I hear people talking – sometimes to me, sometimes at me, but often not really acknowledging me at all. I hear them mutter words of comfort from my bedside, feel the warmth and pressure of their hands on mine, but I can’t reply, and I can’t squeeze back, I can’t even open my own eyes.
It wasn’t always like this, I remember how it happened now. The last memories I have of that former life seem distant and blurred, but they can be dragged up from the depths of my consciousness when I try hard enough.
Rain had been beating tirelessly against the windshield – that I remember very clearly – the dark clouds making early morning feel like dusk.
“Turn this off” I snapped at no-one in particular, worried that the tedious song on the radio was going to be stuck in my head during that day’s interview, and my son, Michael had been singing along happily in the back seat. He had begun to cry after I reached the control and plunged us in to silence.
“Matthew, don’t worry – ” Julie began, but I stopped her.
“Don’t either of you realise how important this job is? How much our lives could change if today goes well?” Thinking back, perhaps I shouldn’t have phrased it quite like that.
Maybe if I hadn’t been shouting, Julie would have seen the lorry sooner, veering towards us, lights emerging through the sheet of rain, swift and cruel. But by the time she looked back, it was already there. I heard the screams before I felt anything. It all felt so distant. I saw my own blood on the dashboard, but I felt no pain, only shock and confusion. My vision melted away, the scene of the crash swirling and blurring before me, and from somewhere in the back of my mind, an encroaching darkness threatened to overpower everything. The stinging rain on my face was the last thing I remembered.
At first, I thought I was dead. Time crept by, as though testing me, trying to see just how long each second could be drawn out before time stopped completely. I wasn’t sure how long it had been before I began to feel conscious again. My thought processes churned in strange patterns while I became, eventually, aware of my senses, the strong smell of disinfectant and something much more unpleasant which I dared not think about. The alternating sounds of buzzing chatter and mournful silence that pressed on my ears.
My body felt like dead weight, like somebody else was lying there unmoving, and I was nothing more than thoughts, trapped inside that person’s head. When I heard my name spoken, my first instinct was to turn my head, an unbearably impossible action. It was a living nightmare, from which I pleaded and prayed in silent agony that I would wake up soon.
Everything seemed to get worse with time.
People came and went as the days rolled by. Whether it was a few weeks, or a few months, or my whole life, I could never be sure; time was so impossible to measure in the constant darkness. But that was when the talk of the life support machine started. I’d never been dependent on anyone before, I found it difficult to believe that my life depended on a machine.
Footsteps. Silence rang through the room.
I heard Susan whisper something to Mike, who, from what I had heard, was suffering from minor injuries himself. He hurried from the room, his smaller footsteps light and quick in contrast to the new pair, heavy, solemn.
Unable to open my eyes, I felt the atmosphere. The silence seemed to press down on the room, the weight of it hanging over us like the air before a storm.
“Ms. Barker, were you aware of your husband’s stance on artificial life support? I know that this is a terrible time for you and your family, but I think you should consider your options; it could be in your husband’s best interests that…”
Oh, God, no.
I screamed and thrashed internally, but my turmoil was in no way visible to the outside world. How could I convince her not to give up on me? How could I possibly convey to her that I still am – and always would be – there for her, when I was so utterly helpless?
My hopes and dreams crashed around me. They hit the ground and shattered, the sharp edges of the “would-bes” and “what-ifs” cut in to me as they soared past. Nobody ever warns you. As a kid, when they ask you what you want to grow up to be, or later, when they ask how many kids you want, or even what you’re doing this weekend, they never warn you that something like this could happen. Everything that I took for granted, everything that I assumed would always be there… in its place, an abyss.
And now here I am. Every day, another conversation about me that I have no contribution to, every day another twenty four hours of torture. The more time I spend listening to conversations I can’t control, the further away I feel from the old me. I’m starting to doubt his very existence.
My family have left my fate in the hands of the doctors who ‘know best.’ That’s the worst thing about waiting; you get all of the worry and anxiety, but none of the preparation. I know Susan is procrastinating; she doesn’t want to do it.
I also know that sooner or later, she will give up on me. They all will. I’m close to giving up myself. I’ve come to thinking that if this stupor wore off, and I am finally able to move, even for a moment, I will flick that switch myself. All I want is control, the ability to end things on my own terms. Of course, if I had that ability, I wouldn’t want to end things at all.
Susan’s resolve is faltering. As she spends all of her time by my bedside, I feel myself spiraling further in to my subconscious and life is becoming meaningless. The realisation of this is forcing me to fight harder. Simple things are pulling me through the days. Mike’s voice by my bedside, quiet and timid as he speaks to a father who, despite whispers that “he might be able to hear you” can never return his affectionate words. It seems only yesterday that he could not have spoken at all, giggling and laughing instead with unintelligible innocence. But he is aging, in a way that I, entirely wrapped up in my own body, can no longer comprehend.
His birthday is soon, I wouldn’t want to let him down. I have to fight! I have to get through! For everyone’s sake.
Time keeps on passing, running ahead of me, mocking me. I’m not sure if I’ve missed Mike’s birthday. Maybe it’s been years. But today, something feels different.
For the first time in a while, Susan and I are alone together. No pushy doctors or grief counsellors nagging her to try and end my life.
Just me and her.
She takes my hand, and I can feel that it is shaking, so thin. She whispers my name, so strangled, so quiet, so broken.
“Matthew,” she chokes.
I force my eyes open.
For half a second, a wave of relief floods through me like a golden rush of pure joy, everything I had once seen ahead of me is back, proof that no battle is ever lost, no illness too strong to fight off. I feel in this moment, invincible.
Ignorance, they say, is bliss.
It doesn’t take long for my elation to evaporate. A sinking feeling of horror. My heart thumps, trying its best, straining to keep me alive, as though it already knows what the rest of me hasn’t worked out yet.
I try to smile. Nothing happens.
I still can’t move a muscle apart from my eyelids; I can’t control my breathing long enough to speak.
Locked-In syndrome, they call it.
The survival rate isn’t promising, the doctors said that ninety per cent die after the first four months. The other ten per cent wished they had.
That life I see ahead of me? Yes, it’s still there. But it is unbearable.
So, true, I’d fought, and I’d struggled, and I’d managed to open the eyes I’d wanted so desperately to open. But am I any better off?
I knew I am – and always will be – trapped.