This is a very personal poem. I wrote a couple in March, at the very start of lockdown, when I had been sent away from work due to what they tell me are underlying health conditions. I’m asthmatic and so Coronavirus wasn’t ever going to be my friend. However, on top of this, a while back I was admitted to hospital with what turned out to be a problem with my heart. At the time I genuinely thought I was going to die and it became quite the experience! I didn’t die – I was given various different types of pills to calm things down and then a month or so later had an operation to correct the problem. I’m much stronger now, but the virus brought a lot of memories flooding back, as well as providing me with a genuine sense of fear that there was again another chance that I could die.
In amongst the memories came the sleepless nights and in amongst the sleepless nights came the creativity that led to the poem below and a couple of others. Anyway, here’s Heart.
For four days, I waited. Thought, as all men do, that this would pass. Eventually, fear brought a confession that led to here. And then more waiting, a false confidence painted on to everything I say and do because I cannot let her see my vulnerability, cannot let her see my fear. Strength is a necessary pretence. Yet with every new face, strength evaporates until I am wheeled like a casualty of war or, more likely a damaged antique, into a room where some will come to die.
I sign forms, answer relentless questions, give blood and am attached to a machine that makes me feel like it is doing my living for me. Something has to. Even false confidence gives way now and I sit, slumped, preparing for tears. The thought of death is probably as good a reason as any.
Then a voice from a darkened corner speaks. He’s been here before, a veteran and senses my terror, my weakness and flings out a hand to drag me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black and terrifying ocean. I listen mostly, adding an occasional cliche or just a noise until I sense that I have recovered the strength to be alone. Life has come full circle, I think.
And although I’m far too frightened to close my eyes, I give way to the darkness where the sounds emanating from machines punctuate the eerie, unwanted silence. It is all too much.
Eventually, I am woken by strangers with the best of intentions, giving me tablets, asking more questions, taking more blood and as dawn’s light pushes its way into my dreams, I realise I am still alive. Still here. Still scared, still bewildered, still alone. No longer disguised by darkness I paint on another mask of confidence. This is what men do.
Far too much later she returns. It has been a lifetime. I’m still here. Still hers. Eternally, but almost not at all.
What happened to me wasn’t all that serious. Not when put into context, anyway. I didn’t have a heart attack and as far as I’m aware, there was never any panic from the people that matter that I might not make it. There were, however, some serious conversations had and I was left in no doubt that I’d been very silly to leave things as I did. I worked with a heartbeat of 140+ for a few days. I can’t quite remember, but I think I coached my football team and ran a warm-up that weekend too. Even when a doctor told me I should go to the emergency department I somehow managed to weasel my way out of it and attend a meeting about our football club instead. My doctor called me in the middle of the meeting though and when blue lights were threatened, I took the hint.
On hearing that I’d been ignoring my thumping heart a nurse made some kind of remark that was along the lines of ‘it’s a good job you finally came in’ and that really shocked me. Later, my cardiologist took time to inform me that I would be monitored very carefully and that they were doing everything they could to stabilise things. Meanwhile, I became sure that I wouldn’t be going home.
So that’s what the first verse is referring to. I ignored things thinking that one morning I’d wake up and it would all be alright – very male! I didn’t dare tell my wife at first so I didn’t worry her and then as time went on, so she wouldn’t explode at me!
At hospital I expected to be prescribed some pills and sent on my way. When I wasn’t I was scared. The whole process was lightening quick – a nurse would visit and prod me or give an injection or a tablet, then a doctor, then another with questions and I was told I’d definitely be admitted. My wife came in with a bag for my stay and I had to appear my usual relaxed self. Hence, the line that ‘strength is a necessary pretence‘.
I wasn’t allowed to walk up to the ward. A porter was summoned and I was taken in a wheelchair and this is where the ‘casualty of war/damaged antique image comes from. It was after 11pm so the ward was dark – bizarelly I didn’t expect this – and after a lot of activity with various staff coming and going, I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I sat fighting tears.
The third stanza was the time on the ward that really helped me. The man in the bed opposite had been brought in a few days previously, having suffered his third heart attack. I didn’t want to talk, but on reflection as he ‘flings out a hand to pull me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black ocean.’ was a genuine moment of human kindness. He wasn’t wallowing in his own illness, just concentrating on cheering me up. He talked about how amazing the staff were and just the need to slow down – why I was here – and I was forced to listen. I can’t remember his name, but I know I’ll never forget his kindness.
The rest of the poem is just about the exhaustion that led me to sleep and the people that woke me up at certain intervals to make sure I took pills, drank and just knew where I was and what was happening.
The final thing that I feel I need to point out is the short final stanza. I think ‘Far too much later she returns’ probably sounds critical and impatient. It isn’t. It’s about my wife visiting the ward. I hope the poem isn’t looked at as remembering being ill. It’s also a love poem.
I was absolutely desperate to see her. This was partly for me and partly to let her know that I was alright. I must have woken up on the ward before 6am and so it felt like ‘a lifetime’ had passed when she arrived. Part of that covers just the sheer amount of thinking that I did and part, just very simply the amount of time it seemed to take.
I really hope you’ve enjoyed the poem. As I said, it’s a really personal piece of writing and the kind of thing that I both wanted to share while also wanting to keep private. Essentially though, if it’s left in a notebook, it’s just words on a page.
Let me know what you think.