You might have noticed that I wasn’t here last week.
I’m not really sure yet how to write about what happened last week to take me away from my work; I haven’t actually processed any of it. I have barely slept; realised today I hadn’t eaten in days. I am home for the first time in eleven days, and tomorrow I go again. Please forgive me if this column is short on incisive commentary or pithy turns of phrase, but I wanted to write it anyway. I wanted to write it because this poem, this week, has meant a great deal to me – and perhaps it might to you, too.
This is not the place where I explore all the feelings I have had about the last week. I don’t even know what they are or how to name them yet. But, briefly: shortly after my last column went up, my boyfriend was suddenly rushed to Intensive Care in a city a hundred miles away. They stuffed him full of wires and tubes and drugs and oxygen, and hooked him up to many monitors. It was all pretty ghastly, and there wasn’t a lot of time for thinking about writing, and I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going to end up.
I have been by his bed – or in the grim stained little visitor’s room, or in the hospital hostel – for the last ten days.
It was exactly like you imagine sitting by a loved one’s bed in ICU might be, and absolutely nothing like it. It is – at least for me, right now – essentially indescribable.
I wanted to write about this poem, now, in case you could draw the same kind of comfort from it that I do. It seems to me to make the last ghastly week (month? years?) make a little more sense. And that really has always been the point of this column: to use other people’s words to make sense of this upside-down world.
It’s called Sometimes, by Anonymous. You can read it here. The author won’t let it be reprinted except on blogs, and she also won’t have her name attached to it. She has publicly disowned this poem; she thinks (she told me) too many people read it as encouraging blind optimism that she never intended. And we have to honour that, I think (death of the author notwithstanding).
It is, in some ways, a poem that feels like it belongs to hospitals. It feels like it belongs in the ICU, in that grim visitor’s room, where we were all hoping for a chance, just a little chance.
But, to me, it certainly doesn’t feel like blind optimism. It feels to me like the most grudging, cautious, careful tip of the hat to optimism. If that. It’s not called “often”, or “mostly”; it’s called “sometimes”, which is about the best we can hope for.
In a dark and dangerous world, just occasionally, things might not always be as bad as they could be. There are occasional chinks of light. There are occasional points of hope. And it has seemed to me, this week in the ICU, that this was the kind of poem I needed. I did not want a poem that felt that the world was purely good and joyful. I did not want a poem that believed only in happy endings.
I needed a poem, I think, that acknowledged the frost that kills the grapes; the propensity of populations to elect terrible men; the way things do just seem, so often, to go wrong. I needed a poem that understood what it was like to know that the world was a frightening and unhappy place for many. This poem does, and yet, you know, there is that small and grudging capacity for hope there too.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
I have read online – I don’t know how true it is – that it was written for or about someone trying to beat an addiction; I can believe that. It is, in some ways, a poem that feels like it belongs to hospitals. It feels like it belongs in the ICU, in that grim visitor’s room, where we were all hoping for a chance, just a little chance. Some men become what they were born for, the poem says, which is all you want in the ICU: your person to become what they were born for, your person to do all those things they always wanted to do before they ended up in here.
I thought of this poem in there, and I thought often of those first two lines, and hoped:
sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse...
And sometimes, you know, they don’t. Sometimes things get better. Not a lot better; not magically better, or miraculously better, but a bit better all the same. It has been a long ten days, but John is now out of the ICU. He is on a regular ward with what our friend calls the “regular sickies”, and we are all very relieved. They have taken out most of his lines and wires. He’s eating; sitting up; off the ventilator. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes.
May it happen for you, the poem says, and if you are in some situation like this I wish it along with the poet: may it happen for you.