Monday, April 07, 2008

Words Failed Me

Blogging: what's that all about? Literature? Oh yes, literature, funny how you saw it as all-important. There you were in a safe bubble, viewing words as precious stones you could smugly juggle, or as oxygen you breathed, but the bubble has burst and the vacuum's rushing in and there's the real stuff, in a canister on the ambulance wall and a mask across your partner's face, and the words dry pebbles scattering as the ambulance door slams and the wheels begin to turn.

And then the night in Casualty, and the needles and blood tests and drips, and your partner drifting in and out of consciousness, and all the green and blue uniforms coming and going, and the same questions and answers over and over, words drifting like grass seeds on a river of unknowing because no-one knows what's wrong. And then the move to the acute admissions ward, and the cheery young male staff nurse who explains all about the drips and cannulas and the rationale behind the testing, and the young male consultant in jeans who talks like a joker and tells you his suspicions (gall bladder, kidneys or a blockage in the gut, Squire), and the male orderly, if that's what they still call them, bringing you cups of tea and calling you love. And you can't believe you once published a novel condemning the formal and inhumane male hegemony of the medical profession and thought BBC's Casualty was unrealistic and quite sickeningly sentimental, because here they are bending over backwards to give you words like gifts, to give you comfort and what knowledge they have, but the trouble is it isn't much.

And then the days falling into a pattern, a routine of unknowing, the getting up in the morning still exhausted and collecting stuff together to take to the hospital, and talking on the phone to worried relatives, the journey on the bus with all the other visitors with their plastic bags of food and clean laundry, most of them old: you're in a kind of half-world of dependants, hopeful yet passive and resigned; and back at night on the last bus in the dark, with everyone else with their plastic bags of dirty laundry, and some of the hospital workers, and the bus driver, a dissolute-looking fella who drives one-handed while talking on his mobile phone, beginning a running joke with all the old codgers about you and him meeting like this every night while your partner's laid up. And still nothing new: the antibiotics still not working, the seat of the infection not found, and it's all you've talked and thought about all day, though you are reading a book, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, but because it's all about death you keep having to put it down. You begin to understand why books can be too much, and why so many people say they don't have time to read.

And then after three days the young consultant whips the curtain, a conjurer, and tells you they've found it, the cause. There it is, the knowledge, in a picture, not a word: a bright black diamond on the CT scan, a stone, a sharp crystal blocking the ureter and preventing the kidney from draining so that it's massively, life-threateningly infected.

And now the battle to save the kidney: the emergency operation to drain it, the catheter, the urostomy bag for the blocked-off kidney to drain into, more drips, the ongoing search for the right antibiotic, the move to the urology ward. There's a garden here where the patients can wander, and the four blokes in this bay - your partner, a young animator, two chaps in their eighties, all waiting to see if their prostates and kidneys will recover - have set up some unlikely male bonding. Things are calmer. You begin to read the paper more, now and then you listen better to the radio when it's on. One morning you're having breakfast and John Mullen and Mark Thwaite are being interviewed about blog versus newspaper reviewing, and you have the space to be hooked. John Mullen's argument that newspaper reviewers are judicious while bloggers are merely emotional ranters is destroyed not only by Mark Thwaite's reasonableness and logicality, but by Mullen's own wilful misinterpretation: Thwaite explains that one can find worthwhile blogs by following the links from 'one to others like it' (meaning of course equally thoughtful) and Mullen jumps on this gleefully, taking it to mean that such bloggers on the contrary lack intellectual independence and echo one another's opinions. And annoyingly, the interview is ended on this note. You would write a quick sharp blog about this if you still lived in a world in which you blogged.

But you don't: you're rushing around getting stuff together again, and as you do you hear items on Start the Week on subjects you've blogged about before, and which might be worth blogging again - Mark Ravenhill on his series of short plays which yet build to an epic, Maggie Gee on teaching creative writing. But that would be in a different life from the one you're in now, and you only half-heard the items anyway.

But you do look at your email, and this day there's one from a blogger who's reviewed your latest book, and it's your job as a writer, after all, to blog about this, and before you have to run for the once-hourly bus you dash to the computer, and by the time you've done the links you're almost too late out of the door.

And then one day you open the paper and there's a big spread on a subject your blog has often revolved around: Melissa Benn writing, on the occasion of her new novel, about people's insistence on reading her fiction, and fiction in general, as autobiographical, alongside a brilliant piece by Linda Grant on the subject. But this is a day you have a big scare: the bad kidney isn't draining as much, which could mean that it's dying, and although you read the two articles avidly, talking about them on your blog is the last thing on your mind.

Next day there's an article on the semicolon, a subject close to your heart and over which you have waxed lyrical to A-level and Creative Writing students. You don't even read the article. You look at the huge semicolon on the front of G2: a stop, a hint of death, undercut by a comma, a shape a little like a kidney, a link to the future, a start again.

You start again. A CT scan shows that the release of pressure in the kidney has shifted the stop, the stone, which is now allowing some flow around it: this is why there's less drainage into the bag, and the kidney is not dying after all.

In fact, your partner can come home. In fact, the world that afternoon is a glittering place of mineral surfaces - sun on the glass of the hospital, on the top of the taxi zooming up to take you home together - and of words, solid yet shimmering with meaning once more. Maybe you will start blogging again.

15 comments:

Tania Hershman said...

Gosh, you have both been having such a terrible time. I am so glad that things have turned out well, and send my best wishes to you and your partner for a full and speedy recovery and so that you may return to the "normalcy" of blogging and semi-colons rather than the vocabulary of drips, needles, urostomy bags.

Tania

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks so much, Tania.

Vanessa G said...

Wow there was some stunning writing in that post.

But quite apart from that please give my very best to John (hope that's right)... I am so sorry to hear this happened, and I hope he makes a very speedy full recovery. What a frightening thing for you both.

V

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you for your good wishes, Vanessa - I'll pass them on to John.

nmj said...

Hey Elizabeth, What a worrying time for you - I hope your partner makes a full recovery. This is great writing. I will not be able to look at a semicolon again without thinking of kidneys.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh god,sorry about that, Nasim. Neither will I

nmj said...

No, I meant it in a good way, I have a new image associated with semicolons! But I can see it will be different for you, they will probably take you back to that moment. Really hope things continue to improve.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ah, those associations! Thanks, Nasim

Will Entrekin said...

"because here they are bending over backwards to give you words like gifts, to give you comfort and what knowledge they have, but the trouble is it isn't much."

Doesn't sound like words failed you; sounds like they got you through.

A couple more: slainte mhas. Best health, best recovery, on all sides.

Ms Baroque said...

Oh, dear God - what a nightmare! I hope he's improving and that you are taking it easy too, it all sounds utterly hellish.

Great post. Beautiful about the semi-colons. Funny, I blogged on that too, just because they are so beautiful, but clearly mine less heartfelt. Great image.

All my best to both of you. xxowshs

Elizabeth Baines said...

Will and Katy, thanks so much. Yes, John is slowly recovering, and yes, all these lovely words are getting us through.

Debi said...

Love and hugs to you both. xxx

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks so much, Debi - and especially for the support you gave me all the way through.

Debi said...

Still here ...

Elizabeth Baines said...

You know, Debi, I would never have expected blogging to bring me such friendship and support