“Going out of my mind…” – a short story

Accidents can happen.

Sometimes they’re your fault, sometimes they’re not.

The accident I was in was not. Late at night driving home from work, a car came speeding out of a side street and T-boned my car.

It could have been worse, though the person who said it had a quite different definition of the word worse than I did.

To start with, I lost three months of my life in a coma, and even when I surfaced, it took another month to realize what had happened. Then came two months of working out my recovery plan.

If that wasn’t trial enough, what someone else might describe as the ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’, my wife of 22 years decided to send me a text that morning, what was six months in hospital, to the day.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but enough is enough. I cannot visit you anymore, and for the sake of both our sanity, I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand. I know what happened isn’t your fault but given the prognosis, I don’t think I can cope with the situation. I need time to think about what will happen next and to do so, I’ll be going home to spend some time with family. Once again, I’m so sorry not to be doing this in person. I’ll let you know what I decide in due course. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for your recovery.”

In other words, goodbye. Her family lived in England, about 12,000 miles away in another hemisphere, and the likelihood of her returning was remote. We had meant to visit them, and had, in fact, booked the tickets shortly before the accident. I guess she couldn’t wait any longer.

My usual nurse came in for the first visit on this shift. She had become the familiar face on my journey, the one who made it worth waking up every morning.

“You look a little down in the dumps this morning. What’s up?”

She knew it couldn’t be for medical reasons because the doctor just yesterday had remarked how remarkable my recovery had been in the last week or so. Even I had been surprised given all the previous negative reports.

“Ever broken up by text?”

“What do you mean?”

“Frances has decided she no longer wants to be involved. I can’t say I blame her, she has put her whole life on hold because of this.”

“That’s surprising. She’s never shown any disappointment.”

“Six months have been a long time for everyone. We were supposed to be going home so she could see her family. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.”

I gave her the phone and she read the message.

Then she handed it back. “That’s goodbye, Tom. I’m sorry. And no, I’ve never had a breakup by text, but I guess there could always be a first time.”

She spent the next ten minutes going through the morning ritual, then said, “I’ve heard there’s a new doctor coming to visit you. Whatever has happened in the last few days had tongues wagging, and you might just become the next modern miracle. Fame and fortune await.”

“Just being able to walk again will be miracle enough.”

That had been the worst of it. The prognosis that it was likely I’d never be able to walk again, or work, and the changes to our lives that would cause. I knew Frances was bitterly disappointed that she might become the spouse who had to spend the rest of her life looking after, and though she had said it didn’t matter, that she would be there for me, deep down I knew a commitment like that took more internal fortitude than she had.

She ran her own business, managed three children into adulthood, and had a life other than what we had together. When I was fit and able, and nothing got in the way, it had worked. Stopping everything to cater to my problems had severely curtailed her life. Something had to give, and it had.

But, as I said, I didn’t blame her. She had tried, putting in a brave face day after day but once the daily visits slipped to every other day, to once a week, I knew then the ship was heading towards the rocks.

This morning it foundered.

I pondered the situation for an hour before I sent a reply. “I believe you have made the right decision. It’s time to call it, go home and take some time to consider what to do next is right. In normal circumstances, we would not be considering any of this, but these are not normal circumstances. But, just in case you are worried about the effect of all of this on me, don’t. I will get over it, whatever the result is, and what you need to do first and foremost is to concentrate on what is best for you. If that means drawing a line on this relationship, so be it. All I want for you is for you to be happy, and clearly, having to contend with this, and everything else on your plate, is not helping. I am glad we had what time we had together and will cherish the memories forever, and I will always love you, no matter what you decide.”

It was heartfelt, and I meant it. But life was not going to be the same without her.

I’d dozed off after sending the message, and only woke again when my usual doctor came into the room on his morning rounds, the usual entourage of doctors and interns in tow. I’d been a great case for sparking endless debate on the best route for my recovery among those fresh out of medical school. Some ideas were radical, others pie in the sky, but one that seemed implausible had got a hearing, and then the go-ahead, mainly because there was little else that apparently could be done.

That doctor, and now another I hadn’t seen before was standing in the front row, rather than at the back.

The doctor in charge went through the basics of the case, as he did every day, mainly because the entourage changed daily. Then, he deferred to the radical doctor as I decided to call her.

She went through the details of a discovery she had made, and the recommendation she’d made as a possible road to recovery, one which involved several radical operations which had been undertaken by the elderly man standing beside her. When I first met him, I thought he was an escaped patient from the psychiatric ward, not the pre-eminent back surgeon reputed to be the miracle worker himself.

It seemed, based on the latest x-rays that a miracle had occurred, but whether it was or not would be known for another week. Then, if all went well, I would be able to get out of bed, and, at the very least, be able to stand on my own. In the meantime, I had endless sessions of physio in the lead-up to the big event. Six months in bed had taken its toll on everything, and the week’s work was going to correct some of that.

It meant there was hope, and despite what I said and thought, hope was what I needed.

There had been ups and downs before this, fuelled by a morning when I woke up and found I could wriggle my toes. It was after the second operation, and I thought, given the number of pain killers, it had been my imagination.

When I mentioned it, there was some initial excitement, and, yes, it was true, I wasn’t going out of my mind, it was real. The downside was, I couldn’t move anything else, and other than an encouraging sign, as the days passed, and nothing more happened, the faces got longer.

Then, the physiotherapist moved in and started working on the areas that should be coming back to life. I felt little, maybe the pain killers again, until the next, and perhaps the last operation. I managed to lift my left leg a fraction of an inch.

But we’d been here before, and I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Annabel, the daughter that lived on the other side of the country, finally arrived to visit me. I had thought, not being so far away she might have come earlier, but a few phone calls had sorted out her absence. Firstly, there was not much use visiting a coma patient, second, she was in a delicate stage of her professional career and a break might be the end of it, and thirdly, she accepted that I didn’t want to see her until I was much better.

She was not very happy about it, but it was a costly venture for her, in terms of time, being away from a young family, and just getting there.

Now, the time had come. She had a conference to attend, and I was happy to play second fiddle.

After the hugs and a few tears, she settled in the uncomfortable bedside chair.

“You don’t look very different than the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Hospitals have perfected the art of hiding the worst of it, but it’s true. The swelling had receded, the physios have revived the muscles, and I have a little movement again.”

“The injuries are not permanent?”

“Oh, they’re permanent but not as bad as first thought.”

“Pity my mother isn’t here.”

“She was, day after day, through the darkest period. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But your mother is an independent woman, and she has always been free to do what she wants, and I would not have had it any other way.”

“But deserting you in the middle of all this…”

“It’s been very debilitating on her. I can understand her reasons, and so should you. She will still be your mother no matter what happens to us.”

There had been a number of phone calls, from each of the children, decrying her actions after she had sent a text message to each of them telling them what she was doing. She had not told them she was leaving, in so many words, but leaving the door ajar, perhaps to allay their fears she was deserting them too. Annabel had been furious. The other two, not so much.

“And this latest development?”

I had also told her about the miracle worker, and the possibilities, without trying to get hopes up.

“On a scale of one to ten, it’s a three. We’ve been here before, so I’m going to save the excitement for when it happens, if it happens.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

It was a question I’d asked myself a number of times, one that I didn’t want an answer to. Hope was staving it off, each day a new day of discovery, and a day closer to the idea I might walk again. I had to believe it would happen, if not the next day, the next week, month, year, that it would eventually happen.

For now, all I had to do was stand on my own two feet.

It was ironic, in a way, that simple statement. ‘Stand on your own two feet’. Right then, it seemed so near, and yet, at the same time, so far away.

I didn’t answer that question, but did what I usually did with visitors, run a distraction and talk about everything else. This visit was no exception. I had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s odd how some call the day of momentous events D-Day because to me nothing would be more momentous than the invasion of France during the second world war.

Others were not quite of the same opinion. It was going to be a momentous day.

It started the same as any other.

The morning routine when the duty nurse came to do the checks. Then the physio, now a permanent fixture mid-morning, just after the tea lady arrived. Deliberate, I thought, to deprive me of my tea break, and some unbelievably delicious coconut cookies.

Then the routine changed, and the escort arrived to take me down to the room where the physio had set up an obstacle course. It looked like one, and I’d told him so when I first saw it, and he had said by the time he was finished with me, I’d be able to go from start to finish without breaking a sweat.

In my mind perhaps, but not with this broken body. I didn’t say that because I was meant to be positive.

An entourage arrived for the main event. I would have been happier to fail in front of the doctor, the miracle worker, and the physio, but it seemed everyone wanted a front-row seat. If it worked, the physio confided in me, there was fame and fortune being mentioned in Lancet, which was a prestigious medical journal.

Expectations were running high.

The physio had gone through the program at least a hundred times, and the previous day we had got to the point where I was sitting on the side of the bed. We’d tried this ordinary maneuver several times, previously without success under my own steam but this morning, for some reason it was different.

I was able to sit up, and then, with a struggle move my legs part of the way, and with a little help for the rest.

What was encouraging, was being able to swing my legs a short distance. It was those simple things that everyone could do without thinking, that had seemed impossible not a month before, that got people excited. I didn’t know how I felt other than I missed those simple things.

Then the moment had arrived. Hushed silence.

There was a structure in place. All I had to do was pull myself across, at the same time sliding off the bed and into a standing position. There was a safety harness attached so that if my grip slipped it would prevent me from falling.

It was probably not the time to tell them the pain in my lower back was getting worse.

So, like I’d been instructed, and going one step further than the day before, I reached out, grabbed the bars, and pulled myself up and over, at the same time, sliding off the side of the bed. I could feel the tug of the safety harness which told me I had left the safety of the bed, and was in mid motion.

I could feel my legs straightening, and then very softly landing on the floor, the safety harness letting my body drop down slowly.

The pain increased exponentially as the weight came down onto my legs, but my body had stopped moving. I could not feel the tightness of the harness, but a rather odd sensation in my legs.

All that time I had been concentrating so hard that I had heard nothing, not even the encouraging words from the physio.

Until I realized, from the noise around me, that it had worked. I was standing on my own two feet, albeit a little shakily.

And I heard the physio say, in his inimitable way, “Today you just landed on the moon. Tomorrow, it’s going to be one small step for mankind. Well done.”

© Charles Heath 2021

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