Here's an inkling as to why.
I GREW UP
I know the exact moment when I grew up, became an adult, shook the skin of childhood from my shoulders.
I know a man who celebrated his 50th birthday a good few years ago now, and who is still, and will always be, fifteen in his heart (and I love him for that). I know a woman with six kids who looks and acts like a teenager. I, on the other hand, have frequently been told by my husband, ‘You were never a child’ when I speak of my childhood, implying I was born old (and therefore wise, I often add when he comes up with such remarks). Chronological age has nothing to do with growing up.
I had a childhood that is almost depressingly clichéd – it was what people like to refer to as “golden”. I was loved. I was cared for. I was kept healthy and happy. I remember much of it through a veil of senses – the sound of the river lapping at the shore when my grandfather and I went for our customary walks on the embankments, under the green willows trailing their fronds in the muddy water, or the continuous high-pitched trill of cicadas in the summertime . The Impressionist paintings of poppies in the wheat fields just before harvest, red and gold, under a spreading aquamarine sky flecked with summer clouds. The scent of my grandmother’s garden – hyacinths, cherry blossom, raspberries and the sharp astringent green smell of the hedges after they had been cut. The feel of my grandfather’s lined old hands holding my own small white ones between them, like a treasure. The taste of mother’s chocolate cake, of student meals in cafeterias whose pleasure lay in the company in which they were consumed rather than in their contents, of Irish coffee. I remember the years passing, taking me with them like a tide. I might have been born old but I was protected, sheltered, carefully shielded from things I shouldn’t know.
I didn’t mind turning 30 at all – it seemed a nice pleasant age to be. I was officially no longer a baby, and I was a young adult with all the rights and privileges that rank entailed. I moved by myself to a different country – a different continent – from my parents (although they quickly followed me), and survived. These were the years in which I encountered any number of growing-up experiences, if you will – I got seduced by a married man with promises of a future I should have known would never happen; I’d started living my dream and had had two books published by the time I was 32 years old; I found a man to whom I gave everything I had and whom I believed I would spend the rest of my days with until he decided he wanted to be “just friends”; I held down a full-time job; I cradled my crippled dog in my arms while the vet administered the blessed release of the last sleep, and I grew to love the new puppy that had taken her place. But these were experiences which may have taken off those rough edges and sharp corners of childhood but did not sculpt the matter underneath. I was still sheltered, still living in the protective shadow of the bulwarks raised to protect me from the world. I cried over my tragedies, glowed in my triumphs, and remained a child.
I got married a week after I turned 37. Marriage might seem to qualify as a maturing experience, and I’m sure it did its part in smoothing down some more rough edges, but the truth of it was that I passed from being loved and cared for by my parents to being loved and cared for by a man who would have moved mountains to give me the stars that I continually asked for. We didn’t have much money but he managed to extract from what we had a lifestyle which was a magical dream. We had good friends. We traveled – one summer we drove nearly 4000 miles up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States, staying with friends we had made on the Internet and learning America as we went. My creativity bloomed – after the novel which my husband and I wrote in collaboration and published in 1999, two more of my books emerged in 2001 and 2002 (and one of them had a dedication to the husband who had made my existence as a writer possible).
Much to the less-than-successfully hidden chagrin of my parents, I had segued sideways from a postgraduate degree in the sciences into first editing scientific journals and then into general editing and from there into what had now turned out to be full-time writing. My husband looked at me and saw the writer shining within and from day one of our acquaintance he has done nothing but support and nurture that vocation. When we married it was with the explicit agreement that he would be the domestic part of this partnership – he would cook, and clean, and pay the bills – and that I would be left to be the breadwinner, by becoming a novelist if I could, by lesser freelance writing and editing if I could not. I was left at the computer in my own world, and called in to lunch or dinner. Laundry got done when I wasn’t watching. And not only that, but my husband, himself a writer and a very good editor, acted as first reader and initial red-pen-wielder for my work, and although we sometimes had words about how right or wrong his suggestions for improvement were I almost always wound up taking his advice and making my prose the stronger for it. I grew to rely on this. It became a part of my writing process. Write Page; Print Out; Pass To Deck For Editing, Fix. It was a ritual, a magic spell. I knew how well I had achieved what I had set out to do by writing a particular piece by watching his face as he read it. Sometimes he chuckled. Once or twice he paid me the compliment of tears.
The dream deepened when I sat down one evening and tapped something out on the computer.
“What are you doing?” Deck asked.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,’ I said, and after another bout of typing promptly handed him a single sheet of paper from the printer. It bore ten paragraphs – ten character sketches for as yet unnamed characters, ten little girls.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“My next novel,” I said.
“I hate you,” he said tranquilly.
The novel in question evolved quickly and organically – it was as though someone had added yeast to the dough of that story and it now started rising with head-spinning speed. I wrote the entire novel – nearly 200 000 words of it – in less than 4 months. I contacted a British literary agent with whom I’d once had a connection and asked if she would be interested in representing me in trying to sell this book. She replied with an astonishing email saying that – after nearly a decade had passed – she still remembered me and the story I had originally approached her with, although nothing had come of that. She said that she was not at present taking on any new clients, but that she would recommend someone who might. She gave me a name of a New York agent who was on the record as being interested in the kind of thing I wrote.
I promptly entered procrastination mode. I had some 25 000 words of the mega novel written by this stage, and this was neatly printed out. So were reviews of my previous books. All this was sitting in an envelope awaiting a letter and a stamp, and I shied away from it, and the possibility of rejection for this story.
“Send the damn thing,” Deck said. And kept saying.
I finally wrote a cover letter, put everything in the envelope, sealed it, stamped it, and handed it to Deck.
“You mail it.”
He did, on June 13, 2002.
On July 3, I got a phone call.
From the New York agent.
“I love it,” she said.
Things snowballed from there. Before Christmas of that year the novel had been sold to Italy, to the UK and Dominions (Australia and New Zealand), to Holland, to an American publisher, and finally to Germany. Seven countries. Four languages. Three continents.
And I was still a child.
My fortieth birthday was approaching fast, and I raised a fuss about it, which most people found amusing enough to promise to give me hell when the birthday (which I insisted on referring to as the first anniversary of my 39th birthday), eventually rolled around. Deck was promising surprise parties, and pink flamingos on the lawn, and skywriters pulling banners announcing my old-bag status to the world at large. He’d got as far as planning the party, for the week after my actual birthday due to its proximity to the Fourth of July and the fact that people usually had plans for that weekend. And then, at about 3:20 AM on 20 June 2003, I was woken by the weight of a hand on my shoulder. Half-awake, I realized that the presence of the hand was accompanied by a nearly inarticulate mumble from my husband’s side of the bed.
I finally made it out.
“I need your help,” he was saying, his words running together, slurries of ink on a letter left out in the rain. “My right side isn’t working.”
We both knew it, I think, right away.
I woke up fast. He asked for water; I fetched some, and he took a few gulps, with difficulty, as I tried to raise his head to swallow. Then he wanted to stand up. With misgivings I helped wrestle him over to the side of the bed. He tried to get on to his feet, but his right leg simply gave under him and he collapsed in a heap on the floor with a grunt of agony.
I covered him with a blanket and called 911.
They came, minutes later, and my house turned into some surreal scene from a soap opera. Milling burly men with badges on their uniforms; muted, crackly, staticky noises from radios and phones; an oxygen mask strapped to Deck’s face; someone taking his blood pressure; someone listening to his heart; someone asking if he hurt anywhere; someone else trundling in the gurney on which they would take him out of there. It would not fit down our narrow corridor, so they trundled it out onto the deck and lifted him onto it through the sliding glass doors of the bedroom, wheeling him through the light drizzle that had begun falling, through the second set of glass doors into the living room and out through the door.
I rode to the hospital in the ambulance, with a constant murmur of low conversation behind me in the area where Deck was lying. Sometimes it was his voice, often it was the two paramedics talking over him. The ambulance rode through a gray world of early, early morning, windshield spattered with light rain, the lake slate-gray to our right, the mountains barely emerging from the shadows of night.
They took him in, put him in a hospital gown (the kind where your butt hangs out), laid him onto a bed in the emergency room. They took blood. They took more blood. They took an ECG. He said in his strange, slurred voice that he wanted to go to the bathroom; he could not go into a urinal, so they inserted a catheter to take care of the plumbing. They wheeled him off for a CAT scan.
I waited, and cried.
I could not seem to stop crying.
“Go home,” they told me at last. “We won’t know anything for a few hours, and we’re keeping him under observation.”
So I leaned over and I kissed the drawn face lying back on the hospital pillow propped awkwardly under his head, and I walked away.
I grew up.
I went home to where a contractor working on our house was due to come in that morning to install one last thing and collect his paycheck. I phoned the people who needed to know what was happening. I phoned a brand-new friend, someone whom Deck and I had gone to meet only the weekend before and who had happened to mention that he had had a stroke a few years before, and I begged for information. I picked up the house after the Emergency personnel invasion.
Sometime later that morning I went back to the hospital. The friend whom I had called earlier, the one who had had had the stroke, was already there; the nurse on duty told us a few things, but they still didn’t know very much – except that they were trying to control a high blood pressure (which may or may not have caused the stroke, since blood pressure traditionally spikes in time of bodily crises) and soaring sugar levels in his blood. Deck himself was on an IV drip with three separate baggies hanging on the pump – blood thinners, saline, antibiotic. He was on oxygen. He tried to smile when he saw me. He tried to speak. I could not understand one word in five, and that by extrapolation. His right arm was bruised and hung dead beside him, resting on a pillow.
He needed help to turn in bed. He was moved, when necessary, by the use of a kind of lift, a nylon contraption that went underneath him enabling him to be lifted up out of bed – it was an undignified, utterly demeaning position to be in, hanging there like something in a bundle that the stork carried in, with the hospital gown leaving nothing to the imagination. I watched his face when they lifted him up, when they put him down. He ‘went away’, took his mind from the place where his body was hanging there in mid air, helpless and beyond his control. Something tore inside me at the look in his eyes when he returned to himself, at the way those eyes lighted up when I walked in through the door, at the way he kept looking at me and trying to mouth, ‘I’m sorry’.
I grew up.
I came home to pay the bills, to field the phone calls, to find out things that I needed to know.
I grew up.
They moved him to a less intensive-care ward on Saturday, but he still could not move by himself, and he still could not speak clearly – except when he was mad. He hated the bed that he had been given, because he kept sliding down it and requiring the nurses’ help to scootch back up. One time, quite late, when I was still there waiting for him to be made comfortable before I left for the night, he said quite loudly and clearly, “Lousy bed”.
“I gotta keep you angry,” I told him.
He didn’t need to be kept angry. He didn’t need to be kept anything. He was sick about the fact that he was sick. A number of visitors were told, when my back was turned, “Take care of Alma”. Even now he was trying to shelter and protect me.
But it was beyond that.
I was beyond protecting. I was no longer a child. I grew up.
They gave him baby-puree food to eat, and thickened juices to drink. I fed him, spooning the stuff into his mouth.
“What is it?” I’d ask, over some particularly unidentifiable pink or green puree.
“I don’t know,” he would say with equal parts of patience, frustration and resignation.
On the Tuesday they pronounced him medically stable and gave orders for the transfer into a convalescent home for a brief while, until he regained enough stamina to enter an active rehab program. They took him off his hospital bed in that godawful lift, and planted him in a wheelchair, and wheeled the wheelchair into a transport van, and I drove behind the transport van to the convalescent home, and they unloaded the chair and then transferred him (with the lift) into his new bed.
He was gray with exhaustion by the time they were done with him, and I left him to get some sleep. And went home, and cried for three hours over the things I had seen in that place which had been burned into my brain – the linoleum floors laid for the ease of cleaning the inevitable messes that incapacitated human beings make, the faint smells of bodily wastes and of simple decay, of the forgotten and crippled nonagenarians wheeling down the corridors with eyes in which hope had been dead for many years.
I grew up.
People started coming in to work with him, light therapy, keeping his non-functional leg and arm from degenerating. He started to improve, ever so slowly. His speech cleared up to the extent that he was able to conduct at least one phone conversation. They graduated him from constant bed-rest into a wheelchair – which, once he learned how to manipulate it, he used to play hide and seek with me when I came to see him in the afternoons and I had to scour the home to find where he had got to now. They asked for his clothes instead of that horrible hospital gown. They installed, after a few days, a pole beside his bed, and he learned to stand up using the pole, to transfer from chair to bed and back again; he learned to transfer himself from chair to toilet with some assistance. I helped with pulling down pants, shifting stuck feet, positioning him in the chair when he was uncomfortable, making him read things to me out loud so that he could practice clarity of speech.
He began spending his time out in the gardens, reading. They graduated him to “real food”. His foot twitched. He held another long phone call. They said they would transfer him to rehab at the end of his second week at the home.
But before that, my birthday rolled around – that fabled 40 which I had been trying so hard to avoid acknowledging. There were no skywriters, no large surprise parties; I took a cake to the nursing home, and Deck and I and two friends shared some of it while I cut up the rest to give to his caregivers there. But before that impromptu party, I came in bearing the cake and could not – yet again – find him anywhere.
“Try the therapy room,” someone suggested, and I deposited the cake box in his room and went to the therapy room. He was there, having his arm manipulated – and then the therapist took him up to the parallel bars, where he had been able to get up from the chair and, while supported by the bars and the physiotherapist, stand for up to five or six minutes at a time. I knew that he could do this, and the first time I had seen him do it, it had been a small miracle to me to see him on his feet again. But today, he would do more than that.
Before my eyes, and still heavily supported, and still dragging the recalcitrant foot behind him as if it were a weight and not a part of his own body, he took a hesitant step. And then another. And another.
He walked the length of the parallel bars.
I stood there with tears brimming from my eyes and rolling down my cheeks, and he looked around and smiled crookedly and said, quite clearly, “Happy birthday”.
I turned 40, and I grew up. He could not give me any present greater than the one he had just offered me.
There is a very large age gap between us. Almost a scary one. But aside from the vital statistics, the chronological divide completely failed to matter to either of us. Only once, when we first married, did Deck make me a promise - that he would be with me for a long, long time, and that we would have a happy, long, and productive life together. When I was on my knees beside him in our bedroom and he was struggling to move and breathe and speak all I could think of was the childish, inane phrase, “but you promised me”. I think his sense of breaking that promise was behind those heartbreaking attempts to mouth “I’m sorry” at me while he was still in his hospital bed. Now he promised me a different thing – he promised that he would recover, completely, one hundred percent. But we both know that this is a promise which it will take a long time to live up to. And I am no longer the child who sobbed “You promised me…” into his ear as I held him there on the bedroom floor.
This time the promise is rooted in the real world. And there is a lot of work we both need to do in order to make it happen. I am no longer in that sheltered place where all I had to be was a dreamer, a writer, someone who lived in a different and magical world of her own devising and emerged occasionally to be with friends, to eat my meals, to lie in my husband’s arms while we had long talks about anything and everything in the mornings. I didn’t grow up because I turned 40 – I grew up, perhaps, in spite of that. I look at my life and the things I am responsible for, and maybe for the first time in my life I am taking up those reins instead of living in a cocoon of someone else’s love and protection.
It was nice and warm and sheltered within those walls, lovingly raised since childhood by the people who loved me to keep the world from hurting me. But the walls are down now. And the world is wide, and cold. But I am learning how to step outside now and gather the wood for my own fire, and weave warmth into my own cloak. And perhaps, just perhaps, it is time for me to learn to care for and shelter someone else.
I grew up.