This opening makes tough reading – might be a little sensitive for those who have recently “suffered” or are still undergoing hospital treatment, or coping with loved ones in a similar situation.
Title: The Fearful Kidney
Language: British English
Synopsis: Collection of essays about survival, of navigating a path around obstacles and emerging the other side of them.
Text: My body felt like it was burning inside. Microscopic bonfires igniting in every cell. The pain was blinding. I felt like I was coming apart. The pain wrapped itself around my muscles. It clawed its way through me, scraping against my insides. I couldn’t pinpoint it. It had no root. It was moving, flowing, crawling all over me, spreading its tentacles down my arms, my legs, curling into my stomach. Needles of it prickling my back, creating a slickness on my skin as if it was trying to sweat its way out of my body.
An ambulance was called. I thrashed around on the stretcher searching for relief. I tried to concentrate on the wailing of the siren, as something outside of my pain, something I could hold on to and think about instead of the molten lava coursing through me. Nothing could distract me. The pain was savage. My screaming primal. My body was engulfed in it, occupied by it. Colonised. I felt every bump in the road. With every judder the pain embedded itself even deeper. With every jolt it felt like my organs were being slammed against my bones.
My mind unhinged itself from my body as we entered A&E. I closed my eyes to try to un-see it. The orchestra that is the body, the organs singing in tune, the blood flowing in harmony, the breath in perfect symphony, was shattered. My detached mind could only watch from a distance. I saw my chest heaving with anxiety, my legs kicking away the pain, my arms flailing, slapping it away. I couldn’t be here, my mind declared. This could not be happening. For months I had devised a route of avoidance around this hospital. This place of death and trauma only nine months previously. It takes that long to gestate a pregnancy. What is the gestation period for grief?
This was the same A&E we had come to in December, two Christmases ago. He had vomited blood. He thought he had a bleeding ulcer. He had a medical background. We believed him. But the serious expressions on the faces of the doctors belied such casualness. Tests were ordered. Waiting began. I had started a new job. I tried to concentrate there. The news wasn’t good. He was operated on 17th December.
Christmas Day was spent briefly at an aunt’s house, cramming in turkey and trifle, then back to the ward. New Year’s Eve was spent in the grim, grey hospital corridor watching the meagre fireworks over the city skyline while death dallied in the ward. The city sprawled before us, taunting us with its twinkling lights and happy houses. Cities always look magical in the dark. I wondered what other stories were taking place out there, under the cover of darkness, the blackness of the night, what was it hiding? We were exposed in this corridor, this narrow, confined space, every feeling magnified under its fluorescent lights. I threw these questions at the sparkling skyline, the expectant night blinking back at me. Every dome and tower, shape and spire in their place, a perfectly orderly cityscape. Hidden chaos running through its streets and through our lives. There was no order where I was standing. My world was turning upside down. The ground felt like quicksand. I felt light-headed, weightless. The huge, glass windows we stood behind only enforced the feeling of being suspended in mid-air, boxed off from the rest of the world in a kind of quarantine, of travelling at a different speed to everyone else. The city glittered below. The year 2000 ticked over into 2001. Just after midnight, the new year was already an appalling vista.
A second operation followed in January. His birthday, on 19th, tipped his age forward a year we knew he wasn’t going to complete. He lost his appetite. Then his hair. Weight melted away. His skin took on a taut, drawn look. He saw his name in the Irish Times obituary column. Coincidences don’t get much darker.
The weeks hurtled past yet dragged like years. It was like being aboard a spaceship and we were on space time. It hovered every so often but then would take off at the speed of light. The hospital felt like another planet. Everything felt alien. Everything hurt. Everything grated. I felt raw and exposed and hypersensitive. My tolerance for anything that wasn’t a matter of life or death plummeted. Other people’s worries, crises, problems sailed past my consciousness.
It seemed incredible that normal life continued all around me. My world had tilted. I was off kilter. I felt like I was standing alone on a diving board, high above everyone, just fresh air and space between me and them. All I had to do was dive down to them. But the pool below me was empty. I was trapped on my platform. People below were Christmas shopping, driving to and from work, collecting children from school. People were smiling and laughing. They were worrying about small things, normal things, grocery shopping, nativity play costumes, ordering a turkey. I was having conversations about cells multiplying and moving, gathering and festering, creating an internal darkness, a lethal monstrous mass.
I cried at the smallest provocation. A red traffic light would set me off. Every sense was heightened. I could smell every shade of sickness in the choked hospital air. I felt like my nerve endings were being scratched by my clothing, my keys. Listening to the television or radio was too loud. All sounds were amplified. They were all assaults on my senses. Everything, time especially, accelerated. Fear accumulated with the drip feed of information. It was delivered in fragments, from different specialists, from different disciplines. It was all bad news. It was relentless. It was like a tap that wasn’t quite turned off. To sift through the platitudes, you had to lean over every conversation like a forensic scientist and extract the truth with a tweezers.
Time began to curl at the edges, like an old photograph.
Editorial comment: The fact that this is a collection of essays, rather than a novel, means that this isn’t really an appropriate work for assessing on this site. It’s not a novel, it’s a memoir, but even then, it’s not a novel-length memoir, it’s a collection of essays illustrating a memoir. However, the writing is compelling, so I thought it might be interesting to comment on a few issues.
There’s a place for sentence fragments and you’re quite right not to avoid them—to hell with what the “editing software” packages like Grammarly tell you. However, I have to say that first instance doesn’t really work for me. There’s no reason that the first two sentences can’t be one sentence, separated by a comma. In fact, the second illustrates the first, so they are better together, I think, than separated.
An ambulance was called is a good example of why passive writing is a weakness. Up until this point the writing is intensely personal, from a very close, first-person point of view. An ambulance was called is curiously distant in comparison. By whom? A passerby? It doesn’t need detail. “John called an ambulance” would be fine, because that makes it a personal experience, not a weird out-of-body incident (even if the patient was somewhat “out of it” at the time). The relationship of “John” to the patient would be explored later, but you’ve immediately begun to add depth, in a very organic way, to the main “character”. The patient is suffering, and there is somebody called John in their life. I suspect we find out a lot more about John later, but this introduces him almost invisibly, rather than having some clumsy “my partner was called John” introduction later on.
He lost his appetite. Then his hair is an example of how to put sentence fragments to good use. The staccato delivery adds something to the sense of awful inevitability of the progress of the disease.
There are a few copy-editing problems, but nothing important. Without knowing the context of this extract it’s difficult to comment on the writing. Is this one half of an essay whose primary purpose is to describe pain, or is this the opening to a chapter on illness/hospitalisation generally? If the latter, there’s a lot of description. I wonder if, to really get the best reaction from the reader, they should already be empathising with a character they have grown at least a little familiar with. But we are introduced cold here. While we can sympathise on a human level (no-one wants to go through what this narrator is going through), it’s not personal to us at this stage. You’re not describing the trauma of an individual we particularly care about, simply because we don’t know who they are.
But good writing. A horrible clarity of what the narrator is going through, thoughtfully and descriptively expressed, and I like the parallelism of being forced, under such similar circumstances, to revisit the scene of recent medical trauma. Brutal stuff.
Thanks for posting.
Thank you for your critique, it’s very helpful. It’s always hard to edit your own work and it’s even harder when it’s memoir. I realise that it’s not the usual genre for your site and I didn’t give you the correct word count. It’s the beginning of a 5,000 word piece. So I wasn’t sure you’d even use it but I’m delighted you have because it gives me confidence and I can clearly see the points you made and agree with them.
My pleasure. Great writing. Keep at it.