Kind correspondent Lila Das Gupta Fenton recently shared with me a moving essay by Robert McCrum from the 19 June 2005 issue of The Observer. It is titled "Memoirs of a Survivor" and discusses the aftermath of a severe stroke that McCrum experienced a decade ago. The author tells of suddenly discovering a doorway into a parallel cosmos he had never before imagined could exist:
Until I was 42, I had no personal experience of serious illness and very little knowledge of death. Metaphorically speaking, I went to weddings, not funerals. To my generation, death was as remote as the obituary pages of the newspaper. Death, in the words of Auden, was like 'the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic'. My life, and the lives of my generation, was hardly troubled by mortality.
Unlike our parents, we'd had no world war to bring some reality into the texture of everyday existence. A fortunate baby boomer, mine had been a life that was, I suspect, not so very different from the lives of any number of thirty- and fortysomethings in the West: hedonistic, heedless, happy-go-lucky, helter-skelter. With my stroke, the merry-go-round crashed to a stop, and pitched me helplessly into a drab world of out-patient clinics and physiotherapy, a world of slowness.
McCrum finds himself reduced from participant to mere observer—and from that new vantage point relays an important lesson of awareness:
I don't play cricket or squash any more. I watch people run for the bus or jog in the park, and envy their spontaneous freedom of movement. Instead, I have learned to live vicariously through words, and to try to live in the moment. The mystery of life is that you will never know how or when it will come to an end. My wife Sarah, who has played a vital and enduring part in my continued convalescence, has a quasi-classical phrase for this. 'Seize the carp,' she says, in a joking allusion to the Latin tag.
My Year Off, McCrumb's book about his experience, has led countless other victims to contact him and tell him their stories of the shadow universe. His essay concludes:
There is a sea of horror lapping at the edges of the everyday world, and these messages in bottles are floating in on every tide. These are the messages from the world of pain, messages that describe the suffering of strangers.
From this, I have learned three things. First, that the world's frontline pain is the pain of Aids, cancer, heart disease and stroke (the big killers). Behind the line, there's the pain of despair, loneliness and loss. The aching void in the lives of the bereaved and the afflicted. Second, I now know that we are all, in some sense, in the doctor's waiting room. I used to be indifferent towards, and frightened of, illness. Now I recognise it as part of the human condition. Illness is OK. There's nothing wrong with infirmity. It's part of the way we are. In the famous words of Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' Failing better is something every stroke sufferer knows about.
Finally, there's this recognition. Despite the extraordinary progress of medicine, despite all the safeguards we have built into the way we conduct our lives, we are still in the world of our ancestors, when life was characterised by the poets as a sparrow fluttering out of the storm into the brightly lit mead hall, circling through the laughter and the smoke for a moment, before disappearing once more into the dark. Sometimes, when I read these letters, I sense that dark just beyond the window. And I feel grateful to be still alive, in the warmth and the light of summer, out of the storm.