I am amazed that no-one, literally no-one, has ever asked the question. If I met someone who had traversed the River Styx, even temporarily as I did, I would ask what it was like. I would ask if they saw angels. I would ask if they saw the pearly gates of Heaven or the fire and brimstone of Hell.
But no-one has ever asked me. Perhaps they feel it is too private, too personal. Maybe they don’t want to intrude or maybe, just maybe, they are scared of what the answer might be.
The one thing that people do ask about is how I felt in the days and weeks leading up to that moment, the second anniversary of which I ‘celebrate’ on the 11thAugust 2020. It’s almost as though they are looking out for the tell-tale signs, in the event that it should happen to them. The problem is, I don’t know.
I have lost forty-two days of my life. Eight of those were spent in a coma in the intensive care unit, when my wife was told to prepare for the very worst scenario. The worst eight days of my life and it’s as though I wasn’t even there.
It’s understandable why coma-time should be lost. But, nobody can explain precisely why I cannot recall a moment of the thirty-four preceding days, including the critical minutes prior to the event itself. My memory has been completely erased and none of the medical experts can adequately explain why that might be so. I have read that it may be connected to the oxygen deprivation to the brain. My own theory is that it’s the body and mind’s way of protecting me from the trauma. Just box it all up, seal it, padlock it and bury it at the bottom of the deepest ocean, never to resurface.
Bizarrely, I actually do think I have memories from the eight-day coma. I remember stuff. I just don’t know if it’s real or not. As I lay in that hospital bed, being kept alive by an intra-aortic balloon pump forcing the blood around my body because my heart was unable to, I had the strangest reveries akin to the weirdest acid trip imaginable.
As I lay there, prone and unable to communicate with the outside world, the night shift staff in the intensive care unit would fire up the consoles and play Grand Theft Auto all night. I remember the noise and the flashing lights so distinctly. There was bling and gold lamé tracksuits aplenty, reminiscent of a gaudy nightclub. Definitely inappropriate for an NHS hospital. Certainly not deserving of applause.
The background music to the game was Human League’s Open Your Heart and The Cardigans’ My Favourite Game. The former is a song I like. Not my preferred Human League song, but it’s decent. The latter I’ve never really cared for that much. I cared for both of them even less as time passed and they repeatedly zapped my addled brain on this infinite loop.
Outside of the ICU there was an elevator. When I built up some strength, at night I would carefully remove all my tubes and whilst the staff were distracted by Grand Theft Auto I would sneak outside and get in the elevator. I discovered that if I pressed a certain button, when the elevator doors opened again I was in central Paris. This discovery of a portal from South Lanarkshire directly to the French capital was very convenient.
Unfortunately, on one such night trip, I found myself caught up in an anti-capitalism riot. And no-one riots like the French do. How I managed to escape is anyone’s guess.
On more than one instance I tried to tempt the staff into the elevator with me. A free trip to Paris. How could they refuse? Sadly, none of them could get the time off. I tried to explain the whole space time travel thing to them, and that we would be back in seconds, but they simply couldn’t get their heads around it. The concept just seemed to go over their heads. Poor things.
When I eventually came out of the coma, I continued to experience less than lucid, quasi-psychedelic experiences. I have no idea what drugs they had me on, but they were ridiculously effective. Gradually, however, things changed from technicolour illusion to increasing reality. Until now, I have never admitted to anyone that I regretted that gradual readjustment back to normality, which took some months it should be said.
Looking back, and this will seem peculiar, there are lots of things that make me laugh. Like all the stuff I have spoken about above. Like re-learning to walk with the aid of a zimmer and, assisted by the said walking frame, escaping from the coronary care unit one day because I wanted to visit my friends in ICU. But there’s other stuff too, the things that hit you every so often like a ten-ton truck hitting you at seventy miles an hour.
Every day, without exception, I think about the day it all kicked off. Unsurprisingly, it has changed my outlook, my view of life. On death, Nick Cave is quoted as saying “over time I have learned that the opportunity to say goodbye is the ultimate privilege”. I was denied that opportunity first time around. Every day, I remind myself that bad things, the very worst things, can happen in an instant. Without warning. Because of that, I try to remind myself to make sure that the people I love know that I love them. After all, who knows when the moment will come.
On that basis, I should be incredibly grateful that I got another chance and, for the most part, I am. But I feel incredible guilt that, sometimes, darker contemplations dominate. Occasionally, I think about those eight days where my wife and children had to prepare for life without their husband, without their father and the sadness of that often overpowers the elation.
When covid hit hard, people clapped for the NHS. Rightly so. I have been clapping for them every day for the last two years. Every time I see an ambulance race past with its lights flashing, I salute them. It’s for the paramedics who saved my life. I applaud the surgeons who fixed me and the nursing staff who patiently tolerated my episodes of psychosis and rebuilt me. Physically and psychologically.
I give thanks to my friends and colleagues who supported us throughout. So many kind words and gestures that I will never forget.
But most of all, I give eternal thanks to my beautiful wife, who got my heart beating again as I lay prone in our bedroom. For fourteen long minutes, without stopping, she delivered CPR, re-starting my heart and keeping it going, albeit faintly, until the ambulance arrived. I can never repay her for that.
When I was in the coma, she would sit by my bed for hours and gently sing the lyrics to Lucky by Radiohead into my ear. It’s my favourite song. “Pull me out of the aircrash/pull me out of the lake/’cause I’m your superhero/we are standing on the edge”.
The last two years have been quite a journey. It’s like something that happened to someone else and I’m watching the movie. And still, I wonder why people don’t ask if I saw angels.
*Footnote regarding the photograph. I took this in Paris a couple of months before the incident. It’s angels (kinda). In Paris.