"One Last Thing", by Fiona Hutchings
It took several hours after the aneurysm in my brain ruptured for me to realise just how close to death I was. Once the CT scan had confirmed the source of the horrific pain, I had started to float in and out of consciousness. There were morphine injections and drips and an increasing number of machines. There were seemingly endless questions every 15 minutes to check if I was still reasonably alert. Everything was getting confused and hazy.
It wasn't until the nurse introduced me to my brain surgeon and he told me I was having brain surgery, within the next hour, that I started to understand just how serious a situation I was in. I watched his lips as he spelled out how he would open my skull and clip the aneurysm. He asked if I had any questions and I blurted out “but I'm not going to die am I?” I was incredulous. Last night I was joking with my husband about having 'Candy' by Paolo Nutini played at my funeral (I was learning to play it on my ukulele badly). Now he was sat next to my bed white faced while we discussed what I wanted him to do in the event of my death. Suddenly I had no time left and despite the fact I had told him it many times before, that I loved him, that he was a wonderful father and husband, I had to tell him again. I asked him to tell my daughters if I died that I loved them with all my heart, I would always be with them somehow. And then they were wheeling me away.
My mother and brother walked with him beside my bed as they pushed me towards the surgery lift. I tried to hold their hands, they tried to negotiate the tangle of wires and tubes surrounding me. I was out of time. The lift doors opened and I could no longer see them. I shouted “I love you” as the reality of what was happening started to descend. Of all the things I would later say to my mother about our relationship, the only thing that mattered really was that she knew I loved her. That was the only comfort I could offer.
As they began to administer the anaesthetic a nurse asked if I had children. Suddenly total terror took over and I clutched her arm, begging her not to let me die. My daughters were five and three and the last thing I'd said to them was that if they didn't go to sleep I would be very cross. I couldn't die without telling them I loved them. That needed to be the last thing they remembered, if they could really remember me at all.
The world went dark.
There isn't much I remember much about the week or so after I survived the op. One of the few clear memories is opening my eyes in recovery and thinking 'I'm not dead' before I floated away again.
I didn't see my children for ten days. They weren't allowed on the High Dependency Unit and we had to wait until I was well enough not to terrify them. I wanted the steel staples out of my skull, I figured the scars, bruises and lack of hair would be enough for them to deal with.
The nurses agreed to take me to the visitors room. I sat in a sterile room on a plastic chair waiting impatiently and suddenly they were there. Small and warm and smelling of home. I ignored the pain and gathered them to me and told them over and over how much I loved them and how much I had missed them and settled down to answer questions and just listen to them chat away about how Granny was looking after them. After they left I sat a while longer in my wipe clean chair waiting for a nurse to collect me and ferry me back to HDU in a wheelchair. I'd never go another day without telling them I loved them I decided.
It's been more than three years since I survived the rupture, since my old life was ripped up and I got a second chance. Three years since I sat quietly in that room thinking about the life that had stopped in the second it took my brain to explode. It was a life that had increasingly become a blur of work, study, volunteering and writing. Time with my family had been squeezed too thin, sleep was fleeting, anxiety was constant and I had no real time to spend with my friends. God, I thought watching the sun set in the steel grey winter sky, if I'd died, I'd have died miserable. I'd have died still putting off all the things I wanted to do, never having said so many important things to important people. If I'd dropped down dead, for all the wonderful things in my life like my husband, my children and my friends, there would be little for them to take solace in. There would just be a list of things I never got round to. For so long I'd pressured and pushed myself. So many things were put off till tomorrow while I just gritted my teeth and pushed on. It had never occurred to me tomorrow might never come.
Surviving changed all that. Close friends and family where incredibly supportive in the eye of the storm and most remained so. That has made a huge difference to my recovery and I make sure they know that. I don't tell everyone I love them daily but I have taken the opportunity to tell those that matter to me just why they matter, how much I love and value them. There are other relationships I've let go because life is too precious and short to spend it with people who bully, drain and exhaust you. I was ruthless I admit and family members were not exempt as I sorted through my relationships. Maybe that sounds shocking but if people bring nothing but anger and demands in to your life you have a choice to walk away. My counsellor once told me that some relationships are like a game of chess, just because your opponent makes their move you don't have to react by making a move too. I wasn't laying down my king and surrendering either. I was just walking away from the board.
These days I smile at strangers, I say hello to my neighbours, I talk to taxi drivers (I take a lot of taxis now) and I thank people for good service. If someone has helped me out I want them to know it's made a difference. My husband and I have written our wills and I have told him he would have coped without me but he disagrees. It's taken time to come to terms with what happened, the physical and mental scars are healed but will always remain visible to me. I can no longer ignore my body or it's demands, if I try everything simply grinds to a halt. I practice mindfulness meditation now. I notice that I am breathing in and out, I ignore that particular miracle until it so nearly vanished.
Most of all I tell my husband and my children that I love them every day. Regardless of what the day has brought, good and bad, at least once I kiss and cuddle them even if they are asleep.
Am I afraid of death? Yes, a little. I don't know what I believe happens when we die. Coming so close has made me think more about my own beliefs. I don't want a long drawn out death but I don't want to be snatched with no warning either. Still, at least I have the time to make sure however it happens there will be nothing left unsaid.
But now I have no regrets. In the digital age I could see on Facebook and Twitter how people had heard and reacted to the news in real time as it were. I read what people said and thought about me, it was close to reading my own obituary, I saw what came to mind when people thought of me. It was both powerful and comforting. No one was talking about my waist size or mistakes I had made. No one was saying I was a bad mother or a bit stupid. The things I had beaten myself up with for years were not the way others saw me.
I'm less self conscious now because so many of my worries about looks were washed away by the sight in the mirror of my bald, bruised swollen and scarred head and the huge grin on my face. I've made my peace with myself and am enjoying this second shot at life. When the grim reaper finally does lay his bony hand on my shoulder, those I leave behind will know I was happy and I hope that brings them peace too.
Highly Commended, While There's Still Time: Writing about putting things right
About the author
Fiona Hutchings is a wife to one, mum of two and owner of a ridiculous number of books. She was born with OI, survived a SAH and collects other medical acronyms against her will. Fiona plays the ukulele badly, writes about music and other things at adlibbed.blogspot.co.uk and helps run everyday-mindfulness.org