The following is an excerpt from I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes with Death – a Memoir by Maggie O’Farrell. She had many brushes with death and this excerpt is about her recovery from encephalitis. Her description of recuperation is brilliant.
“Writing about this is hard, not in the sense that it is a difficult time for me to revisit. It’s not that it’s unwieldy or painful material to think about or mould into sentences and paragraphs. It’s more that the time I spent in hospital is the hinge on which my childhood swung. Until that morning I woke up with a headache, I was one person, and after it, I was quite another. No more bolting along pavements for me, no more running away from home, no more running at all. I could never go back to the self I was before and I have no sense of who I might have been if I hadn’t contracted encephalitis as a young child.
The experiences you live through while gravely ill take on a near-mystical quality. Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.
I recall my encephalitis, in its most acute phase, in flashes, in staccato bursts, in isolated scenes. Some things are as raw and immediate as the moment they happened; these, I can inhabit as myself, in the first person, in the present tense, if you like. Others I have almost to force myself to confront and I watch them as I might a film: there is a child in a hospital bed, in a wheelchair, on an operating table; there is a child who cannot move. How can that child ever have been me?
Of its aftermath, the rehabilitation, I have a stronger sense. The coming home from hospital, the weeks and months of being at home, in bed, drifting up and down on currents of sleep, listening in on the conversations, meals, emotions, arrivals and departures of family life below. The visitors who came, bearing books and soft-toy animals and, once, a man from over the road bringing a basket of baby guinea pigs, which he let loose in my bed, their tiny, clawed, panicked pink feet skittering up and down my wasted legs.
Convalescence is a strange, removed state. Hours, days, whole weeks can slide by without your participation. You, as the convalescent, are swaddled in quiet and immobility. You are the only still thing in the house, caught in stasis, a fly in amber. You lie there on your bed like it draped stone effigy on a tomb. As the only sound you hear is that of your own body, its minutiae assumes great import, becomes magnified: the throb of your pulse, the rasp of hair shaft against the cotton weave of your pillow, the shifting of your limbs beneath the weight of blankets, the watery occlusion when eyelid meets eyelid, the sylvan susurration of air leaving and entering your mouth. The mattress presses up from underneath, bearing you aloft. The drink of water waits beside your bed, tiny silvered bubbles pressing their faces to the glass. Distances that used to appear minor – from your bed to the door, the stretch of landing to the loo, the dressing-table to the window – now take on great, immeasurable length. Outside the walls, the day turns from morning to lunchtime to afternoon to evening, then back again (O’Farrell, 2005, p. 226-228).