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Authors: Robert McCrum

My Year Off

BOOK: My Year Off
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Also by Robert McCrum

FICTION
In the Secret State
A Loss of Heart
The Fabulous Englishman
Mainland
The Psychological Moment
Suspicion

NON-FICTION
The Story of English

(with William Cran and Robert MacNeil)

FOR CHILDREN
The World is a Banana
The Brontosaurus Bumper Book

Copyright © 1998 by Robert McCrum

All rights reserved under international and Pan Ameria Copyright
Conventions. Published in Canada by Knopf Canada and
simultaneously in the United Kingdom by Picador, an imprint of
Macmillan Publishers Ltd, London and Basingstoke, in 1998.
Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

McCrum, Robert
My year off: rediscovering life after a stroke

eISBN: 978-0-307-36369-5

1. McCrum, Robert—Health. 2. Cerebrovascular disease—Patients
England Biography. 2. Authors, English 20th century Biography.
1. Title

PR6063.A148Z47 1998     82.914       C98-931237-2

v3.1

TO SARAH

Contents
INTRODUCTION
A Severe Insult to the Brain

Wo aber Gefahr, wacht das Rettende auch.
(
Where danger waits, salvation also lies
.)

Friedrich Hölderlin

When I was just forty-two I suffered a severe stroke. Paralysed on my left side and unable to walk, I was confined to hospital for three months, then spent about a year recovering, slowly getting myself back into the world.

When I was seriously ill in hospital, I longed to read a book that would tell me what I might expect in convalescence and also give me something to think about. There are many books about stroke in old age, but I was young and had been vigorous and there was nothing that spoke to me in my distress.

I have written this book to help those who have suffered as I did, and indeed for anyone recovering from what doctors call ‘an insult to the brain’. I’ve also written it for families and loved ones who, sucked into the vortex of catastrophic illness, find themselves searching for words of encouragement and explanation. People
express every kind of sympathy for stroke-sufferers, but the carers are often the forgotten ones. To all concerned, this book is meant to send a ghostly signal across the dark universe of ill-health that says, ‘You are not alone.’ It’s also intended to show those of us who are well what it can be like when our bodies let us down in the midst of the lives we take for granted. Some will say that it’s a
memento mori
, and that’s undeniable, but I hope that it will also be heartening, especially to those who have given up all hope of recovery. I don’t mean to offer false or cheap optimism, but I am saying that, if my example is to be trusted, the brain seems to be an astonishingly resilient organ, and one capable, in certain circumstances, of remarkable recovery.

The other audience for this book is, of course, myself. The consequences of my stroke were simply too colossal to be ignored or shut away in some mental pigeon-hole. Writing the book has been a way to make sense of an extraordinary personal upheaval, whose consequences will be with me until I die. Besides, I am a writer. Communicating experience is what I do, and quite soon after I realized that I was going to survive the initial crisis I also realized that I had been given a story that made most of what I’d written previously pale and uninteresting by comparison.

Whatever you, the reader, take away from it, there’s no escaping that it is a personal book, my version of an event that changed my life. The philosopher Wittgenstein writes, ‘How small a thought it takes to make a life.’ Throughout my period of recovery I was often alone with my thoughts. When, finally, I came to record these, this book became the mirror of an enforced season of solitude in the midst of a crowded life. I’ve called it
My Year Off
because, despite the overall grimness of the
experience, there were, at every stage, moments of acute irony and, even, of the purest comedy to brighten the prevailing gloom and chase away the clouds of melancholy. P. G. Wodehouse, one of my favourite writers, once said that ‘There are two ways of writing … [One is …] a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.’ There is, I’m afraid, not much ‘musical comedy’ about having a stroke.

At times, my year off was one of all-pervading slowness, of weeks lived one day, even one hour, at a time, and of life circumscribed by exasperating new restrictions and limitations. The poet Coleridge observed that it is the convalescent who sees the world in its true colours, and, as a convalescent, I have been forced into a renewed acquaintanceship with my body and into the painful realization that I am, like it or not, imprisoned in it. I have learned, in short, that I am not immortal (the fantasy of youth) and yet, strangely, in the process I have been renewed in my understanding of family and, finally, of the only thing that really matters: love.

[1]
One Fine Day
29 July 1995

Things do not change; we change.

Henry Thoreau

My year off began with a headache, a glass of champagne — and a question. As it happens, the first two were not connected and the truth is that no one will ever know exactly what happened inside my head on the night of 28/29 July 1995, but probably it went something like this. First, for reasons that are still mysterious, a surreptitious clot began to form in one of my cerebral arteries, cutting off the blood supply to part of the one organ in the body that, next to the heart, is most greedy for blood. Eventually, perhaps some hours later, like a breaking dam, the clot burst into the right side of my brain, causing an uncontrolled ‘bleed’ that would result in irreversible destruction of the brain tissue deep inside my head.

I was oblivious to this cerebral drama; all I knew was that I had a raging headache, and then, the next morning, that I could hardly move. Overnight, I had suffered what the specialist would call a ‘right hemisphere
infarct’, and what the world knows as ‘a stroke’, a word whose Old English origin connotes ‘a blow’ and ‘a calamity’.

Actually, it’s a calamity that will befall some 450,000 individuals in North America (including Canada), and 150,000 in Britain each year, but when it happened I was completely ignorant of the affliction that Sherwin B. Nuland, author of
How We Die
, calls the third most common cause of death in the developed countries of the world.

It was just another bright summer Saturday morning, and here I was in bed, unable to get up — alone at home, a four-storey town house in Islington, North London. My wife, Sarah Lyall, a journalist with the
New York Times
, was away in San Francisco. We had been married scarcely two months, and it was odd to be on my own again. It was odder still to be so helpless, but I was in no pain, and, in retrospect, I realize that I was barely conscious. Downstairs, the grandfather clock was chiming the hour: eight o’clock. I could see that beyond the heavy maroon curtains it was a lovely day. Through the open window, the sounds of the street filtered in, sharp and echoey in the stillness of the weekend.

I was supposed to drive to Cambridge that morning to visit my parents. So, time to get up. But there it was — I could not move. More accurately, I could not move my left side. Overnight, my body had become a dead weight of nearly fifteen stone. I thrashed about in bed trying, and failing, to sit upright, and wishing Sarah were with me. For some unknown reason, I experienced no anxiety about my condition, just irritation and puzzlement. Why should I, who had recently sailed through a full medical examination, be unable to do as I pleased?

It was my dentist, Mr Glynn, who, a year earlier, had
first questioned my immortality. ‘Teeth,’ he observed, studying the X-rays of root-canal work to my upper-right quadrant, ‘were not designed to last more than forty years.’ He snapped off the light. ‘And, frankly, nor were we.’

I was forty-one then, and whenever I was reminded of Mr Glynn’s wisdom by some ache or twinge, I would wonder when some other body part would follow the example set by my teeth and protest, ‘Enough!’

As my forty-second birthday approached, Sarah, a New York doctor’s daughter, was anxious for independent verification that she was not marrying a crock. She’d witnessed enough of my candle-at-both-ends lifestyle to believe that this was a desirable prenuptial precaution. My assurances that McCrums lived for ever (all my grandparents died in their eighties) cut no ice. So, at her insistence, I made an appointment with Dr Guy O’Keeffe, who has a pretty little surgery near Eaton Place. From Dr O’Keeffe’s examination room, the world seems secure, a place for healthy young women to bring up big bouncy babies: the air is flavoured with Johnson’s baby powder, and highbrow Muzak tinkles in the background.

Dr O’Keeffe himself — sandy-haired, trim and boyish — seemed a promising recipient for intimate disclosures. Good health, his manner says, is our birthright; everything can be diagnosed, treated and cured. So he poked and prodded and pricked. He took blood and urine. He weighed and measured. He eavesdropped on the secret colloquy of my vital organs. In half an hour or so, he was asking me to put my clothes on again. The tests would be sent for analysis but, according to all the visible signs, I was fit. ‘For a tall guy you’re okay, but keep an
eye on your cholesterol,’ he said. It was good that I didn’t smoke, but I’d be wise to watch the drink.

Of course. We chatted about ‘units’: I am a lifelong subscriber to the British media maxim that ‘White wine is not a drink’. Dr O’Keeffe nodded competently and made another little note. A daily half-bottle of wine was okay with him.

I returned to the street, ready for anything. Jungle warfare? I could hack it. Cross-country skiing? I blessed my hardy, long-lived ancestors. No question, mine were a better class of gene.

That was in June. In the meantime, Sarah and I had come back to London from our wedding, in Philadelphia, to begin our new life together. Our honeymoon seemed to segue into a month of dinner parties at which my new American wife was introduced to some part of my circle for the first time. Clearly, we were going to live for ever and then happily ever after.

In July, Sarah flew to San Francisco to interview the novelist Amy Tan about her new book
The Hundred Secret Senses
. We were to be apart for eight days. I remember taking her to the airport and praying, as I watched her in the rear-view mirror — a small blonde figure with an oversize red suitcase waving goodbye on the pavement — that no harm should befall her.

Now here I was, a week later, unable to get out of bed. I have relived this moment a thousand times in a fruitless quest for some explanation — the moment my life divided into ‘old’ and ‘new’.

Strangely, I had felt ready for a change, though I could not say what kind. At that time, I earned my living as the editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber and Faber, working with a variety of writers from Kazuo Ishiguro
and Peter Carey to Paul Auster and Milan Kundera. I also wrote fiction and had, for several years, combined this with occasional freelance journalism in troubled parts of the world: Peru during Mario Vargas Llosa’s presidential campaign, Cambodia during the UNTAC (UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia) election, and, most recently, East Timor. Like many of my generation, I’d envied those, like my parents, who have lived through wars and revolutions. Consciously or not, I’d always hoped my trips would yield a frisson — a moment of danger from which none the less I’d emerge unscathed. Mentally, I wore a flak jacket and jeans under my yuppie suit and I liked to think I was more at home on the road than in the chic, heartless salons of Thatcher’s London, though in truth I had begun confiding to Sarah a vague dissatisfaction with my working life.

BOOK: My Year Off
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