My eyes open. My bedroom ceiling is there, I move my body and it obeys as normal, my feet know the familiar, worn carpet as I walk to the bathroom.
I am dreaming.
A week ago I woke up just the same. I got out of bed just the same. I was thinking about work, about coronavirus, about coping with the pandemic on the frontline, about it being day one of national lockdown. I was thinking about how surreal it felt, about what my life would be like during the next few months. I spent the day preparing for what I thought my life would be.
And then I got a phone call.
Today, I am having surgery. It’s the last day of March, not quite yet April Fool’s. I have to be at the hospital by 3pm. I have slept just a few hours and – with so little notice of surgery – am now in a flurry trying to get all my jobs done before hospital. Have I cleaned and tidied my flat? Who else do I need to call? Have I done my washing? Have I packed a hospital bag? I imagine I won’t be able to do much cleaning for a while when I come out.
Out there, all anyone can talk about is coronavirus and lockdown. Joe Wicks has started his lockdown PE sessions. The world is surreal, they say.
In here, I move as if in a dream.
I eat a light breakfast before 7am. I drink water until 11am. I take my painkillers. I run around cleaning and tidying and organising. I field phone calls and messages, from the hospital, from family, from friends.
A friend is picking me up to take me to the hospital at 2pm. I am to stay two nights as an inpatient. By the end of today, the operation, that I found out about yesterday, will be done.
My whole family is concerned I won’t be able to manage alone in my flat after surgery, in lockdown. I forbid my parents from looking after me, vulnerable as they are during the pandemic. Secretly, I am worried how I will cope but resolve to tough it out. I can’t bear the thought of putting those I love at risk.
I live in a one-bed flat, so can’t have anyone to stay. I can’t move in with any of my friends – they are either already working on the frontline (putting me at risk), or vulnerable themselves.
My brother rings. He offers to drive straight from his home 150 miles away to pick me up from the hospital in two days time and take me back to his family home all on the same day. He won’t stop on the way. He – and his wife, and my nephew – will look after me. None of them are in the vulnerable group. He insists.
I speak to my surgeon who says it would be ‘better’ to have someone looking after me and that he supports the plan for me to go with my brother. There are so many unknowns, a week into this first lockdown. Will the police be stopping cars on motorways? Will they let us through? I keep forgetting that I am ill, that I have cancer, that I am having significant surgery and will very much need care. It all seems so melodramatic. If I take painkillers, my leg is just fine!
I am relieved, though, that I will not be alone post-op. I start trying to pack another bag, for a longer stay at my brother’s. How long will I be there – a few days? A week? Maybe more? I cannot imagine, my future-dreaming suddenly arrested to be replaced by…an empty page.
My friend arrives to drive me to hospital. It is the first time, bar the CT scan, I have left my flat in two weeks. It is the first time, bar none, I have seen anyone I love in person since before my cancer diagnosis. We mime hugging, the first of many many times a gesture replaces a touch. I get in her car.
That day – that whole day – was a series of actions, one after the other after the other that got me from here to there. If I thought about what was happening, I could hardly breathe. If I thought about the next tiny step – make a cup of tea, wash hair really well (not sure when next will get to do that), pack pants, clean the kitchen, switch the sockets off – the world turned a little more and I stayed upright. Each small action was a stepping stone into the void. Each stepping stone my way marker through the mists. I could not see the end. I could not see how it had begun. I could only see the next step.
Thoughts of running away, of refusing surgery they’ve made a mistake, surely, washed through my mind like seafoam on the shore. There, yes, but not to be given weight, just allowed to float in and float away again without much notice.
Would it have been different if it wasn’t lockdown? Would the hugs of my friends and family helped weight me down, helped my feet stay grounded, the sheer physicality of being alive, of being a human who touches other humans an earthing wire back to reality? I have cancer and it’s pretty serious. Stage 3. Melanoma, that slippery customer that refuses to play fair. I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe not.
We arrive at the hospital. I look at my lovely friend – she is emotional. I try and joke.
Just popping off for some surgery, now! I say cheerily. Back in a couple of days.
We smile at my weak effort. Oh, love, she says. Oh, love.
I get out of the car and walk my feet, one then the other, over and over, like I have done since a child, in through the hospital doors.