I am writing this as I travel home on the M6, stuck in the traffic jam outside Lower Peover (yes that is a place). The fog and frost are just starting to descend down, and the headlights make the drizzle sparkle before it hits the bumper of the car in front. The light is fading, but the moon is not yet visible in the sky. Perhaps it is covered by a cloud.
Unfortunately, our New Year did not start so well as I had hoped. On New Year’s Day, 1 week ago, we received the call that my Grandad had been rushed to hospital and was undergoing surgery to stop serious bleeding in his abdomen, and would be subject to further testing to work out why this had happened and then relapsed. It’s painful when you live far away from your family, that you cannot just be there instantaneously when they’re ill. You want to be at the hospital to hold their hand. But that’s how the world works. So the following week has been filled with telephone calls between my Mum, Uncle and Grandma, trying to keep up with what is happening. Grandad was hospitalised and put on several drips, having his blood tested every 2 hours to try and work out why this bleeding kept happening.
This weekend, my Mum and I travelled North to be with him in hospital and hopefully to take him home. Having packed my rucksack with chocolate digestives, double deckers, chocolate coins, half a toblerone, a colouring book, Guys and Dolls CD, and Greek and Latin vocab lists (all the essentials for 10 hours in the car), we left London at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, stopping at Stafford for a sausage sandwich (much needed!).
I was half anxious and half excited to go. Anxious because my Grandad is very sick, in my mind during the week I kept catastrophizing what could happen to him and I’d heard stories about people catching all kinds of harmful diseases in hospitals like MRSA. However I was also excited. This excitement not only stemmed from seeing Grandad but the fact that I had never actually been to visit anyone in hospital before. My nose operations had been in our local private hospital, I had visited A&E when I fractured my wrist, and I may have visited my brother in hospital when he was born, but this I don’t remember! So I was semi excited to go to a hospital properly for the first time (and procrastinate doing prep because I wasn’t at home), but of course I just wish the circumstances had been different.
We were taught from a young age not to trust the food we were served by my Grandparents. I remember the time for example, we were served pastries which were burnt on top, but frozen underneath. I guess that’s what happens if you grill frozen croissants. Similar to the time when the sausages were black on the outside, and raw inside. So fuelled on a safe Staffordshire sausage sandwich and a couple of chocolate coins, we arrived at my Grandparents’ house, exhausted from a 4 hour journey (pretty good as this journey goes, but still exhausting). We were unexpectedly greeted with semi cooked salmon and watercress (is it just me who finds this a bit of an odd combination?) pie and chocolate log. Thankfully anything that has come straight from M&S and is put straight in the oven is usually safe. But somehow, given the reason for our visit, I didn’t really feel like eating.
We made it to the hospital for visiting hours. I experienced for the first time the conflicting atmosphere that lingers in a hospital that I’ve heard others talk about. There are whispers of pain, suffering and loss. There are glimpses of hope, the smiles of the discharged, and the balloons celebrating the birth of a new baby. But the discarded trolleys in the corridor, the scars, a distant scream, and the smell of hand sanitiser were just a few of the things that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. A reminder of the pain of human suffering. A corridor that seemed to go on forever, devoid of life and the vacant eyes of the nurses who walked past made me want to turn around and leave. I didn’t think a long wide yellow corridor could make you feel like that. But I had to get to ward 3D. And when I opened the door of Grandad’s room, I immediately saw an empty bed. And the catastrophized situations that had been plaguing my thoughts for the week resurfaced.
And then I looked up and saw him, round the corner, sitting in an armchair reading his kindle. He looked awfully frail, pale and hurt. But it was him, and he was there.
The remainder of my time in the North has been spent sitting in various very uncomfortable chairs, talking, playing Trivial Pursuit (I forgot that I had the travel version buried – beneath the food – in my rucksack) on hospital bed tables which wheel themselves away every time you place a card down, watching BBC news on repeat, marvelling at the menu (which I am reliably informed does not give a true representation of the food received), eating chocolate digestives and toblerone to make up for the poor menu, travelling between the hospital and my Grandparents’ house (with squeaky nylon blow up mattresses and nylon sleeping bags so that every time you turn over it either rustles or sparks) and working out where a prescription could be, lost in a ‘pod’ system, when the ward say they’ve sent it, and the Pharmacy say they haven’t got it.
And now I’m back in the car travelling home with Grandma’s packed tea of turkey sandwiches (it’s not unlikely that the Turkey’s left from Christmas) and more chocolate log (also probably left from Christmas). I’m hoping we’ll stop soon to pick up a packet of crisps and make the essential ‘facilities’ break. It’s been a whirlwind trip, but one that I felt I had to make. My first trip to a hospital, but more importantly a chance to be there for my family. Life is fleeting. Our candle can blow out at any moment. The atmosphere I felt and the tears, pain and anguish, that struck me in the hospital reminded me all too well of that fact. It reminded me that it is important to go whatever distance, despite their Russian-roulette dinners and sparking beds, to be with your family and to share in the good times and the bad. Because family is something that at times we wish we could choose not to have, but the love of our family is also that which we cannot live without.
I am so grateful that this afternoon Grandad has been able to go home, to be in his own environment and have some peace. We don’t know what the future holds, but right now the candlelight seems a little brighter than it did a week ago, and that’s all we can ask for.
This poem just sort of came into my head when I was reflecting on what might have been, and the feelings that I went through on seeing that empty bed. I felt like I was too late, like I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. These were my honest feelings. And I’m sure they are feelings that many people go through on a daily basis. So here it is, a simple and honest poem dedicated to all those who feel lost in grief at the beginning of this New Year:
Where you lie no more
There is an empty hospital bed,
The covers thrown aside,
Still warm from where
With silvered cheeks I wrap
Your coat around me,
Eyes fixed on where
Sirens scream all around;
Too late to find the
Frail body where
Whispers linger of your pain; my broken
Heart is pierced again. I breathe
My last of the air where
There was an empty hospital bed,
The covers thrown aside,
Still warm from where
For anyone studying English literature, this poem was designed to be shaped like a heartbeat, symbolising the poet’s liveliness contrasted with the death of the one she loved.