Hazel McHaffie

Many Different Kinds of Love

Listening to Michael Rosen speaking at the Hay Festival was enough to make me immediately order his book about surviving Covid: Many Different Kinds of Love. And read it as soon as it arrived! It’s an account like no other.

He was a whisker away from death because he didn’t fit the criteria (at the time) for serious illness. But thanks to the intervention of a skilled and determined GP friend, Michael bypassed inappropriate advice to stay at home, and was whipped into hospital with a dangerously low level of oxygen in his blood. So ill was he, indeed, that he spent 47 days in Intensive Care, much of it in an induced coma on a ventilator.

During this time, even though they were working ridiculous hours under extreme pressure, often way outside their comfort zones, the staff took the trouble to pen personal, encouraging, reassuring messages in a diary. Their entries make fascinating reading. Learning of their care, seeing them in action, Michael was reduced to tears by their devotion and love; it was akin to that of a parent keeping vigil with a sick child.
They aren’t my parents … It’s a kindness I can hardly grasp.’
Michael was, of course, a celebrity patient, a well known and loved children’s author and poet; they were willing him to return to his natural milieu of writing and performing again for others.

Reading their words, I was personally struck by the vast range of occupations these novice writers came from. Here they were in a high-tech, fast-paced, highly specialised environment, a unit packed to the gunnels, surrounded by patients presenting with a hitherto unknown infectious disease affecting multiple systems, and they were, in their other lives, speech and language therapists, physios, children’s nurses, school nurses, infection control personnel, urology specialists, even dental hygienists!  Mind-blowing!

After ventilation, Michael spent another long period hovering somewhere between life and death, and it was his wife, Emma, who brought him through to the other side of this, surrounding him with love and the favourite soundtracks of his life.

It was only then, as he re-entered consciousness and self awareness, that he could pick up the threads of the story for himself.

Reviewing that time while he hovered on the brink of life/death, he himself could see the humour in his situation.
Of the constant monitoring he says:
There is now a ledger telling
the story of my ups and downs.
I have become an account.

He was mesmerised by the multiple tasks these caring hands accomplished.
Your hands speak.
Touch is a language.
Each palm
each fingertip
is a line from your stories.

He saw the ‘Land of the Dead’ as having taken bits of him prisoner. (His left eye and ear are still markedly impaired.)
They’re waiting for me to come back.
The ear is listening.
The eye is the lookout.

Recovery of strength and will power became a painful inch by inch struggle.  Early on, trying to will his leg to move, was like speaking to a blank space.

As he improved physically he became alive to humour around him.
The nurse tells Peter in the bed opposite,
that his urine is dark.
‘The times are dark,’ he says.

But at each stage of progress Michael feared this was as good as it got …
… now in a wheelchair – is this me?
… using a zimmer frame – is this me?
At intervals: I’m not going to get better – am I?
… remaining on one level in the house  – I’m 74. Maybe I’ve become a kind of 90 ...
Watching and listening to the monumental struggle made me value in a new way his personal appearance at the Hay Festival this year. He had learned from OTs how to own his frailty.

And when he eventually went home:
I am not sure I am me.
I can’t see as I used to see.
I can’t hear as I used to hear.
My legs feel like cardboard tubes,
filled with porridge.

And ‘I’m not sure I am me’ became a bit of a refrain.

But he did get home and little by little he did gain strength and mobility. Returning as an outpatient:
Woman at the door asks me
if I want anything sharpening.
My wits, I say.
(I didn’t.
My wits aren’t sharp enough.)

By now you’ll have got the sense of the style of writing – short staccato entries, written as poetry, as if that is all his recovering brain could handle. Lots and lots of white space. But underpinning it, the irrepressible wit and wisdom for which he is known and loved.

All perfectly illustrated by Chris Riddell‘s wonderfully evocative and delicate pen and ink drawings.

I was pleased to see that, even though he’s so conscious of the great debt he owes the NHS, Michael’s not afraid to criticise the government and scientists where they got it wrong. Perhaps he sums up the whole handling of the pandemic as well as his personal progress when he says:
And it never stops:
we are always becoming.

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