I hate Birmingham. I hate the fact that all I ever see there are sick people, medics and patronising voluntary helpers and death and utter, unceasing misery. I hate the waiting while they take parts of my husband and test them and then make him wait with me, anxious and sad and needing my strength which is all the time waning and not enough even for myself. I hate the walls, the floors, the chairs, the smug paintings and charity posters and the sculptures and the fag ends left by the desperate and dying cancer patients who still lean on the thing that probably killed them. At least I understand that. I have taken up drinking alcohol again since the diagnosis. I have been sober and clean for 10 years, but now, well, things change. How cruel and perverse. I hate Birmingham because it is also the site of my failure. My failure to engage fully with my learning and my talent and passion and the one real opportunity I had to make something for and of myself. And now I’m back there. Failing again.
Yesterday was a long day. We set off from home at 6.30 am, ludicrously early even for me, but terrified of hitting traffic and missing our precious allotted time with the transplant team we decide to risk being there two hours early. I drive, because he drives badly and I can’t stand to be a passenger, and for two hours we sit in total silence because he is not interested in me at all any more and there are only so many times I can begin a conversation and get no response before I become tired and sad and just stop trying. We arrive, and as we crest the hill from Selly Oak into Edgebaston and the hospital appears on the horizon I am once again struck by its terrifying presence. It is a colossus of a building. It’s imposition on the landscape and the implication of a hospital that size is sufficient to wither my already jaded heart. I see it every time as a terrible spaceship, a craft that has landed and assimilated itself into the area and in which monstrous experiments are conducted. Which I suppose is not far from the truth.
We park the car and walk into the belly of the beast. I loathe it. My skin crawls with anxiety and tension and I want to run away and never come back to this place or any other place that I have ever been and I want only to be free of this feeling and of all of the pressure and the history and the family that I carry about me like a vast black lead shawl. I want to vanish and begin again somewhere clean and new and kind. But I am needed and in some way still loved and I can’t betray this man and his desperate trust so I do not run anywhere and instead we hold hands and walk on.
After the nurse has taken a lot of my husband’s blood and talked to me at great length about how my life is effectively over now that I will become my husband’s full-time carer and emergency transport and liaison officer and nurse and I will never ever be left alone again or have any choices or freedom or peace until all of this is over, we go to the imaging department for his chest x-ray. We sit together in more silence until his name is called and then I sigh enormously from my guts because finally, finally I can’t hear him mouth-breathing for the first time in over 2 days and the relief is unexpectedly overwhelming. My body drops back into the chair and I am suddenly weak from fear and stress and emotion that I can’t show because that would make me wicked and useless. And oh I do very much want to cry. I want to cry loud, wretched sobs for myself and for him, because no matter what, he is still my husband and I love him even though I sometimes hate him and I don’t want him to suffer and this is all so very horrible and too much pain for anyone and I just don’t know anything anymore.
While I am fighting back tears, out of the corner of my eye I see Kelvin. Kelvin is a small boy with curly black hair and copper skin, his Grandma is black, Jamaican as it turns out, but Kelvin looks like he might have a white parent. He is beautiful, noisy and so very bored. Kelvin is clearly in trouble because he cannot sit still and his Grandma is tired of him whining and twitching and being a nuisance. I catch his eye and smile at him. I love children and in spite or perhaps because of my current state of misery I can not resist my impulse to talk to this tiny boy and make him talk to me. I ask him if he is very fed up. He looks at me in confusion and when he speaks and his Grandma replies I realise he is stumped by my accent which is just all Salford and not Birmingham. He clearly wants to talk to me though, probably because I am not his Grandma and I am interested in him and interesting to him and he is four and in a hospital waiting room and has nothing else to do. As I make small talk with his Grandma, Kelvin is flip-flopping himself on the empty chairs between us. He is launching his small boy body onto the chair furthest away from me and closest to his Grandma, he thumps forwards onto the seat and dangles his little legs, kicking them in the air and peeping sideways across the two more empty chairs that separate us. As I talk to Grandma and she tells me that her husband is in nuclear imaging and has been in there for two hours and no-one has told her anything and she is scared witless, Kelvin shuffles along to the next nearest seat and peers at me closely, checking out his new possible friend. I pretend not to notice that he is getting nearer. By the time he has wormed his way to the seat next to mine and is intently staring into my face for signs of danger I know that Kelvin is in his grandparent’s care because his parents are unwell and as a result he is a troubled little boy. I am impressed that he is brave enough to take me on.
Finally, after half an hour of tentative shuffling towards me, Kelvin makes first contact. His chubby hand alights on my knee and he looks into my eyes and asks me if I like Buzz Lightyear. And of course I LOVE Buzz Lightyear. So Kelvin leaves my legs and treks back across the gulf of chairs to Grandma and asks her permission to get his toy out of her bag. He comes straight back with the best Buzz Lightyear doll I have ever seen. It has flashing lights, a moving head, retractable wings and it talks. It says To Infinity and Beyond. Which strikes me, in my current fragile state, as unbearably poignant.
We play Toy Story for a little while, which mostly means that I make all the character noises as best I can while Kelvin swooshes Buzz around and pretends to land him and fire lasers at me. As we play I notice that we are being watched by a group of young black men. They are all wearing little beanies and they don’t smile and they just watch Kelvin and me and Buzz and I wonder about the not smiling and I am ashamed to say that the thought that goes through my head is that they are in a gang and that one day this small boy will have to find an identity and that he will also be in a gang because this country assertively shits on young black men and leaves them with so few options. Leaving this unintentionally racist thought where it is, I keep playing with Kelvin and eventually his Granddad comes out of imaging and Kelvin gets to go home. He walks away from me, reluctantly, because I have committed so fully to my role as all the Toy Story cast and he has loved this game. He keeps turning back and waving at me, still clutching Buzz, and I am unreasonably upset that he is leaving me. Now I am alone. And then it comes to me in a rush of logic and insight: I am always alone. We are all always alone. Each connection that we make is a tiny moment of respite from our solitary existence and we have to grasp those connections and take every last second of them to our core and hold onto them. We have to have untold bravery to keep making these connections, to keep reaching across the gap and touching others, making some link. Even our longest, strongest relationships are just multiple points of connection between solitary people. I sit alone and wait for my husband and I know that whatever happens I actually have all that I need to keep going. I have my memories, which are really the only things that anyone can have from any relationship. I have the echo of love, which was long ago but real and powerful at the time, and that echo will serve to comfort me in the coming months, as things go the way they will go. I have thousands of other connections too, made over the years with many, many people, and all of these, including the newest, precious one made today with Kelvin, will feed me and sustain me as I navigate my lonely future (and yes it’s a cliche, and you knew it was coming, but it’s right and honest and brilliantly impossible and it means a considerable something to me) to infinity and beyond.