From the female wing along the corridor comes a wailing – a thickening howl, desperate, abased and imploring. It blows through our ward like radiation, threatening to undo the unspoken compact between the other patients and myself; we affect rictus affability, withholding our anxieties out of need for a dull, shared space free of worry. But this wailing takes our politely tempered pains and broadcasts them flagrantly, all of us recognizing the yearning, none of us commenting. And it goes on and on except for brief troughs of respite into which rush the softer sounds of care, just one more prying extraction.
Because there are no secrets here: your guts are torn open and exposed, your bodily functions are regularly and prosaically discussed and your mental health is a considered factor in your treatment. Yet I’ve managed to keep something back; it’s taken a while to acknowledge, but as the conversations around me have grown more pragmatic, the talk of getting me home more frequent, I have felt an inner recoiling. For so long I’d been radiating a yearning for silence, trying to communicate it any way but verbally in the hope that someone would make the call on my behalf, that I had to drop everything and hibernate, and now I’m here in hospital I don’t want to leave.
Yes, I have a secret: I’m not sure I want to get well. This is the first time I’ve been free of pain for over two years and my brain, raw and sensitized after such prolonged agony, associates getting better with going back to that horror so I harbour a longing to remain an invalid, an imposter on the ward.
It’s a shock to be introduced to real physical pain so late in life, one that renders all prior pain redundant; spasming bowel griping and slowly, slowly twisting that bit further than you think you can possibly tolerate; unhurried and methodical, ratcheting at an inclines pace; a pain that passes through concern to searing until your skull, thick with attempts at controlling it, starts to split and you can see only the red of your clenched lids – not blacking out but narrowed and compressed into a livid strip of focused sensation; the anti-orgasm, nothing beyond the totality of it all.
A pain like that undermines and colours everything about the world and, as a result, the world becomes both less real as you disengage and more precious and alive as it recedes, imbued now with overwhelming poignancy. You feel yourself disappearing, becoming marginal to your own life. Part of your awareness is constantly alert for it, which means you’re never as present as you could be at any time, meaning I wasn’t entirely present for a good couple of years – for a great chunk of Dali’s life and the entirety of Bay’s. This absence from my own life was something I’d grown to accept as fact without sorrow or regret; I had no space left for reflection.
From this hospital bed, that life now seems desperately narrow, a one-room, one act play stuffed until static, yet I’d persisted with those limitations until the scenery had started to fall in around me. This bed, hemmed in with tubes, wires and fabric, feels bigger than that life so I don’t want to be reasoned out of it. To keep something of me hidden, to keep this secret out of the bleaching gaze of the doctors and surgeons, gives me an illusion of control whilst all other decisions are being made for me; it counts against the fear, illicit and rare.
Outwardly, this private resolve gives the appearance of stoicism and, as we huddle in conspiratorial proximity, my family comment on it, how calm, how brave I’m being. Their earnest faces assume a kind of emotional parity between us yet I feel suspended like a foetus in a jar, drifting from one to the other, noticing things, new lines, little imperfections on the skin around clenched knuckles. My relief is not their relief.
But even if I don’t walk at the same emotional pitch, I still take their love which empowers like a subtle fuel; that someone is looking out for me in my absence, vigilant on my behalf, further tucks me in and fortifies my retreat. I feel such tender gratitude toward them, bestowed with their intensity of concern and attention. This feeling is all the more acute as I know I don’t express my thanks with nearly enough force: I hear my medi-softened voice, words that fail to measure up or find equivalence to their sadness.
There are moments where it seems they’re waiting for me to expound upon or give voice to something unsaid, and I wonder if they’re disappointed, wonder if they think I don’t grasp the gravity of the situation. Expressing gratitude toward my family feels like casting a leaf upon something oceanic, contributing and enriching the pool we grow between us. To hold some of it back, even unintentionally, feels like a betrayal. And beneath it all is the vivid impression of time quickening, a new urgency to express our love, but this I can’t openly acknowledge; time needs to remain fat and unkempt, endless.
Against the insistent wailing I shield this secret as if it were my last ember of self, defying its defiant plea, which seems to calibrate all our suffering: its constancy suggests Herculean reserves of anguish that I’m so thankful I don’t yet have access to but I fear a time when I might. Across long, drab hours other voices – smaller, meeker – join in from other beds until a cat’s chorus, mewling and wordless, sours the air.
To be a permanent invalid, that’s the implication. I don’t allow myself to envision a conclusion, just an instinctive lunge toward safety with no thought of consequence; just a need to right now, here, be granted a reprieve, only now, however long that might be.
Obviously I do want to get well as to get well means to live, but I also want to live well, if that makes sense. I am most myself here in this bed, the most myself I’ve been for years, where I don’t have to navigate and parse and tease a presence; I’m aware of a baseline that I have reached, a foundation. Left with the barest, starkest minimum of me, I’m like sand once marred with footprints and litter pulled smooth by retreating waves. Maybe I am now truly one of the ward, maybe they too are at their most intrinsic, naked selves.
The day tapers into ash, barely visible behind the harsh reflections of the ward upon its window. I now have to pay attention if I want to hear the wail; it’s become absorbed into the fabric of the hospital along with its choristers but its still there, plaintive and urgent but already ubiquitous. It no longer pulls at the secret; in a day I’ve become immune to it, but tomorrow it will be raw again so I allow myself the immunity for now, allow myself to feel momentarily grateful that I can still remain silent, that I’m not wailing.