The morning after the night my husband was hit by a car and ended up in ICU (intensive-care unit), all anyone at the hospital seemed to ask me was “is anyone coming to be with you?” The previous evening, I’d thought that I could deal with things on my own, that somehow asking someone to join me would make things worse, more real, less manageable. By midnight, my father, who’d become daddy again when I realised I needed him, had arrived. The next day he left, knowing that reinforcements - my best friend, mother- and brother-in-law - were on their way.
In the meantime, the nurses who had asked, again and again, if I was on my own, if anyone was coming, were relieved. (One of them also asked, as I went in to see my husband, Nick, for the first time in ICU, whether he was my dad. Oh, if only he’d been awake to hear that!) I might have thought, madly, that being alone was better, but I was wrong. It’s lucky, that, because although there are few places quite as lonely as ICU, you’re never really alone. That first morning, having found a corner in the then-empty relatives’ room to set up camp, I hid in my hood as I watched the chairs around me fill up. Soon, an extended family had outnumbered me but eavesdropping on their conversations was a relief from listening to the whirring “what ifs” of my own thoughts.
They were here, I gleaned, because of a family matriarch. Some had flown in from India, others - I think - from Hong Kong and Pakistan. Hospitals, hotels and house prices were compared, while the sick woman’s daughter looked hollow-eyed as she clutched a tissue. Later, she was to become one of the people whose names I never found out, but who I spoke to every day to find out their news. She was further along the ICU learning curve, and from her, I learnt that if life is a roller coaster, intensive care is the big dipper and the house of horrors rolled into one.As I sat at Nick’s bedside, those first few days, as he floated between life and death, anchored by breathing tubes and a bolt in the head, I was never on my own. Fifteen other patients, each with their dedicated nurse, shared the space, along with doctors, registrars and other visitors. In the waiting room, there were so many others too, whose woes I overheard and who I think about now.
The woman who calmly explained to her son’s insurance company that no, she didn’t have a pen, and could they call back when she wasn’t waiting to sit next to his shattered body. Emma, a mother of two young girls, whose husband, like Nick, had been hit by a car. Her wild-eyed beauty and galloping garrulousness, as well as the situation she found herself in, hundreds of miles from home as the surgeons operated, took my breath away. (Later, on a glorious but guilty trip to Fortnum and Mason’s with my in-laws between visiting hours, I bought her girls some posh biscuits, in the hope that they might have some tiny nice memory of London.) The weeping man whose wife had been given weeks to live.
Was anyone with me? the nurses asked. Yes, even though some of them might not have known it then.