Life turns on a dime. There are so many nights that made me think, “Here I am really living” – from being welcomed into John Cooper Clarke’s dressing room by his holding a plate of ham saying “Can I tempt you with my fabulous charcuterie?” to being taken to see the Rolling Stones by my gay “uncle” when I was five. But this is the one that came up when I thought about what living and not living really is.
I was in a hospital near Bristol. I was sleeping in a room funded by McDonald’s for parents of extremely ill children. I was grateful as I could be near my eldest daughter. She was in a coma.
People think they know about comas but they don’t. It’s not like the films. She was 15, she had just survived Glastonbury. All her friends had been sick but not her. She put this down to growing up with a general lack of hygiene: my sublime ignorance of health and safety. Then on a cycling holiday in Devon – what could be more wholesome? – she came off a bike going very fast. She had a fractured skull, many broken bones, serious injuries. She was helicoptered to the hospital. I was in Ireland. The police called. Don’t fly on your own, they said. It could be a fatality.
Shock is a strange thing. A knowing numbness in the midst of hot sweet tea and seeing her smashed to bits. “Is she in pain?” I kept asking. The baby inside me that I was yet to tell her about, for I was pregnant, just stopped moving.
Coma is a way for the body to shut down. Do you know about the Glasgow Coma Scale? It’s not something Irvine Welsh made up. It’s real. She was at three. The same degree of responsiveness as a corpse.
“Talk to her,” they said. “Talk to her.”
I did. The nurses were incredible, washing the dried blood out of her hair. Sitting there with us, 24 hours a day. They put lip balm on her, which reminded me of the hospice in which my mother died. I know too much about intensive care. But I also know love when it is in front of me.
Every day the gods would come in. The neurosurgeons would tell me that brain scans are still blunt instruments. They didn’t really know the damage.
There was another teenager in that ward, paralysed and unable to speak from walking out in front of a bus. What they kept telling me was that people don’t suddenly wake up from a coma. It is as if they are deeply submerged. If and when they surface, they may be completely different. Their personality may change. They may bite you. They may be aggressive. They may be a totally different person.
And I made a vow. I will still love this totally different person. Just let her live.
On the 12th night a nurse came to my room. “Come now,” she said, and my daughter, who I knew could hear me, had asked for a hairband. She had spoken. She always likes to be organised. She is the opposite of me, she wanted the hair off her face. I knew whatever the damage was, she was the same person. And I thanked the God I don’t believe in that she was not only alive but that she had returned as herself.
She was still very broken and down so deep, and yet on that night she began swimming back up to the surface, towards the light, back to us.
The charity Headway works to improve life after brain injury.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special