybe Lignano. It is modern, big and cold, stage is medium size, seats are dirty orange, polyester kind. The dressing rooms are lined in a labyrinth of corridors that look like a hospital and all is lit by neon lights, some flickering.
My brother and I are playing hide and seek in one of the dressing rooms. We have to catch each other. We are running around in a state of hysteria, joy boiling out of us like steam from a whistling kettle, and it feels like the only imperative is for the joy to steam out until there isn’t a drop left.
The show has started up on stage and we will have to join in at some point or other and it adds an extra urgency we are all too aware of.
We are squealing and giggling, my head is burning hot, my brother’s temples are moist and the scent of his hair- so familiar- reaches me furtively in the dark. For we’ve added a twist: we’ve switched all lights off- we picked the biggest dressing room too- made for concertists, choruses, dancers.
We are laughing, we are breathless.
I sense my brother’s presence very close, he’s about to catch me, so I run in the opposite direction with all the strength I can gather, and suddenly, there is a deafening buzz in my ears. A concreteness so abrupt, so cold, it tears the moment to shreds, invades all at once. A wall? I must have run into a wall. My little brother is looking for a switch in the dark, his hands shuffling across diverse structures when our father’s voice blasts in the corridors. We’ve got to go back up, get ready, we’ve got to enter the cage, get in the trap, wait for our cue. We are already in costume. My brother is not finding the switch, but he found a door and so enough light comes in for us to run out and through the corridors to the staircase and up to the stage, the show’s music getting louder as we approach, another kind of obscurity meeting us, that of the wings, like a nest.Once in position, I taste warm liquid in my mouth, slightly metallic, some of it running on my chin and down my neck to the rims of my costume- it’s all sticky and gooey. My brother’s little square hands reach out for mine as we settle in the trap. “ Are you okay?” He asks. Or maybe he doesn’t ask but his whole being is stretched towards that question, he’s become a painful interrogation mark. I dont’ dare touch my face. I’m hoping it is my nose. It’s the first thought that came into my mind “ Please let it be my nose”. I’ve been secretly trying to break my nose for years. I want a dangerous nose. Mine is small and upturned. Every night I hide a hammer under my shirt, I lock myself in the bathroom, in the trailer where we live or in the dressing rooms where we spend most of our time, and I give it a go, but I am never brave enough, short little hits and they kind of hurt already and I may have gotten a bit of my nose once, at the base, but I am not sure. Now we are being wheeled on stage and I am holding my breath.
Wagner is blasting out of the speakers, there is a cloud of fake smoke covering the stage. We await the cue that will get us out of the trap. My tongue reaches to the front of my mouth and is met with an abyss. Right there, where my front teeth used to be. Vertiginous. There is a nail we need to take out for the platform that is holding us to go down, for us to stumble out of the trap and into the front of the cage, in time for the big reveal. I notice a few shivs sticking out of my gums. I don’t have time to make sense of it for the fabric is being pulled away and blaring lights are now focused on us and I’m smiling a toothless smile, blood pouring out of my mouth and in the corner of my eye, I see my father. He is calling me by my nick name, which means I am not in trouble.