As Marc’s second week in hospital stretched on, real life began to intrude. I considered work. As a teacher, I only had three weeks to go until the summer holidays. One evening, two of my colleagues (and friends), Catherine and Kate, came round to see me, extremely concerned. They brought cake, I think, homemade if I know Catherine, and both enveloped me in their arms as soon as they came through the door. Not a simple ‘nice to see you’ kind of hug. An intense hug which lasted several seconds and tried to convey their care and concern for me, their wonder at how I was holding it all together (sometimes I wasn’t), and their despair at having no real idea of how they could possibly help me through this.
The children were already in bed asleep and we settled on the sofa to talk. I remember how shocked they both were: the genuine horror they felt about my situation was evident every second they sat with me. Seeing work colleagues had brought my mind back to my absence from school. Prior to their visit, I think I had been considering work I could potentially set for my classes, or even the possibility of going into work the following week, at least during the mornings, and teaching, but leaving my classes after lunch to go and visit Marc. I know I was trying to figure out how I might manage work with Marc in hospital.
A huge relief
Catherine, who always tells it like it is, made an off the cuff remark soon after arriving, “So you’re not coming back ‘til September then.”
And that was that. She was right. No one expected me to be in work with Marc in his current situation. She wasn’t asking a question. It was a simple statement, which had been obvious to everyone else except me. How could I go in to work with Marc so very ill? It was a huge relief, both accepting that I wasn’t going to be able to work for a while, and admitting that, actually, that was ok.
With that decided, I spent some of the evening making a note of where every class was up to and what they needed to cover by the end of the year. Thankfully, my year 11 exam classes had all left, having completed the course and their exams, and the rest of my groups were mostly in ‘wind down’ mode for the summer holidays. Otherwise I’m not sure how I would have felt about leaving them all and I’m not sure what would have happened. I certainly wouldn’t have felt good about leaving them if it had happened before the exams.
I also have no idea what I would have done in any other kind of job. Teaching is a full-on, tough career which demands plenty of its employees. But it did mean I had 6 full weeks with no physical work required of me. No actual place where I needed to be each day. No classes needing supervision. No lessons needing to be planned. Few books needing marking. I may have been pencilled in to write a new scheme of work that summer, I can’t remember. I was certainly in no state to start creating a unit of work at that point. Perhaps some other lovely soul undertook the responsibility to do it for me – I honestly don’t know.
There were few things to be thankful for in my situation, but my job, and the six week hiatus I had from work, were Godsends I was hugely thankful for. I made the all-important phonecall to my head teacher the following day and she was hugely supportive, immediately confirming Catherine’s assessment that I was not expected back before the summer holidays, and that I wasn’t to worry about anything. It was called ‘Compassionate Leave’, and if anyone had ever qualified for it, I did. I hung up the phone feeling that at least I didn’t have to concern myself with work for the foreseeable future, which was a huge relief.
Support and sympathy
But back to my friends’ visit. During our conversation I found myself recounting what had happened to Marc in detail, from start to finish. I did this a lot during the first few weeks of Marc’s illness, in fact, I’ve been doing it ever since, whenever we meet anyone new who knows nothing about it. I actually found it quite a release to tell the whole story. Perhaps it was getting the events in order in my own head. Being able to rationalise what had happened properly. Or simply the support and sympathy provided by Catherine and Kate, who listened, incredulous, and confirmed that it was completely ok for me to be falling apart a little bit under the circumstances. I don’t remember crying though. At least, not in front of them. We shared several cups of tea and they just listened to me talk.
Many friends did this for me. I think it was the best support anyone could provide for me at the time. Around 8.30pm, once the children were asleep, someone would arrive at my door simply to sit with me and talk; share what was going on; allow me to air my anger and fear and frustration; occasionally watch a mindless dvd which required little concentration. It was exactly what I needed to fill the emptiness I felt once visiting was finished for the day and the children were in bed, and I had nothing else to fill my mind but fear. Once they left, I would go upstairs and check on the children, call ITU for the usual ‘He’s just the same as he was when you left him,’ conversation, and then go to bed. I did actually manage to sleep usually, which was another Godsend. I know of a lot of people in similar situations who can’t sleep, and this must make things seem a whole lot worse.
Many friends brought gifts, generally of food. To begin with I found myself unable to eat it. I remember cutting up slices of cake brought by one friend as a gesture of support and comfort. My own slice was still sitting on my plate, a single bite taken out of it, when she left. She didn’t bring any the next time she came, realising that I couldn’t cope with eating more than what would sustain me at that point in time. She knew instinctively that what I needed was company (and copious amounts of tea). I massively appreciated these friends, who worked out what I needed the most and provided it without expecting anything in return. I hope I can repay them someday.
A one-sided conversation
Although I was in a constant state of fear and worry, visiting Marc at the hospital became routine, and because I was in ITU for hours at a time, sometimes twice a day, I found myself with nothing to do. Hospital visiting is dull. You have nothing to talk about, you can’t go anywhere. The patient has done nothing other than have various medical procedures and, in my case, couldn’t even reply to my questions, so the conversation was massively one-sided. Also I had absolutely nothing going on in my life. Everything had stopped, barring hospital visiting and keeping the children going. So I had no other topics of discussion other than the kids’ activities and Marc’s current medical condition. And they soon ran out.
I began to build in little tasks to pass the time. I’ve already mentioned crossword puzzles, though once Marc began to be more awake during my visits it seemed rude to ignore him in favour of a puzzle book, so I didn’t do much more of that. I spent two entire days during visiting filling in my Hound of the Baskervilles director’s script with all the notes on my intentions for the play, ready to pass over to my successor. Life was going on as normal for other people and Clare had been busy finding a replacement so the play could go ahead.
Relief and Guilt
A director from another company had kindly agreed to step into the role in my absence. This should have been heart breaking, passing over all my plans for the play, the cast and the way I wanted it to take shape on the stage. In truth with everything that was going on, the play was the least of my worries and I was glad of the distraction during those two sessions, when Marc was still in the coma, which kept my mind from dwelling on morbid thoughts. As with work, I felt extremely relieved once I gave up the additional burden of responsibility and was more free to focus on Marc and the children.
I did feel very guilty though, and I spent time writing a letter to my cast. There were ten roles in the Hound of the Baskervilles play, and I had cast ten actors in the different parts only three weeks earlier. We were half way through setting Act One Scene Three when Marc became ill, and I felt very much like I was abandoning them. I knew in reality that they all understood, but still I felt the need to explain to them in my own words the reason behind my sudden absence. The letter was another task which took up some time during a lengthy visiting session where Marc was completely out of it.
Another thing which often occupied me for at least twenty minutes during visits was my constant interrogation of whichever poor nurse was on duty that day. I would ask question after question until I was satisfied that I had been given a full update and had all the information that was possibly available to me. This could take a while, between the nurse doing Marc’s regular checks and carrying out the different medical procedures he required throughout the day, and definitely made me feel better.
I think my overwhelming feeling, aside from fear that Marc could potentially die at any given moment, was that of helplessness. I had no idea what I could do to help my husband; in fact there was actually nothing I could potentially do at this point. And I hated it. There is truly nothing worse than knowing someone you care about is in trouble and there is nothing you can do to help or assist them. I firmly believe that, by finding out as much as I possibly could about his situation, I felt more involved with his recovery, like I could somehow be of some help to him. In reality, I was no help at all and possibly even got in the way at times.
There was nothing much more for me to do during visits, except stare at the constantly fluctuating numbers on the monitors above his bed. Blood Pressure. Heart Rate. The levels of support being given to Marc by the ventilator. I became a bit of an armchair expert about expected levels of blood pressure and what an acceptably ‘normal’ heart rate was for Marc. I spent entire visits in the early days familiarising myself with what the levels should look like, and then watched them eagle-eyed for any changes, haranguing a nurse about potential reasons why they might to be lower or higher than normal for Marc on any given day.
Neverending red alert
I do not have the words to express my constant state of fear in those early days. Having seen him almost die, I was on a never-ending red alert, convinced if the monitors showed a faster heart rate or lower blood pressure than normal that I had to let someone know immediately, or he might die that very instant. Anyone who has ever experienced a close relative being in a dangerous situation will understand what I’m talking about. Trauma makes you scared of what could happen, and at times it is difficult to return to that old, comfortable state of being where you never imagined anything so awful could happen to you. It is an exhausting and emotionally draining way to live, and took me a long time to shake.
I’m happy to say now that, as life returns to something like normal, I feel that level of worry less and less. Looking back now it is an intense relief to no longer feel that way, because it was my ‘go to’ emotional state for almost a year after Marc’s illness. At times I felt I would live the rest of my life in a constant state of terror. Thankfully, that is not the case.