I watch your chest rise and fall as the pale light filters through the window, creating a diagonal strip across the bed in the dark room. The blue knitted blanket is bunched around your waist and the worn cotton sheet tucked beneath your chin. In sleep, you are peaceful, pain free and rested. I lay my book across my lap and stretch my arms up high, trying to shake off the fatigue and years of worry that have dulled my body into a constant ache. Your IV-line drips slowly. I note the hour to ensure that I can grab a nurse when the time comes, conscious of the pain that will spread through you like wildfire when the fluid has completed its course. Standing up I survey the room and walk towards the window to gaze out at Swansea bay; the grey sea in the distance is choppy and violent with the oncoming storm. I carefully place the curtain back, making sure it does not disturb your slumber, and I creep out into the artificially bright corridor.
The smell of bleach lingers in my nostrils as I make my way through the twists and turns of the never ending corridors to the canteen. I feel like I have entered another world as I make my way to the counter to order a lukewarm, milky tea. Here I am met with the tired faces of numerous medical staff; faces lined with weariness and etched with concern as they wolf down their meal to make it back to the wards. Families sit huddled together, protecting each other from the onslaught of raw emotion that is sure to wash over them in the coming days. An older gentleman sits by the window, anxiously shuffling the salt and pepper shakers across the table - most likely awaiting news. I watch his busy hands; fingers flitting from one object to another like a nervous butterfly, unable to still its beating wings. I fight the urge to reach out, to cover his papery thin hands with my own to stop his jitters. I don’t though.
I stay in my chosen seat, my mind whirring with the doctor’s ever cautious warning about the aftermath of the operation. Your life after this operation will be radically altered forever. No longer will you have the independence you once had, having taken for granted the smallest of tasks that you could complete unaided. Your life will now depend on others, and I know that is tearing you up inside. Your illness has ebbed away at you slowly, like a parasite feasting on your flesh. Over time you have lost yourself to the shadows of this illness and I have watched as the pain has become so unbearable that all you can do for respite is hunker down and sleep cocooned in blankets. I have watched as after every outburst, you have risen taller, stronger and more determined. But not this time. This time it has won one over on you. It has taken a vital piece of you, a piece that will never be returned. I cannot imagine a world in which I am unable to see, and yet this is what your illness has taken from you. You will now face a world from which the colour has been drained, leaving nothing but shadows and flashes of light.
A sob catches in my throat and I bury it quickly before I dissolve into tears right here at this table, in front of all these strangers, who probably wouldn’t even notice my surge of emotion. Sympathy and compassion are all around us here in this sad hospital canteen; everyone here for the same reason, all desperately clinging to hope. The old man catches my eye. Our eyes lock in mutual understanding, an understanding that can only be communicated by two people whose hearts are breaking. He tilts his almost empty mug in the air, a salute to a fellow human who is suffering. I return the gesture, eyes wet with the emotion of the kindness of a stranger, and return to my worn, battered book.
Reading has always been an escape and I cling to the knowledge that my salvation will see me through the day. As a small child I would only ask for books for Christmas and come Christmas morning, as the typical Welsh grey wintery light filled the living room, I would find stacks upon stacks of second hand books, all neatly wrapped and tagged with my name on them. The excitement that filled my little pyjama clad body would be indescribable as I clambered over my brother and sisters’ gifts to reach my own. Ripping the paper with glee, I would tuck myself into the small nook behind the heavily decorated tree and greedily take in the words. I would devour their pages to drown out the chaotic scene that was playing out in front of me, of my siblings screaming with joy as they unwrapped their gifts. Now, as an adult, I still gain that solace and comfort from the pages of books. Preferring them over conversations with people if truth be told. You constantly tease me about my lack of social skills, always comparing and contrasting our differences. I cannot help but be in awe of you, how you effortlessly fill a room with meaningful conversation that enthralls your audience and generates bursts of genuine laughter that instantly warms and gains people’s trust. I tend to stick to the outer fringes of a gathering, quiet in my responses, always lingering behind your brilliant light. Complete opposites but tied together with a continuous love, one that can only be found in true, dear friendships.
Drinking the remains of my now cold tea, I gather my belongings and start to head back to your ward. However, I find my feet directing me not to your bedside, but to the open doors. Before I can fully comprehend my actions, my feet are leading me away from this grey, miserable hospital that seems filled with pain and anguish, towards the sea. I find myself running, my body floating, as I cross Oystermouth road and take in a lungful of salt air. It catches in my throat and I splutter. I repeat the process until I feel whole again. The beach is deserted, bar the bravest of dog walkers, and I feel a calm descend upon my body. It starts in my head, creating a lightness that slowly penetrates down to my toes. My heart rate slows to a steady beat as I watch the waves roll to a crescendo and fall heavily on the sand, leaving a foam trail in its wake. I angrily wipe back my tears that have appeared without my acknowledgement, feeling guilty for the emotion I am displaying when it is you who is the one going through the real turmoil. I sit in the wet sand and plant my hands deep into the grainy mixture, enjoying the numbing sensation it has on my fingers. I feel grounded for the first time in so long, here on this lonely beach. My eyes scan the horizon, taking in the lights of Mumbles and beyond on this dark, winter’s afternoon. It reminds me that there is someone else out there. Heaving my wet, numb body off the sand, I dust myself down and make my way back up the hill to see you.
The room is quiet, but I can see you begin to stir, kicking the blankets to one side. I silently sit back in the chair and resume the same position as before. You will never know that I have left you. You mumble at me to pass you your water and I do so, carefully, not to cause any sudden sharp movements. I place myself on your bed, stroke your hair and try not to stare at your bandaged face. I’m reminded of the first time you were told that you would need to have your eyes removed, how I held you as you cried, claiming that you would no longer have a soul. Many people say the eyes are the windows to the soul. But I have never met anyone who has more soul than yourself. I have never met anyone who is as kind as yourself. Most importantly, I have never met anyone who treasures their time on this planet more than yourself. You make me proud every single day.
You settle back down onto your pillows, your hand clasped in mine and you ask me to read to you. With a smile on my lips, I go to fetch my book and begin. As I start to read, I feel the urge to stop and just remind you that whatever the future may bring, I will always be by your side. I will be your light.