When I was dying

It’s ok, I’m not any more. It’s just a cold. But the not-all-thereness, the distanced wooliness, the feeling that I-could-physically-but-I’m-just-so-very-tired, the feeling of slowly leaving something I’ve got now that I’ve got what is obvious even to me is nothing more than a cold and a slew of self-manufactured neuro-toxins sloshing around inside me as my body tries to find somewhere to put the dead cells that fell in the Great War against some crappy cold virus.

I get about one cold a year these days. I used to get them a lot when I was a kid. I used to ask myself what the point of cold viruses was, wondering if I died the virus would die and so wondering what the point of it was. Luckily for my first foray into existentialism I didn’t know the cold virus would probably be fine thanks, longer than my cooling corpse would, anyway. I’m not sure these colds weren’t something else, some manifestation of needing to be noticed, but whatever they were, that wet-hankied, sore-nosed, always cold condensation-on-the-car-windows in a grey West Country car park while the wind sheared through my rubbish Co-op parka if I stepped outside is one of the primary memories of my childhood. I don’t miss not having colds at all. I don’t much miss being a kid, either.

I got this one because I was over-tired and in the company of people who didn’t know what a handkerchief was. All day one day I had pains all the way up the back of my legs, into my waist, for no reason I could work out. Now just the remains of the cough, the watering eyes and the terrible distance between me and everything else.

It was like that when I was dying. I don’t know when it started. In the womb, maybe, or at least the stage was set there, as it always is. My iliac vein curled around my femoral artery, in front of my spine before I was born. When I went on long-distance airplanes, as I did from the age of nineteen, and again when I was twenty-four, then again, then now and again on holidays, then a lot in my early forties, the air pressure allowed the artery to expand to about five times its normal size. I know. I can make it do it. I’ve watched it on a monitor in the ultimate real-time bio-feedback experiment my surgeon made me do.

The vein was clamped against my spine and because blood clots when it isn’t flowing, that’s what happened. I had at least five deep-vein thromboses, or possibly three Guinness Book of Records ones. Nobody is really sure, nor when exactly they happened. All but the first were preventable. The fact that they took four years off my life, drudging through at a distance, the colours of everything fading, feeling that I was slowly dying for the simple reason that I was, was entirely down to my local doctor’s surgery.

My GP had no idea what was wrong with me. He, then she, then he again tried to find DVT by feeling my leg, found nothing and concluded there was nothing wrong with me. Most of the time there wasn’t. I was cold almost all the time even in summer and I didn’t want to move much. I bought a bicycle and enjoyed going out in the lanes after work, but after the first winter it wasn’t much fun.  I found myself one December in a soaking, freezing field I couldn’t find my way out of, my feet soaked, my leg aching in a way I couldn’t understand and no hope of ever being anywhere else but cold and hurting under a grey sky. Occasionally I’d simply double up with pain, dropped to my knees vomiting. I vomited unpredictably, on three continents, leaving a sour trail of hopelessness wherever my ticket took me. Ten minutes later there would be no pain at all. I wondered if I was losing my mind. There were no lumps, no skin discolouration, nothing. I was just dying.

I’d had a relationship go wrong in a way that was entirely predictable it would. I thought I was just sad about that and this was what it was like getting older. You move about less. You feel the cold. Everybody in my family did.

From here, everything about this screams how obvious it was what was wrong with me. My childhood memories are full of blocky men in armchairs who it hurt to move, coal-fires blazing in mid-summer, living-rooms heated almost to suffocation-point. Every one of them I think now had exactly the same thing I did, iliac DVT, congenitally. They all wore fixed smiles. They dealt with it differently to me.

I didn’t die, no thanks to my local doctor (and Leiston Surgery, please feel free to take a bow at any time). But it was odd and interesting to hear a friend use exactly the same phrase about the time she had pneumonia and thought she had something else: “When I was dying….”

We neither of us said it for sympathy or a hug or maybe, if nobody minds, you know, something else maybe. Just a fact, along with the odd realisation that this was real, that we had both had the same experience, that we’d both known what was going to happen and the fact that it didn’t wasn’t really much to do with us at all. But when we were dying somehow we didn’t. Something slipped away, but it wasn’t us. Some time again it would be, we both knew that. But not yet awhile. Not yet. It’s just a cold, this time.


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