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February 5, 2003

Watching the World Go By

JAMA. 2003;289(5):613-614. doi:10.1001/jama.289.5.613

It was when I woke up on Tuesday that I knew something was strange, like I'd slept badly on one side. My arm and leg felt numb, like waiting for the pins and needles to come. So I lay there, and I waited, but the pins and needles never came. The sensible thing would have been to call an ambulance, but I really didn't think of it like an emergency, I suppose because I wasn't in any pain. I called Katie on that new cordless telephone they bought me for Christmas, all buttons and lights. Came in handy by the bed, that did. I told her I couldn't sit up and that I couldn't use my arm. I had to tell her a few times because I'd got a bit of a slur in my speech, like my dad used to get when he sat in front of the fire at night with half a bottle of whisky. She said she was coming straight away and that I should just sit tight, I said I'd already said I wasn't going anywhere. I told her about the key under the petunias by the front door, she said, "Yes, yes I know Mum," the way she always does, especially when those boys of hers are running round her feet.

She got there ever so quick. I know because I'd taken to watching the seconds tick by on the clock by the bed. Looked so worried, poor thing, all the color gone from her face and I could hear the tears hiding in her voice when she called the ambulance. I can't think what I'll be like when they take me home from here. It's not natural for a child to care for her mother like the mother once cared for her. Don't know what that husband of hers will make of it all, me needing help up and down the stairs like their little one. I've always wondered if it would have been easier for her if we'd been able to have another child.

Just a small stroke, the doctor said. Be out of here in no time. With a little bit of practice I'll be talking and using my arm nearly as well as before. Katie brought a cane in with her on her visit today. Apparently one of those therapy people is coming tomorrow to teach me to walk with a frame. Not sure what they can say other than to put one foot in front of the other.

Now the ward's filling with children, parents holding hands, gas masks, and teddy bears. They move to let one of the nurses through; she smiles at me as she passes. Little Timmy Robson and my brother Jack are standing at the end of my bed with their brown paper packages and gas masks slung over their shoulders. Always smiling, Jack was. Such a great adventure to go and live in the country. "They've got cows an' fields there," he'd said to me every day the week before we left. Youngest of five I was, lucky Jack wasn't older than he was or I would've been evacuated on my own. Sister Lilly was working in an office, May cleaning in a posh school and Danny at the abattoir. Though Danny was called up, of course. My dad, just older than they wanted, did everything he could for the Home Guard. All of a sudden they're gone. The smoke and noise of the platform replaced with the squeaking of crepe soles as the nurse walks from bed to bed, folding hospital corners into the sheets and plumping pillows. A bell rings and ten girls and boys push their chairs from their desks almost in unison. They run to the end of the ward and spill out of the double doors into the garden. It's a beautiful day out there and the fields look like they go on forever. The girls are skipping. The boys are shooting big glass marbles between the chairs on the patio, running round the patients sitting in their dressing gowns outside. I stay in the classroom. Miss Ashcroft is pushing chairs in under desks and piling up books on one arm. She smiles at me and picks a book up from my table. I've drawn a picture of me, Timmy, and Jack in the garden of the house we were living in, seemingly acres of foxgloves reaching to the sky. I can nearly smell them as I turn to see Katie arranging flowers by my bed. "Just resting my eyes, dear," I say.

Jack's crying, sat on the end of my bed, a scrap of white paper and a brown envelope in his hand, a telegram from my mother. Danny had been shot down over France. Jack hangs his head and walks out of the ward as a doctor walks in. He checks the chart at the end of my bed, without even looking up to see me. I watch his face for good or bad omens.

The doctor gone, my typewriter's in front of me, like all the other girls, rows of us sat in the room. The William Tell Overture playing over and over as it does every day, us typing in time to the music, faster as they speed up the tune. I came in straight from school at fourteen, like most of my friends. Patty and Ruth sat either side, Enid in front. We gossiped whenever the boss walked in between the rows in front of us. Some nights, especially when we were a couple of years older, we went to local dances in the evenings. Ruth leans over and whispers, "Boss's coming," and I look to my typewriter, but nothing's there but yesterday's half-filled crossword.

Katie's with me again. It must be the weekend, as her husband and the grandchildren are with her, the little one fidgeting with bright plastic toys at the end of my bed. Andrew, her eldest, has a look of my George about him. Faint background music gets louder, something by Frank Sinatra. The ward's full of couples dancing or sitting in corners holding hands and groups of girls lining the edges, whispering, waiting for a dance. Enid jumps up and runs to speak to her older brother, a huge smile on her face as she points across the room to me. He walks over confidently, asks me to dance with his hand outstretched. We dance quite close, he whispers to me about a picnic, and I close my eyes as he swings me around. The song ends and he takes my arm as he leads me back to bed.

There's a walking frame next to me. The nurses want me to walk to the day room and sit in there for the day. I pull on my dressing gown and wear my new slippers. A nurse walks behind me as I slowly shuffle the few yards to the doors of the sitting room. I stumble slightly, Jack grins at me as he takes my arm, the walking frame gone as he leads me through. Family and friends sit in rows either side of the day room, along with those patients sitting with magazines and cups of tea. Near the front, Patty and Enid dressed identically in peach satin, next to my sister Lilly and her boys. George looks nervous, stood next to the Pastor, handsome in his suit. I take his hand and smile when I reach the end of the room. I can hear my mother sniffling as George puts a ring on my finger. She always loved weddings. The sounds of the church are drowned out by the blare of the television, the deafer patients cluster close to it. I have a cup of tea in front of me, still easier to drink with a straw. The evening draws in and the nurses see patients back to their beds. I fall asleep easily after such a busy day.

A baby's cry rings out, I wake with a start. It's morning and a nurse helps me to sit. The ward is bright white in the morning sun, the sheets on each bed crisp and clean, a crib by every bed. Some mothers are sat up like me, a baby clutched to their breast. I feel so tired, but George is there to hold my hand. A nurse carries a bundle of white blankets to my bed, and lays Katie in my arms. George looks quite tearful as Katie grabs his finger, his wedding ring she keeps even now in a drawer somewhere.

A nurse draws the curtains around my bed, and I see that Katie is by my side, holding my hand. My doctor stands on the other side of me, talking to them as he holds my chart in his hands. Katie just stares at me, almost without blinking. George pokes his head through the curtains and smiles at me as he walks in. The doctor passes him as he leaves and George takes my hand. He looks to Katie with a little sadness in his eyes as he helps me out of bed. I leave without slippers or a dressing gown, but the ward floor doesn't feel cold as we walk hand in hand to the double doors that lead to the garden. George swings them open and we walk into the warmth of the day. It's so pretty; I wish I had sat out here before. Up the hill there's a tree, a group of figures clad in black beneath its shadow. As we get closer I see their pale faces where the bright sun touches them, Katie, Andrew, Jack. We stop at the end of the bright green lined grave as Katie kneels beside it, throwing a handful of dirt. I watch the grains fall onto polished wood and burnished plaque below, expecting to see George's name engraved there. George smiles and the sun gets brighter. And I read my name.