I have been ill and in some ways being ill simplifies things. It becomes easier to say no, even when the demand is very pressing. It becomes easier to sit still and listen and watch the world go by.
I spent a day in the local hospital having some tests, and sitting there on the ward to which I was temporarily assigned, I watched the other patients; perhaps eight of us in all. The other patients were all very elderly, very frail, living from one moment to the next: a typical general emergency NHS ward. By comparison with these older patients I was young and, apart from this temporary suffering, generally in good health; I was fit enough to walk from the ward down the long hospital corridors to each of my various scans and tests without the indignity of a chair. I knew I would get home that night; most of my companions did not know exactly when they would see their homes again. I was not frightened by my condition: I was confident that whatever it was would be resolved somehow in one way or another. In all honesty I was enjoying the chance to be alone, to endure my pain in relative comfort without the constant demands of family. I was a tourist in this world of sickness, but the other patients, they all seemed to be natives.
Some of my companions had attendants, husbands or children, sitting patiently beside them, translating their needs, their vague discontents, to the nurses. Occasionally, voices raised for elderly ears, rang out across the ward: “She’s just going to take your temperature, Mum!” Some of the carers were elderly themselves, but they sat on on their hard chairs, holding hands with their particular old lady, sometimes chatting to the other patients, smiles and pleasantries lobbed tactfully between beds, conversations about the weather and the food. Staff flitted from bed to bed, fetching, soothing, attentive. Time passed slowly. The woman in the next bed offered me the lemonade which she, alas, could not drink. At the end of the day I was free to leave, and I left, slightly reluctant, slightly relieved to go.
The very next day I was back in the hospital and now I was the carer, the presence beside the bed. My daughter Julie had cut her leg again, deeply, needing stitches. She had been unsettled by my long absence at the hospital the day before. She was confused and disoriented, reciting the words from the notices on the walls. Her voices had told her to cut, and now they were telling her not to talk to us, it seemed. I translated her needs to the nurses, her vague discontents. I felt happier being on this side of the equation: not the subject of the conversation but from the safe “objective” perspective of the well; on the side of the nurses. After all these years of practice I can explain what my daughter needs with great precision. I had found it so much harder to explain what I myself needed when I was the one lying on the bed. But my daughter is quite at home on the bed: the world of sickness is her adoptive country.