For some reason tonight I have been mulling over one of the scariest times in my (and my family’s) lives, reflecting on my memories, what could have been, what actually was… It was an emotional journey.. and I’ve come to realise that those experiences have had ongoing reverberations in the whole of my life since, which I’ve never fully acknowledged …until now.
This is not for you, you understand. This is for me. Here goes…
When I was 15 I came closer to death than anyone could have predicted or prepared for, closer than I’ve admitted to myself or to others in my conversations about it since.
Bacterial meningitis can kill within hours.
I have never known a pain like it. I hope I never experience pain like that again.
I don’t know what the worst part was… In amongst the pain I remember having a district inner monologue talking me through the process that was happening. Something was very wrong. I need to become ready to die, and come to terms with it quickly. Because this is it, very soon now. This is it and there is nothing you can do, Grace. I thought of my friends and my exams and even some regrets. I thought of how my mum would manage and hoped she could be strong enough to still comfort Darryl. It’s odd the order these thoughts go through your head, writing this now is much more ordered than it was then. Back then it was a blur of faces and tears, I didn’t flash through happy memories, just looked ahead to a future without me in the world. It’s strange how that speaks of love too…. All this while totally paralysed, apart from blinking and breathing. I couldn’t whisper a syllable or cry for help. At one point a relative lent right over my bedside and looked down at me lying in the dark. I blinked furiously, or so I thought, perhaps I didn’t. But I remember seeing her face and hearing the words, “she’s asleep, that’s probably all she needed.” I remember wanting to scream out and realising I was trapped. Awake. Awake long into the silence and all the lights going out one by one. Was that the worst part? Waiting? Feeling alone? I didn’t feel scared. I felt lonely. Yes, that was the worst part. All I wanted was to see my mothers face close up and feel my fathers hand. I don’t know if I’ve ever told them that. I should.
It started as a headache, more like a migraine actually, a few hours earlier. There’s no headache like it. I kept saying I wanted to go home, it hurt, but I suppose I came across as just another sullen, grumpy teenager. In the car home I sat in the front, listening to relatives in the back speak of how “she shouldn’t have had that drink; the funeral’s obviously been a bit much for her; we know you’re not feeling well but there’s no reason to take it out on us” etc. All I could do is close my eyes and tears flowed without any effort – effort would increase the pain. It hurt too much to speak a whisper, let alone snap back like usual. Mum and dad knew something was wrong. I knew their concern. But why would they think it to be anything more than a migraine brought on from being emotionally drained. Everyone would think that.
– cared for
I remember the moment a surge of control to my limbs returned in the night. A sudden fight rose up in me and I could force my mind to focus through agony. It feels like your whole brain is being squeezed through a little metal washer, compressed down on all sides. Your neck is now a scaffolding pole, heavy, and every movement feels like a breeze block is being lobbed against it full force. This is my only chance and it’s slim. I’m on the floor, it’s cold and tiled, but in a strange way that helps. At least I’m on my front, even though I’ve now no movement in my legs. I can claw a little with my arms and shuffle my belly until I’m almost completely out of the room, my feet still lying on the threshold, but most of me on the kitchen floor. I think I made a small noise, it was meant to be a loud cry – I remember it’s intention clearly – but I expect it was more like a small whimper, if anything. Then nothing, nobody came, just blackness. It was like a huge wave, bigger than before, the pain more than I could handle. I didn’t know anything at the time, it went black. But, on reflection, that tiny bit of fight in me, the bit that forced its way past the pain and got me out of the bed, might just have saved my life.
A scream stirred me. Lots of noise and yelling. I couldn’t move to look up but Christine’s face came down to the floor and looked me straight in the eyes. I couldn’t move a muscle, I could barely breathe. But I was smiling inside. I’d never realised how beautiful she was, but it was a beautiful sight. Eddie picked me up in his arms and Christine stroked my hair on the sofa. I felt so peaceful in those moments, which probably only lasted about 2 minutes. Peaceful and happy. I can’t even remember the hurt at that point. There was too much love in the room. I genuinely felt i would be happy if I was to die right there, that was fine by me. I felt sort of hopeful too. But I didn’t mind which way it went.
Distraught mother. Terrified yet strong father. He picked me up like nothing. It’s a strange experience as a 15-year-old to be carried like a baby. I was helpless. I must have been heavy, yet it seemed effortless. I wasn’t a burden. I wonder what my parents remember. I wonder if they remember the weight, the weather, the smells in the air, the reality beyond their fear. I don’t know how I would have managed to hold it together. How did they find directions and make it to the “hospital” so quickly, so efficiently? Mind you, maybe they didn’t. I’ve never asked. And I was in-and-out of consciousness so frequently by this point it seemed to me like we’d made it there in a millisecond.
I remember the “hospital” though. I use quote marks because it looked more like a house. We ran around knocking & ringing & shouting. I was completely “out-of-body” by now. I can clearly remember watching my parents frantically running round, almost from an outsiders view like on television, and then I was running with them, helping them call out and knocking on windows to get attention. In reality they might have rung the bell once and been immediately admitted. In reality I was drooped over my father’s arms, with my head bobbing about close to his chest. I do remember the doorway though. That pale blue paintwork about the place and the pale blue speckled easy-clean floor that lets you know you’re ‘somewhere medical’. Straight in to see the doctor – it’s lucky he was young and good looking because I believe that’s what put some of “the fight” back into me again (something worth living for, perhaps?!) I heard the word meningitis, critical, time, ambulance, injection, all this nonsense. And I decided to tell him straight away how stupid he was – “I had the meningitis injection at school, go away and check again, I am NOT having an unnecessary injection”. Bless him for his patience with me, as he urgently but clearly explained to me that he was absolutely certain I needed this injection immediately if I wanted to live. I said no (of course, stubborn as always). As he came closer I threatened to punch him (the fight going good & strong now, ay!) but he just chuckled a little bit, nervously, and said he was only going to take my temperature. And just as I was admiring his hair (floppy, a bit Hugh Grant in four weddings-ish) and wondering why his forehead was sweating so much, HE STABBED ME WITH PENICILLIN! I yelled out a swear I definitely should not have known in my vocabulary (let alone shouted in the presence of my MUM) and in the same instant I lunged forward to hit him – but instead promptly vomited. Blackness again. I was out. God bless that doctor. At the time I was furious. But I am now entirely positive that he did, in that moment, save my life.
Ambulance sirens. Noise. Prodding. Suddenly lots of people making a fuss. So many of them, all fussing over little me. More questions. People keep talking at me. I’m out then in, out then in, awake then not… On a table. They cut my shirt off. I’m sweating so much. I’m conscious of feeling embarrassed, helpless & frightened all at once. The room is more greeny-grey now. It reminded me of watching ER (in decor, although I suppose in plot as well). Walls are closing in. I keep asking where I am and can’t understand a bloody word they say to me.
Lots of people hovering over my rolling bed as we rush down corridors. Then I’m in a light room and moved to a hot sticky table, curled over on my side, forced into position and in so much pain I’m quite ready to die. I said it to myself in my head over and over “I want this to end, I want to die, I want it to end now”. Eight failed attempts at lumber puncture. The woman was Indian-looking and apologised in a strange accent. After needle 3 my trust was gone. I was so hot. “Keep still, keep very still, Grace, don’t move a muscle. It’s very important” Silence for what seems like an age. Then lots more yelling, needles withdrawn, and a beautiful young woman with mousy brown hair comes in close to my face, maybe an inch away with her head on the side, looking me in the eyes and clasping my cheeks in her hands: “BREATHE, Grace”. A pause. I finally gasp a huge breath and everyone around me gasps in relief. I realise she’s been saying it for a while. Who knew that in panic mode your body can literally forget to breathe?! I am done in. I want to cry but can’t because of the pain. I pray in my head for it to end, through death or healing, I really don’t mind.
The next thing I remember is my dad and brother saying goodbye. I don’t know how much time had passed by this point. It might have been an hour, might have been a day. Maybe they knocked me out, maybe I passed out. Darryl looked like he’d been crying, his eyes all puffy & red but his face almost transparent. Dad looked so scared. I’ll never forget his face. I didn’t want him to go. Mum said something about how they would never make the boat. They hugged me and almost ran once they were out of the room. I knew mum was staying. I knew it, but was still terrified she was going to leave me there too. I didn’t want to be alone.
Now I’m in a bright room of my own in a hospital bed. Mum has her own bed next to me but she’s up and about, talking to my doctor, while 6 or 8 students all stand at the foot of my bed with clipboards. I’m in no pain, just groggy & the thing in my arm feels bruised & uncomfortable. I realise my mind works again. Cool! I can see sunlight. I’m going to live. “Oh that’s a shame, I was hoping she’d be awake for you,” dr says to the students. I realise one of them has noticed I’m awake from my one half-open eye and I am utterly relieved when she gives me a little wink. Phew, nearly busted! I go back to ‘pretending to be asleep’.
Quarantined with mum. She could leave I couldn’t. I felt fine now! The drugs made my wee go bright orange – I mean properly luminous! It was foul. I had to bathe & toilet all in that one room. I wanted to go home.
Mum took advantage of my quarantine and bought me revision guides for every GCSE I was taking. I only did so well in my exams because of those guides. Not sure if I ever thanked her…. Or BBC Bitesize!
There were some pleasant & funny moments in that room too. Someone sent me pink flowers which smelt gorgeous – I think they were from my Godmother. I created my own game of ‘guessing where the sheep would be’ when I looked out of the window (funner than it sounds). I taught Mum to play upwords (scrabble was too complicated apparently) and I remember laughing a lot. We only had one argument that I can remember (not bad for 8 days with a quarantined teenager!) and I can’t really remember what it was about. I was probably just going stir crazy & moody from the quarantine. She would come back each day with tales of the outside world, and we would swap stories of our confusion over the local accent. It was actually some of the best quality time we’d had in years.
Back in Jersey I wasn’t allowed to see anyone at first. But I was well. And I did all my exams. And I got over the ‘horror’ (for a teenager) of knowing that everyone was talking about me, without many people actually talking TO me about what had happened (why do people DO that by the way?!)
It all worked out. I am 28. and I am alive.
They said it was probably bacterial because of the way I responded to treatment, but they could never do the tests to confirm absolutely. (Apparently i have very thick ligaments in my back – little comfort when you are having those ligaments stabbed repeatedly with needles, I can tell you!) What they could say for definite was that it was a very close call. Even an hour could have changed everything. Lots of little choices, little happenings, little timings, could have changed everything.
It was almost two full years before I came to have a faith of my own (although, I’d bet money that some people were praying for me during this whole time).
I don’t know whether these events had an impact on me developing a faith, or more likely the extent to which they had an effect. I was always more ‘spiritually aware’ than my sibling, and have writings and memories to confirm that I was on a journey to faith from a much younger age than 15. It certainly didn’t start here.
But it has made me wonder…. If I had died then… The ramifications for my soul and for the souls of several others might be huge. It reminds me of a scripture:
Ecclesiastes 8:7-8 (NLT)
Indeed, how can people avoid what they don’t know is going to happen? None of us can hold back our spirit from departing. None of us has the power to prevent the day of our death. There is no escaping that obligation, that dark battle. And in the face of death, wickedness will certainly not rescue the wicked.