Monday, August 08, 2011

A Different Life

So, after February 1982 (see below) there were about two years where my life was arranged by illness. Chemotherapy, knee replacement, physiotherapy, radical surgery. What does it mean, to be ill? It means being a step back, being passive while other people do things to you, and for you. Doctors and nurses clustered round me, prodding me, examining me, made me feel important. Or they left me alone, walked past, checked a chart without a word, made me feel neglected, ignored. Powerless, either way. I lay in my hospital bed and watched somebody die in the bed opposite, and I was sad and scared while watching it, but grateful to be there, to witness it. I lay there while friends and family visited. I lay there and craned my neck so that I could look out of a window at what was going on in the street outside. I sat in other people’s cars as they drove me to and from the hospital, and looked out at what was happening in the ordinary, breathing world. You’re behind a window a lot, or feel like you are, looking out at life going on elsewhere.

Once a friend called Robin drove me away on a morning when I couldn’t have chemo because my blood count wasn’t right. We drove up the hill out of the hospital, on a beautiful sunny morning, and he put Beethoven’s violin concerto on, and it felt like the world couldn’t be more perfect than this: being driven away from hospital by a friend, in sunlight, with the music playing, and not having chemo. Your values are rearranged when you’re ill. You’ve entered a different world with different rules and when you leave it – if you leave it – you’re changed.

That period has influenced everything since, has made me a different person. I’m more or less with Nietzche on this:

As far as concerns my own sickness, am I not infinitely more indebted to it than to my health? It is to my sickness that I owe a higher health.

OR: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

(I haven't read Nietzche, I heard the first quote in a lecture, and saw the second at the beginning of Conan the Barbarian. It seemed clever to me at the time, and apt, since I was in the midst of illness, but it’s become a cliché, and lost it’s power. Thanks, John Milius.)

I try not to be romantic about it. If I could keep the change but lose the experience, then I’d do it. But if I could only lose both the experience and the change in myself, then I’d most likely do that. And then I'd be an altogether different person, living a different life.

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