Now this is a wee gem. If you have ever experienced the kind of illness that required a hospital stay, or you know somebody who has, or you pastor or support those who have this is a must read. It’s a really short piece, only available on kindle, so far as I’m aware, and describes Mantel’s experience of a stay in hospital that extended way beyond the original plan and debilitated her for a considerable period. It’s raw, honest, frightening and ultimately really hopeful.
Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you need to meet. Too much is claimed for authenticity. Painfully we learn to live in the world, and to be false. Then all our defences are knocked down in one sweep. In sickness we can’t avoid knowing about our body and what it does, its animal aspect, its demands. We see things that never should be seen; our inside is outside, the body’s sewer pipes and vaults exposed to view, as if in a woodcut of our own martyrdom. The whole of life – the business of moving an inch – requires calculation. The suffering body must shape itself around the iron dawn routine, which exists for the very sick as well as the convalescent: the injection in the abdomen, pain relief, blood tests as needed, then the long haul out of bed, the shaking progress to the bathroom, the awesome challenge of washcloth and soap.
I have no idea of Hilary Mantel’s spiritual interests but I wish I had this prior to my stay in hospital a few years ago instead of some of the material that was sent to me or that I was pointed to. Often it was sentimental religious guff written only by those who had come through health crisis with little acknowledgment for those whose illness was not resolved so easily. Thank God for Mantel and for this wee book which I found deeply spiritual, gory, fleshly and often made me laugh as I remembered the small indignities of every day in a hospital. Thank God too for people like Marva Dawn who try to reflect on it from a self-consciously Christian place.
The visitor’s idea of hospital is different form the patient’s idea. Visitors imagine themselves trapped in tat ward, in that bed, in their present state of assertive well-being. They imagine being bored, but boredom occurs when your consciousness ranges about looking for somewhere to settle. It’s a superfluity of unused attention. But the patient’s concentration is distilled, moment by moment; breathing, not being sick, not coughing or else coughing in the right way, producing bodily secretions in the vessels provided and not on the floor.
I’ve haven’t read any of Mantel’s more celebrated prose but will do so.
If this issue is of interest to you, you might be interested in some of the things I tried to write about my own experience – not half as brilliantly as Hilary Mantel though. That’s your warning! Check out HERE and HERE.