I was discharged last Thursday in the end. It might have been a day earlier – on Wednesday they came to tell me I was free to go, but changed their minds moments later so that I would still be under observation when I moved from liquid to tablet antibiotics – but what was one last night in a hospital ward, when five nights earlier might have been a final one on earth? I spent it alongside John, an 81-year old who lives by himself in Hounslow but has struggled since a recent fall, reliant on a walking stick deemed by the physio to be too short for his 6ft 2inch frame.
The last ten days have without any doubt been the most extraordinary of my life. As I got into bed at home on Thursday night, Miranda and I looked at each other in complete wonder. It was, we agreed, as if literally nothing had changed; and yet, of course, everything had.
It’s a strange thing to walk about the world, realising things that might be absurdly obvious, but somehow never really cross our minds. What is striking is how diametrically opposed some of them are. Last week it was whether I was lucky or unlucky; this, it’s the contrast between meaning something to people and honestly not mattering a jot.
On the one hand, the unbelievably touching response I have had from friends all over the world has been genuinely humbling. People I felt no particular reason to believe I meant very much to have pointed out that I’ve been missing something in plain sight. I’ve had messages from friends I haven’t seen for years, and a series of the kindest and most emotive notes which have been hard to read without a tear in the eye. Learning that you are more important to people than you thought is a privilege you never expect to get.
At the same time, though, there’s a curious sense of your own irrelevance to the bigger picture. Having drifted in and out of consciousness for as long as I did, I’m very aware of how easily I might just not have woken up, which means I now walk around constantly realising how everything that is, just is: things are still there, whether I were here or not. Every piece of news I’ve heard, every object I’ve focused my gaze on, every sports result I’ve either delighted in or grimaced at, every mark reported from each school test: I haven’t been able to stop myself thinking that all of them would have happened just the same. I just wouldn’t have known any better.
To be here and therefore to know is one reason I consider myself unbelievably fortunate, but these last few days, I have come to understand that the fortune runs much deeper than surviving something odds against. The realisation of it is the strangest feeling of all, and its articulation sounds ridiculous, but neither makes it less true. Speaking from my own perspective and not the family’s, and obviously knowing that I got out the other side, it is this: if I look back ten days, I am honestly not sure whether – given the chance – I would change anything that happened.
Generally-speaking, you only get to see life from a different perspective by going through a sustained – possibly never-ending – period of hell. A ravaging disease; the loss of a limb; a terminal illness; the death of someone close: these are the things that change our lives, from which people bravely take the positive of a new sense of proportion. In my case, the legacy of what happened is that I need to take aspirin every day. It seems to me an unbelievable trade.
Only one thing was missing when I got back on Thursday – the most excitable part of every ‘Welcome home!’ these last eleven years: our old dog Pomme had died peacefully the day before. I sat down on the very kitchen bench that I had crawled off five days earlier, her empty bed just a few feet in front of me on the floor, and for the first time, the enormity of everything that had happened hit me. I realised that she had been there when I left, but now wasn’t; while I nearly hadn’t come back, but was now home. And everything else just was.