“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
“Greater love has no one than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus Christ (John 15:13).
“I love you.” he said to her as he ran alongside the stretcher being pushed at speed through the hospital corridor. She was attempting to communicate with him but the oxygen mask was stopping her. She removed the mask with a wince of pain. She looked at him. All became a blur at this point and each movement - the hospital staff, the wall panels, the floor, the stretcher, had a strobe like effect. All except her lips. His focus was solely on her lips as she spoke those two words.
“Do you?” she mouthed just before a doctor replaced the mask back over her mouth. At this point the stretcher reached a set of doors and was wheeled through. At these doors he could go no further. The hand of one of the hospital pressed firmly against his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
“We will keep you updated whenever we get news.”
Those two words, that simple question, hit him like a sledgehammer to the gut. He felt faint and though he stood still, the corridor continued to move. He could not communicate. All of this was hard to take in. Was it really happening? He leant heavily on one arm against the wall to brace himself against every compulsion to collapse to the ground. He looked up to the staff member who was gesturing towards a seating area about twenty metres back from where they were standing on the other side of the corridor. Those two words would echo through his mind for a long time to come.
The curtains are all drawn except for one only half been pulled together and the room is lit solely by the moon shining through this window. At first he cannot make out many details in the room, only the floorboards in the centre of the room and the wicker chair by the side of the bed. As each moment passes his eyes adjust to the darkness. The light from the full moon is incredibly bright tonight, there is not a cloud in the sky and the moon radiates a visible glow. The bed is in the darkest corner of the room, the opposite end from the exposed window. He walks across the length of the room looking out between the gap in the curtain through the window to see the moon framed between the old, wooden, paint chipped panes, to his usual place sat on the wicker chair by the bed. He knows exactly where to tread in order to avoid creaking the floorboards, though any creaking would not stir her.
His uncle had moved abroad and left the house vacant having had no success in selling after a lack of serious buyers. The house had been vacant of life for three months prior to their move here. When the uncle had heard of her unique medical condition, a rare form of a chronic respiratory disease, he offered the house for them to live in, without condition. Her body had reacted so badly to the condition that she had suffered brain damage, from which it was unclear as to whether she could or could not ever recover from. The advice for her to be in a setting of fresh air was a vain hope, yet any hope would do. Both the house and the open landscape are of grander scale than his urban upbringing. The countryside house has four bedrooms. Each had been filled at one stage. His uncle was much older than his dad and therefore his cousins were much older than he. They had all grown up and moved on. With each year the house grew as the rooms emptied one by one. Each room had various remnants and scars, signs of childhood years living out in these very places. In the boys rooms, blue tack stains and tears in the wallpaper from football posters, pen etchings on bedside tables of girl loved and lost. Secret stashes of old coins, football cards and toys hidden under loose floorboards, for the next resident to find. There were square patches of coloured carpet, darker than the faded mass, the only visible remains of furniture that had left with his uncle to the new house.
Downstairs, the kitchen door faces out to the back garden and ivy on the wall has grown and overhangs the doorframe. The house shows real signs of a house that, whilst is tidy, has been empty for three months. It is dusty, the garden is overgrown, but all these things gives it charm. Outside, the large patio is accessed directly from the kitchen. The stone is cold this time of year from the cool night air. The grass, like the ivy, has grown long. The areas of grass in the shade, protected from the sun by the long shadows cast by the tress, have large moisture beads lined up the stem. There are two conifer trees close to each other of which he walks between. No grass grows between these trees as the ground has no sun exposure. Beyond these trees to the left there is a vegetable garden. Much of the produce has either been taken by wild hares or has scorched in the summer months. Across the garden, amongst the dark set by the tall trees lining the border, a hare stands tall, ears perked up, listening. The hare moves its head left and right. In the midst of the silence the hare suddenly darts away into the overgrowth.
The room she has been lying in is in the back corner of the house. It overlooks the back garden and due to its position upstairs, it is possible to see over the hedgerows into the next field. At the top of the field is a huge oak tree. The bottom third of its trunk is hidden by the horizon. The field has long matted dry grass from the summer months of little rain and absence of the livestock grazing on it. The fields are surrounded by an imposing woodland.
“Hey you”, he whispers to her. He has not spoken all today and the words trap in his throat. He clears it and then repeats the two words. There is of course, no response. His sadness is once again immediate. She is the most incredible energy and life, cocooned for the rest of her days in a lifeless shell. The only signs of life are the warmth of her body encompassed within the winter thick duvet and her chest moving up and down with each breath. Breathing is about the only action she can accomplish in her own strength. He leans forward, elbows placed on his legs and rests his chin on his knuckles.
After minutes of quiet, the quiet turns into silence and the silence into a complete silence. He has grown accustom to the silence, though at first it terrified him. His ears would play tricks on him, creating sounds, a deafening and constant pitch. Tonight is oh so still. Outside the absence of cars driving by, the wind passing through the trees and bird song. It truly is a still, clear night, the first of the approaching winter. On the back of his neck he can feel the cold air from outside seep its way through gaps in the period, single glazed window behind him. An ivy slowly squeezes its way through the gap in the wooden frame. He watches her chest move up and down. He slows his breathing and matches her breath for breath. His ears pick up the noise coming from the boiler downstairs, heating the water throughout the house. The radiator clicks as the heat works its way through the pipes.
The lack of interaction and of life in their relationship due to her sickness plays on his mind again. He feels both anger and sadness toward her. He craves the interaction yet his heart breaks for her plight. She is both love and a curse. He often runs through a monologue in his mind about all that he is feeling. Some of the thoughts are so strong, some filled with anger so fierce, some with pressing melancholy at the situation that the very thoughts permeate the tangible silence. It is as if in this room one could hear his very thoughts aloud. At least having these thoughts breaks the unbearable silence. He sets foot on another trail of thought, working his way deeper into the dense forest of melancholy that surrounds him.
He always felt lost in the forest, it engulfed him from all angles. No way out, only further in. Sometimes it took him days to find his way back to the house, yet even the house is surrounded by the forest. There was limited solace in the house and the forest was growing more and more imposing to the point of having a tight, crushing grip on the house. The ivy was squeezing through the fragile window frames, ready to choke him. He needed a way out but could not find one. It was an ongoing fight against the forest, one he was not willing to give up, but the fight itself only empowered the forest. Downstairs in the house there is the faint sound of the grandfather clock ticking in the hallway. The count of each thought between each tick of the clock increases in number and each tick of the clock pounds each thought with force, right through the core of his head.
It’s so hard. Being here. You know this morning I realised we have been here for two years now. Two years. Two years alone. Two years of nothing. Time has not helped you. I know not how to aid you. Our friends have deserted us. God has fallen silent. Two years.
He was not sure what was prompting him, but he was treading new ground in the forest. He was entering parts that scared him the most, parts that had never had the courage and desire to explore. These parts were deeper into pain. He had kept this part of the forest at as great a distance as possible, but this very act meant these parts continued to grow. They were eating up the remainder of the forest like a cancer. Through time, he felt less and less able to get out, even though his desire grew greater.
Something new was driving him. He could not understand it, perhaps a long lost feeling that his memory had erased. It was forcing him into the depths of his greatest fear. To his room 101. To his greatest pains. Yet something was driving him there. It hurt so much. There were things he needed to let go of in order to alleviate the forest. Things that he so stubbornly held onto. Treading this path meant letting go. He needed to let go of himself, for it was his own self that was holding him back. It was his own shadow, pulling at his legs to slow him down and tempt him back. His own shadow commanding the vines, the thistles and weeds and the ivy to choke him, sting him, to block the path he needed to walk. The forest was so dense yet he knew in his heart what was on the other side and he wanted it but had never been there before. He did not know how to get there but something, some force, was revealing it to him. He was letting go. He was handing over control, submitting himself.
I miss the way things used to be. Our old flat. The kitchen, breakfasts, going to work, seeing friends, dancing. I miss dancing. I miss doing nothing and everything together. I miss hugging and kissing. Watching movies. Our adventures, your laugh, your tears. I miss praying with you. I miss connecting with you. I miss us supporting our friends and each other.
His sadness is beyond tears and weighs heavy on his heart. He rubs his chest by his heart to put some life into it which irritates his skin. It has been a while since he has been to church. He cannot really leave her and she cannot leave the house. He misses going to the church meeting, having the interaction with fellow believers. The support and friendships. His belief has a somewhat bitter taste. It did not take long for the supportive phone calls from friends and church family to subside. He made no effort himself in return, but was aggrieved at the thought that there may have been the expectation for him to do so. It did not take long for God to fall silent to his frustrated ears. He does not read the bible any more. He used to every day. The inspiration from it transformed his life. Through time the words in it became somewhat empty. This book, that was so alive to him, had rotten through over the course of the two years. He would read about Jesus healing people and then look over at her. He would pray in faith for her to get better. Every day, on five regular intervals, he would give her the medication from the doctors but nothing worked. How was this the best for her? If she had just died in a car accident then she would be in a better place. She would not suffer. He would grieve for her, but no longer suffer with no end in sight. Just as she was trapped in her frail body and thick duvet, he was trapped with good health in this house surrounded by the forest of melancholy with the weight of responsibility that he placed upon himself.
The sadness, it weighs heavy on my heart. My chest feels like it is going to cave in on itself. The sadness weighs heavy on my shoulders. It presses me deep. The ground makes way for my depression. It cuts me up so badly seeing you like this. I feel so helpless. I feel like there is something I should do. Something I have missed. Some treatment. There must be more clues, if only I could find them. I am drawing a blank. I have prayed every prayer in every way. Every combination of words, emotions and measure of faith, yet none have wielded healing. There must be a solution. There must be a cure. God, you must be able to spark life back into this inactive brain. There must be something new I can do. There must be more. I cannot just sit by you though there would be no place I’d rather be, other than with you in health. Bringing you water and bringing you food, being here with you. Avail not, I don’t even know if you were able to tell me, that you would tell me to go. Time does not heal. Prayers have not. Medicine is nothing but a placebo. This place of fresh air chokes me, it is a cancer to my very own soul. The trees sway in the breeze, the leaves transform to a plethora of oranges and yellows till they drop to the earth and the branches are bear till they bud forth once more. I feel as full of life as your horizontal body, give me a casket and I would take it.
Each step he took, everything became clearer. Every step he took he could see more of her. Each step he took away from himself, brought him closer to her. Each step he took closer to her, the weight pressing on his shoulders eased. Each step he took anointed the irritable, hollow state of his heart with soothing oil. Each step he took relaxed the tension in his muscles. Each step he took, the forest thinned out and the path became more and more obvious. The route he had wanted to take, one towards himself, had been shut off and he began to realise just why. By treading the path in the opposite direction all became clear, he was on the path of understanding. Do you? Do you? He never knew what to say, what to think, what to feel or what to do with those two words. He never knew if he even wanted to change the heart that spoke those words to him, for he did not know whether that heart was truly important to him. Yet the same force that was driving him deeper into the forest, to realms of clarity and understanding, was the one that brought him to the house in the first place. To her bedside. To a life of simplicity and solitude. This same force, at work in him now, was transforming his very being. This force that had brought him on the path of pain, was aiding each and every step along the path.
She is like a sleeping beauty, her mouth finely closed, her long lashes pressed down over her resting eyes. Under her eyes a small collection of freckles. The only other place on her body adorning freckles is on her shoulders. Her collarbones slightly protrudes and the one on the left has a small mole on it. He only noticed this mole since the move. Her skin radiates a warmth and is delicate to touch. Her hair is thick. Her hair used to find its way in all kinds of places in their old flat. He remembers pulling lumps of hair out of the drain in the shower, the lack of drainage during a shower was a clear sign of maintenance due. Now he remembers hairs on the wall in their shower unit. When he daydreamed in the shower he would often push his finger along the wall, collection her hairs all together then rearrange them in to abstract Picasso-esque faces. He loved the patterns he could make with her hair and how the water globules slowly gliding down the bathroom tiles would gently guide these art forms down and transform them into new shapes. Her beauty is timeless, she does not seem to have aged a moment since lying in the bed. It is as if the brain alone, with it’s ability to worry, can age her. Her inactive brain, her internal condition, freezes her in time. This beautiful shell lay on this bed, unable to do anything else.
Am I being selfish? Being angry at this. I feel so bad about feeling this way. Do I have any right? Do I? You suffer, and I with you. You suffer physically and I mentally. Is it worse for me or you? You physically cannot do anything yet I can, and I’m trapped. Every day that ticks by I think, what is the best for you? What is the best for me? What is best for us? Where is the end? I miss you. You are here but I miss you so much. To feel you. Not just to touch you, but to really feel your life within. For you to hug back. I hate that you are in this condition. I hate you. No I do not, I hate the situation. A situation that you have put me in. Fight it. Fight this condition that takes your very life. Every night I watch you sleep. Every night the fox hunts the hair and feeds its young, the water flows through the brook, the grass grows, our friends party together, the workers earn their money, the world spins on its course. Yet we are here. Still. With sickness and health. The better for us has long passed by, only the worse remains.
He remembers when they first met. It was a mild, long summer day in June. He was camping and on the far side of the field was a long hedgerow. It was just the right time of year to pick berries and this hedgerow had produced many. Using his plastic bowl from a basic outdoor tableware set, he started to collect the berries. At times reaching high, to the point of his reach where he was pressing his face into the sharp branches. It we so peaceful there. The sort of time and place where the rush and worries of the world seem of little significance. He climbed over a metal gate in the wooden fence to the other side of the hedgerow so he could pick from the other side. He had collected near a full bowl, munching on some as he went. A seed was caught in between two of his teeth. He was using his nail to take it out when, from nowhere, the snout of a horse brushed straight over his shoulder, past his face and started tucking in to the bowl of berries he had picked! He had not heard the horse at all. He pulled the bowl away, looked at the horse and burst into laughter.
“Cheeky sod!”, the horse was still munching through the berries in its mouth. With the bowl behind his back he stroked the snout of the horse, who was sniffing for more.
“Made a friend?”, a voice from across the field. He turned and saw her. She was walking across the field towards them in equestrian clothing and with a radiant smile.
“Is he yours?”
“Yes SHE is.”
“Well she is very forward, and very clever. She nicked my berries!”
“She takes after her owner!”
They shared the bowl of berries, all three of them. And so it began. From that moment their relationship began and they had never even thought of looking back.
It is so hard seeing you like this. I’m lost. If I go, what would I do? Where would I go? I have no one else but you and I don’t even have you really. I’m lost without you, I am miserable with you. Because its not you. Its your shell, but not your life, your energy, your smile, your laugh, your tears, your bad moods, your passion, your forgiveness. Release it! Give me a bad mood, please. Any mood but no mood. I have never thought of leaving you, I just want the best for you. How can I support you?
He plays the scene at the hospital back over in his mind. He thinks over the weeks prior to that moment. She had become slightly disengaged, but nothing unusual. She had complained about feeling a little faint but not enough to merit any specific attention beyond a couple of questions. He had been so busy that week before, work was demanding and come the Friday night he just wanted to unwind. The thought of cutting this time short when they were out because she was feeling particularly faint was annoying to him, but of course he should take her home. He feels an overwhelming sense of guilt for being annoyed to leave the night out early. He remembers clearly every moment from leaving the pub to waiting anxiously in the waiting area at the hospital. They got a taxi home, walked into the house and both stood in the kitchen. He was annoyed but had concern because she really did not appear to be well. He made her a glass of water and he was looking in one of the cupboards for Marmite with which to make some toast when her saw her faint out the corner of his eye. He spun round and sprang froward to catch her but he could not get to her quite in time. The full glass of water smashed on the kitchen floor alongside her heaped body. He could not rouse her and with speed, called the ambulance.
At the time of the incident, they had been dating for two and a half years. They had lived together in the flat for the last six months and it was only a matter of time before the big question. They were both in their early thirties, had solid jobs and friends and it was just the thing to do. He had been thinking over the big question and it intimidated him. When you date he thought, there is still that freedom, you could get out at any point if there were any major issues, there was no binding paperwork, just a shared bed. These sorts of questions troubled him for moving on in their relationship, surely he would not feel this way if he was ready. He knew he loved her, and he did. He just never really thought about it. The world was ready, both families were ready, they themselves were not. When they shared those two words the first time it was a bit of a spur of the moment thing. No hype, no build up, it just happened. It was not sparked by a fresh revelation, a special moment or from advice from a friend. She said it, he replied. It was not a romantic moment.
You are so beautiful, lying there. I love watching you breathe, matching my breath with yours. It is so relaxing, like meditation. I often close my eyes, my heart beating along side yours, my lungs taking in oxygen along side yours, and wonder what you see. Do you think of us, can you even remember me?
There were points in their routine when they merely passed by each other. She started and finished work an hour earlier than him. As she left the house in the morning, he would be in the shower. As he returned home from work, she often would be heading out or was completely zoned out having relaxed for an hour. They led busy lives. They had great fun together. They spent time with friends, time together alone. They lived their own lives together. They always had much to talk about, much news to share, stories from work and events from around the globe to debate. There was nothing sour, no great arguments, differences. Their relationship was solid. The times that showed some level of frailty, was when either of them were sick. They had such busy lives and much to do, that when either became sick, a cup of tea and a “I’m thinking about you” was about as far as the support reached. The other, lying in bed recovering, would be doing it solo because the other would be at work or out with friends. It certainly was not appealing to sit by the side or one who was sick and one certainly would not want to do this. How could one even support them anyway? They needed time to recover and that could be done solo. This unspoken understanding was mutual, however what neither of them knew, was just how much they needed the other when they were the one in bed.
To him it was strange just how he responded to her condition with his love and support. They were not even engaged, he still could get out and let’s face it, it wasn’t exactly enticing to leave his job, friends and fast paced life behind in a vain hope that his intensively sick girlfriend would recover. He did not feel serious enough about her and it was much to ask of someone with those kind of feelings. Just like their relationship happened oh so naturally, his decision just happened. There was no real thought process behind it. He was not sure whether he loved her or not, but he was sure he was going to tend to her. To go with her to the house and be by her side. There was no other option. Not that she would have picked up on this. It isn’t like she really knows he was there, she was living and breathing, but with a damaged brain and paralysed body. But he was not to have known just the severity and length of her condition which would make his decision such a sacrifice.
Where is my lover? You lay peacefully on your bed, enshrined in beauty, but you are not there. Every part of you speaks to me, yet I cannot hear. I sit beside you, I do not want to go. It is painful to stay. I love every little detail of your beauty, your lips, your eyes, your freckles, the softness and colour of your skin, your neck and your collarbone, your breasts, the way your hair rests on you over your neck and shoulders. I feel like I know you so much better now, but I miss you so much.
At first, there were times when he regretted his decision. The moments when a text message would come through on his phone about a night out, a weekend away or the very occasional messages of support. The times when the tick of the clock downstairs in the kitchen would permeate the silence, acting as a reminder of his own life ticking by. These moments of regret plagued him less and less as they grew in an unspoken companionship. The real difficulty came in the times he craved any physical interaction, a hug, a kiss, a smile or a squeeze of the backside. She was unable to give these things. There was no one in the world he would rather share any of these things with, yet she could not. To hear her voice again, her laugh. To feel her touch. All he could do, was to gaze upon her beauty.
I cannot leave. I will not leave. I am eternally yours and you are mine. My life is yours, all that matters is being here with you.
He had reached the end of the path to a clearing, and in the place, there she was. His heart had filled, his spirit was light and he knew where he was. His heart kept filling and out of it he began to speak.
I... I... I lov......
There is movement. She turns in the bed. Her body is now facing him, her hands are placed together under her face and she rests her cheek on the back of her hand. His heart doubles its pace. Her lips move and he sees her tongue moisten her lips. He is fixed on her every move. Her eye lids flicker and then open. She is looking at him directly. She is about to speak, all else fades into the background and his sole focus in on her lips.
At first he does not know whether or not he has imagined her speak, for interaction is sparse and he has imagined her to move so often. His reaction tells him the answer. His cheeks burn up, his face glows red in the night light. Was he speaking out loud or were his thoughts so loud? They gaze at each other, neither with the compulsion to look away. He smiles awkwardly at her, she continues to look at him. Her gaze tells what her words tell him in one moment what all of this has meant to her. These two horrid years. Two years with those two words from the hospital hanging over him. His shame is heavy, but subsides as he processes what is happening. The epiphany strikes its knockout blow. Those two words erased the two that had been on his mind. He had left those words behind in the forest and now she said these words they had been permanently erased from any memory. Love only manifests itself in companionship through the worse. These two beautifully horrid years. All those days back at the flat: the working hard, playing hard, praying hard, partying hard, fast pace, fast relationship only lent itself to hollow sentiments. He knew he had said he loved her and he knew he did, but did he know it. Until now. Live with me, lie with me, eat me with me, laugh with me, cry with me, dance with me. All these past moments catch up to this point in time. Sit next to me. Tend to me. Suffer with me. Suffer for me. Just being here with me is enough. All the feelings of anger, pain, regret and frustration fuse together, melted down and leave nothing but a divine sculpture he can only describe as love. He feels a love for her, this radiant, beautiful, disabled shell, like he has never felt. The time lost transforms into time gained. In these two years of nothing, everything makes sense. He has not lost out, he has achieved so much more. Her understands, his perspective has shifted. He has come away from himself.
A tear forms in his eye and everything becomes blurred. He wipes it away before its descent down his cheek. He looks down at the floor and then back up again. The weight that has crushed him from all angles eases in pressure. His entire body expands from the relief, he can breathe again. He can feel his heart beating again. The ivy retreats back through the gap in the window pane from whence is came. The room is flooded with light. His head expands as it processes a million thoughts each millisecond and he feels light enough to float from the wicker chair. He goes to speak but has no words. The lump in his throat and the sheer emotion of the moment would not allow him to do so in any case.
She closes her eyes and the stillness and silence returns.
His mind flickers between time past and time present. His tear soaked smile subsides into a frown.
Just as her two words erased the two spoken in the hospital those two years ago, each tear he cried was a downpour of acid rain to the forest. It melted away any trace and underlaying the forest was a meadow. The meadow was beautiful with rolling hills and where the forest choked and crushed him, the meadow brought freedom and understanding. Having been guided through the path of hurt, he knew for the first time that he understood love and that love had it’s beautiful grip on him. He knew that all he needed to do was to be here.
He knew that when she had asked the question ‘Do you?’ that his answer was ‘I do not’ which is what had cut him up all this time. Now when she stated ‘I know’, he knew that for the first time his answer was just I do but ‘I will’.