The woman at the hospital reception asks if I’ve brought anyone with me. I shake my head, and she consults her computer. ‘But how will you get home?’ she asks, but she’s nice so I tell her I’ve got my car and I’m planning to drive home myself. It might have been otherwise. I didn’t even think about that before.
And that’s when I start crying. I’m annoyed with myself, and strangely I’m embarrassed for her, but she’s used to it. Just passes some tissues across and lets me stand there. It takes expertise and empathy to allow someone the space to cry on their own. I’m acknowledging this to myself even as I’m messily sniffing. ‘I’m a bit early,’ I tell her eventually, and she just nods and says I can go through and wait. They’ll call me when it’s my turn. ‘I’m a bit scared,’ I tell her then, and she reaches across and brushes her hand with mine. Just a touch. She doesn’t tell me it’ll be all right, or that I’m silly and need to be brave. Just repeats that they’ll call me, they’ll look after me.
The waiting room is like the ark, full of couples. Husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, friends. We all look briefly at each other but no one speaks, no one even flicks through a magazine like normal. Instead we watch the television high up on the wall. It’s a programme about Orangutans. We watch intently as they crash through the jungle, cuddle each other, groom themselves. It’s as if our life depends on it.
Then suddenly, way before the official time of my appointment, I’m called through. ‘I thought this was just going to be a random test,’ I tell the nurse but she shakes her head. She says that they found something they need to check out, that this needs to be a deeper examination than the one in the portacabin in the Sainsbury’s car park that I had wondered briefly if I could be bothered to attend a week ago.
She hands me a tissue before I realise I’m crying again. I hadn’t told anyone, well only my husband, about this appointment because I’d wanted to think it was random, but now I’ve got one foot perched on the border to what a friend called ‘the other world of sickness’ and what will happen if I tip all the way over?
But after two more tests, a consultation and about a hundred boxes of tissues, it seems I’m one of the lucky ones. It’s only ‘matter’ they’ve found, and I’m allowed to go. On my way out though, I glance into an empty room and see the sofa, the flowers, the carefully placed chairs, and I guess that’s where you go when it’s more than ‘matter’. I thank the receptionist as I leave. So much kindness, so much consideration – the touch that’s not quite a touch, how no one promises anything they can’t deliver, how even though I hadn’t brought anyone with me, every member of the staff in that department had been with me. From the minute I arrived, they had made sure I was never alone.
And in the car, before I drive myself back – how it might have been otherwise – I look at the journal note I was writing in the car park before I went in. It was a list of the friends I wanted my husband to contact and to be in contact with me if it HAD been otherwise. They weren’t necessarily people I’m in day to day contact with, or who would rush in and wail with me, or who would panic in the way I knew I would be panicking.
No, it was people who would behave in the way the hospital staff behaved – who wouldn’t bullshit me by pretending to believe it would be ok, who wouldn’t hug too tightly, who would let me say I was scared, who would sit in silence and watch a documentary on Orangutans with me. There were people on the list who I knew might be surprised to be there, who I still haven’t told, but am promising to treasure and not take for granted any more.
How lucky I am to have such people in my life. How lucky I am that I didn’t actually go into the hospital on my own, but that I had this list of people who would have my back. And how lucky I am that I came out alone.
And also that line of poetry I had running though my mind – It might have been otherwise. The minute I got home I found the Jane Kenyon poem it came from… I’m sending love to all those for whom it wasn’t otherwise.
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