Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Une Semaine de Bonté: A Week in Papworth
Diagnosis and Preparation (2)

On the rational and fully conscious level I have always expected to die, not necessarily at the end of my ‘natural’ span, but at any perfectly arbitrary time. Life is simply like that, I feel in my bones. My parents’ lives bear witness to it in the most dramatic way imaginable. The result is that I have always assumed that  living well in stable times is not the norm but exceptional good fortune. I was a lucky man: my parents were not. So, if I didn’t dwell on the possibility of dying on the operating table - in the case of a multiple by-pass the chances of that happening are roughly 100/1 - it was because there was always the possibility of dying any old how.

My most pressing thoughts were for Clarissa and our children, Tom and Helen. What would happen to them? How would they feel? How would it affect them? Clarissa and I have been married for over forty-five years and are so close we are almost extensions of  each other. I don’t thinhk any man could have made a better marriage. In the case of the children my worst nightmares have always been those in which they are endangered. I would want my wife, children, and indeed grandchildren, to lead lives at least as fortunate as mine.

I looked for practical things to do in case I died. We checked our wills, I ordered my computer files as far as I could, I contacted my literary executors (Cambridge University Library has most of my papers) and I tidied up, as best I could, the three books I am due to publish this year. The first, a collaboration with another poet, Carol Watts, is now ready for printing. The second, the book of poems for children, has been handed in to the publisher but still needs to be illustrated. There was no point in trying to complete the drawings before the operation so I wasn’t even going to start. The third, my new poetry collection, is due in October. The material for this has long been ready and lodged with Bloodaxe but a decent number of extra poems have accumulated since, poems that would not in themselves make a book, so - in consultation with my editor, Neil Astley - I prepared an alternative extended collection in case of death, that would include the later poems. It was the oddest thing I felt I had to do, but I did it because it was practical.


I am writing this in the luxury of an almost empty Orchard Ward, Papworth where I am being attended by two nurses. I consciously deliver myself over to them, doing their bidding with a smile. The surgeon and the anaesthetist call for visits. One nurse explains what needs be done before the operation: I need to have two showers with antiseptic and must shave my body, arms, legs, chest and groin. That will be done at 6 am. At that point my blood will be tested, then I’ll be sedated and finally put under anaesthetic ready for surgery. The operation will begin at 8 am and I will be unconscious until about 5pm. Once I am unconscious a tube will be inserted down my throat which will be removed while I am drowsy after the operation. Some days later the ‘drains’ would be removed.

Clarissa, who had driven me in for my 4 pm admission, was renting a room in a house made available for relatives. While I wolfed down the lasagne provided in Orchard Ward, she ate the food she had brought with her at the house. After that she returned at 9pm to watch the seond of half of Derby versus Manchester United live FA Cup tie on TV. with me. This has been a bad year for United and the result was in doubt. We watched the match with an anxiety that was probably greater than I was feeling about my operation.My heart rate went up as result.

After the match she returned to the house and I was left alone with the less tender but perfectly competent night staff. Before lying down to sleep I was introduced to the young Indian male nurse who would shave me.

Being alone is natural. Clarissa and I had been talking about just that, about how we are creatures of both relationship and solitude. Relationships (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband, wife, lover, employer, employee, and so on) stabilise us There are places we must be and are fortunate to be, glad to be wanted and needed.  But a part of us floats free of every engagement hurtling through space like a rogue meteor. It was that part that took over now.

It had gone midnight. No drinks or food. Nil by mouth. I tried to read one of the books I had brought with me, a Joseph Roth, but the book was too heavy to hold and concentrate on. So I did the codeword, the simpler sudoku and shorter crossword in the I I had brought with me. Then I took out the exercise book I had brought with me and started to write.

Writing calms me. Verse particularly calms me. The ward was humming with heating and air-conditioning systems. I was awake a long time.

1 comment:

Tom Wiggins said...

A very reflective, thoughtful piece. Best wishes.