My dad has spent his life working in the theatre.
He’s acted, directed and stage managed; written plays, sketches and pantomimes; taught students, professionals and celebrities, and even met my mother onstage (she was his leading lady, once upon a time).
A fortnight ago, my dad rode to hospital in an ambulance. His fibrosis lungs are ragged and his heart keeps missing beats. He’s been in the coronary care ward ever since; two weeks of lying still in orange and green hospital pyjamas, with wires and tubes measuring oxygen, blood pressure, and pulse rate.
The hospital lifestyle is a new scene for him. The last time he visited a hospital was aged ten, when he and his brother were playing in the park near their house in Tooting. There was a mound of builder’s rubble, grown over faintly with grass, and my dad decided they should throw themselves down it, the way all little boys want to do. It wasn’t very high, but when my dad made the jump he skidded, careering headfirst down the mound and trying desperately to slow himself down by putting all his weight on his forearms and managing to rip out a chunk of skin on the base of his left elbow as a result.
Apparently it hurt like hell.
Dad and his brother ran off to the hospital, Dad clutching his arm and trying to press the skin back into place. A couple of weeks later, his mum took him to the hospital for another appointment. Back then they didn’t have dissolving stitches; these were made from catgut, tough enough to hold the flesh together, and had to be slowly pulled out with tweezers. My dad took the first couple of tugs bravely enough, but then he looked down and fainted on the spot. Not from the pain – he couldn’t remember it hurting, exactly – but more from the idea of what was happening to him: the concept of someone pulling at a thread from the inside to the out.
It’s March, and London is aching for spring time.
The days are getting longer, and as I walk through my local park on the way to the train station I spot tiny bursts of flower petals shooting up amongst clumps of grass. Yet I’m still in my big coat with the fur lining and cosy hood; still ready for the sudden rain showers which cause visiting tourists to shriek indignantly. The weather is toying with my city. Are we in the clear yet? Do we still prepare for storm clouds?
Strangely, I’ve begun to understand that an open-ended hospital stay is both dramatic and monotonous. During my last two weeks of daily train rides across the city, overlooking London rooftops and narrow brick streets before plunging into the labyrinthine depths of a hospital complex, I’ve had ample time to analyse my emotions.
Each day the anticipation is different. Perhaps a doctor will tell me the situation is now critical. Perhaps my father will no longer be able to breathe without assistance. Perhaps in two days, or two weeks, or longer, he’ll be as right as rain.
My life has become theatrical again.
As a child, I always wanted to be an actress – something my professionally theatrical parents found intensely worrying. Thankfully that dream disappeared somewhere down the line, but my desire for drama and intensity in life remained for the longest time, all throughout my travels for the last decade, until I eventually reached burn-out.
Since last summer, I’ve been living rather quietly. Seeing a therapist, not travelling much, writing a lot for myself yet also backing away somewhat from my online presence; all indications that I simply had to slow down.
So when Dad first called me to say he was in hospital, my worst fears were all immediately realised. Anyone who’s ever lost anyone knows how suddenly vulnerable your world becomes: every situation has deadly connotations, and every phone call is an emergency. It can be overwhelming, and I honestly didn’t feel ready to cope.
Yet when that emergency actually happens, something calm and knowledgeable overtakes from deep inside.
My first reaction was to tell my closest friends, feeling intrinsically that sharing the problem allowed them to hold some of my burden. And after the initial shock had subsided, I shrugged it off like a costume and slipped into something more comfortable: a firm resolve to not panic until it was actually necessary.
Since then, I’ve been learning what being ‘present’ means. Taking each day as it comes, and expecting nothing more or less than what is right in front of me.
I’ve found that surrounding myself with brightness helps, so I’m wearing more colourful clothes to break away from the East London monochrome uniform. There are daffodils spread over three tables in my flat, after I discovered hospitals don’t allow their patients to keep bunches of flowers.
And amidst all this tumult, I turned another year older.
Hospital visits have coincided with Birthday Bloody Mary’s in a sunlit kitchen with a huge clumsy dog sleeping under the table; my flatmate making me a surprise peanut butter cheesecake; walks along the marshland beside quietly bobbing canal boats.
I’m becoming even more of an official adult – yet I’m also realising, as I walk past doctors and worried-looking patients, that nobody quite knows how that’s done.
Now I’m twenty nine, and with it I feel an increasing sense of resolution. I might still be living somewhat slowly and quietly, but I’m also re-strengthening myself again. I’ve solidified my circle of close friends and loved ones, and feel bolstered by their presence around me. I’m not the twenty year old who lost her mother out of the blue anymore.
Today I felt fed by the sun.
After two weeks of waiting, I walked towards the hospital with the knowledge that my dad has been fitted with a pacemaker and that he’s doing ok. I silently exulted in the sensation that my body was wrapped in warmth; recharged and rebooted like the flowers underfoot.
London is aching for spring time. It’s not quite here yet, but it will be soon enough.