Standing at the side of the hospital bed, eyes closed, having rubbed my hands together the way we’d often done in yin yoga, I moved my palms towards and then away from each other, allowing the pressure and heat from the friction to grow into a sticky thread between them. In my mind’s eye, I imagined shaping this thread, forming a growing, glowing ball of white light between my palms. As G lay in the ICU, machines beeping and blinking all around him, I created ball after ball of white light and stuffed them into his comatose body. Later, I worried that I hadn’t been able to ask if he minded if I shoved basketball-sized shimmering lights into his organs. What is the requirement for consent to perform magic when someone is dying?
In reality, I don’t believe what I did healed him. That was done by a team of brilliant doctors. But it made me feel better to do it, and isn’t that what matters? I wasn’t hurting anyone. I suppose that is the purpose religion or prayer can serve, too. To make people feel better? I am not religious. Not in any recognised way. I do not subscribe to any of the world religions and while I grew up Christian, neither I, nor the Christians I still know would ever call me that now; the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. There may or may not have been a real, live Jesus. There is no such thing as sin, heaven, or hell; these are all constructs of control. But once, I used to be a fundamentalist. And the problem I now see with fundamentalism is that it does hurt people.
When he came out of the coma, he was awake and alive but not here. Not himself. He was on a train. He was in an ambulance. He was a 60-year-old school teacher from a neighbouring town. He needed a cigarette. God, he needed a cigarette. Hold on, he said, hold on, hold on, hold on as he tried to grab my arm with the only one of his that sort-of worked, his movements slow, stiff and erratic.
“How long has he been teaching?” a nurse asked me.
“He doesn’t,” I said. “He’s never been a teacher. He doesn’t smoke.”
Sentences were coming out of his mouth but they were just a word in front of a word in front of a word. Unrelated. Until he said “I need to learn another language!”
“You learned another language,” I said. “Remember when we went to Paris and I taught you French? Let’s practice!”
“Un,” I said, expecting him to repeat it.
“One,” he replied.
“Deux,” I said, trying to encourage him to repeat the French.
“Two,” he said.
I counted to ten in French as he repeated the English number after me.
“That’s English,” I said, “not French.” And started counting again.
Half way through the second count, I realised he understood. While his sentences made no sense, he knew exactly what was going on.
“Can you understand me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you know I’m having trouble understanding you?”
The speech pathologist who’d seen him earlier in the day popped her head into his room and asked if she could see me for a minute.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. “Just a few minutes.”
She asked if he’d ever had any issues like this before the coma; struggles to communicate, not making sense, difficulty with speech or memory. No, I said, never. And then I asked the question I didn’t want an answer to. Is this…going to be permanent?
“I don’t know,” she said.
I shook my head. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s not 60, he’s never smoked, he’s not a teacher. None of what he’s saying is true. They’re sentences. But they make no sense.”
She nodded and bit her lip. “Ok,” she said, “thanks. Could you make something for him? When people start to have communication and memory issues like this, we ask their family to make a memory book. Put in info like work, family, life, etc. Sometimes, it helps their memory.”
I left the hospital after dinner and returned to the Leukaemia Foundation where I stayed up until 2am making “The Book of G” from the template the speech pathologist had emailed me. I filled it with info and pictures for the staff to read, and read to him, emailed it to the nurse-in-charge of his ward who printed it and stapled it together. “You can come in today from 9am,” she told me, when I called to check in that morning after shift handover. Covid restrictions were still in effect and hospitals only allowed visitors in very specific circumstances. A patient not being able to communicate was one of those circumstances.
When I arrived at his bedside at 9.05am after presenting at security for screening, temperature checks and confirmation I was allowed to visit, he was no longer a 60-year-old school teacher. He was himself, as if the person he had been yesterday never existed.
For the last four years, I’ve used a beautiful planner made by Magic of I. At the start of it, there is a yearly planning and intention-setting segment covering categories such as inspiration and creativity, work, health, relationships, spiritual, mental, social and wealth. Last week, when goal-setting for this year, I wrote: practise my French on Duolingo for a minimum of 10 minutes per day.
This afternoon after logging into the app for the first time in many years, I noticed a change. Ads. Ugh. And every time I completed a lesson, it launched into an ad to upgrade. I messaged a friend who is a Duolingo aficionado. He has a 1051 day streak. I’m only aiming for 30. My friend is in Brazil at the moment, practicing his Portuguese and Jiu Jitsu. I’m not sure he needs Duolingo when he’s in the thick of it. And yet, every day, he completes his lessons. I asked if the upgrade was worth it, because it said 60% off. But it didn’t say off what. After 15 minutes of the free version, though, the ads became obnoxious. That’s how they get you. So now I’m a super Duolingo user. I’m hoping the cost will compel my commitment. As I perused this new version of the app, I was astonished to discover you can now learn languages such as High Valyrian.
“Didn’t realise we could learn fake languages!” I texted.
“Why do you call it “fake”?” he replied.
“Because it’s not from a real country.”
“Not all languages are from countries…”
“Perhaps I should have said fictional language. That would have been better.”
It prompted a conversation of language. Languages. Fictional, engineered, and invented languages. Semantics. I asked if he had heard of the Pirahã tribe from Brazil, who have no words for colours, numbers, or past or future tense. Some linguists argue that it is the only language that does not subscribe to the theory of Universal Grammar as there is no recursion. Others argue it does contain recursion, albeit, tangentially. The Pirahã have also been described as the happiest people on earth because, without tense, there is no past or future. They live fully in the present. I scrolled through the Duolingo menu for the possible languages you can learn, and while you can learn Esperanto, you cannot learn Pirahã.
It is possible, perhaps likely, that I have PTSD from this time; from the time spent caring for G both while he was in active treatment, and then while he was in rehab and recovery for months afterwards. Because while my patient was (remarkably) ever-patient and compliant, and caring for him was comparatively easy, the anxiety I developed due to the uncertainty of the situation has not dissipated. At any shift of energy or fatigue, any new would-be symptom, my nervous system moves into uncomfortable overdrive. While he cruises along with a “whatever happens, happens” attitude, I remain hypervigilant to any changes in condition, absolutely not living fully in the present; trapped somewhere in the ether between the trauma of the past and anxiety for the future.
The last six months have seen me dedicate my time to pushing all the medical terminology and understanding of PCNSL out of my brain and replacing it with work again. Just before Christmas, I sat my simulator assessment for work and passed. I am now a fully qualified Unit Controller, in charge of a generating unit. When I began my traineeship, within our group was a former ICU nurse, which on the surface, seems like quite the shift. But as I explained to my mother the other week when I passed my test, it is different, but also the same.
Whenever a patient is intubated and ventilated in Australia, they are assigned a private nurse who is with them for 12 hours at a time. G was ventilated and on dialysis for almost two weeks and his nurses monitored the pumps and valves and machines and equipment, as well as all his bodily systems; blood test results, blood pressure, heart rate, and more, to determine what the next course of action would be, what steps may need to be taken. Any fluctuation of conditions requires an immediate response or their patient could die.
My new role involves me monitoring pumps, valves, equipment and systems of both a mechanical and electrical nature to ensure the unit operates efficiently and within set parameters and limits. It’s same same but different.
I think of the electricity I generate as magic. White light. Invisible to the eye and critical to almost everything we love to do on this tiny blue and green ball, spinning around a dying star. I cannot say what happens when we die. I don’t believe we go to Jesus but I don’t know where we go. I used to think we went nowhere but after the last couple of years, I’m not so sure. Cosmic connections or events appear to exist whether we are aware of them or not, whether we respond to them or not, whether we believe in them or not; we do not understand enough about the butterfly effect, quantum entanglement, or the physics of subatomic particles. And until we do, sometimes, it’s just easier to call the things that happen magic.