I sit in my bed in a room with half a dozen other patients, some children like myself, others grown men I cannot talk to. I am eight or nine years old, a little boy alone in a godforsaken city I care nothing about because the only time I come to Dublin is to undergo yet another operation. A skin graft here, another one there. New scars to add to my unwanted collection. The painful itches that follow; stitches in, stitches out. Trip after trip. And always such cursed loneliness.
My eyes are sad and close to tears twice a day: visiting time reminds me that I am adrift, 160 miles from my family, 160 miles from hugs and kisses from a loving mum and dad. I miss them so much. And in the afternoon the torture begins because at the appointed time parents, wives or friends file in to see the other patients, bringing sweets, biscuits and cakes, maybe fruit and soft drinks. But none come near my bed. I lie there reading comics and pretending I haven’t noticed them, and the laughter and chat that goes on, but I do. I am crying on the inside.
I try not to allow myself to feel hurt, but I feel it nonetheless. I must not let others see my pain. I know it’s hard on my parents who live so far away. It can’t be easy to be in Cork while their son lies here. But, I’m in this prison-like hospital with no visitors. Not one. And not just this afternoon. No, the evening brings a repeat, another humiliation as visitors come and go and I seethe with every agonising minute.
This goes on day after day, for weeks before mum and dad will arrive bearing gifts, usually chocolates, biscuits and drinks. But visiting hours are strict and no allowances will be made for the long journey my parents will make, and have made in the past. Not one minute. And before you can blink they will be gone, and that will begin the vicious cycle again.
This day is different and yet not so much, for I am being readied for an operation tomorrow. No matter how many operations I have the night before surgery is always the same: anxious, my mouth trembling, the dreaded sleeplessness, and loneliness. Those nights I miss mum and dad so much because I know they won’t be here when I return after surgery. I hate the very thought of that.
It is around midnight and I cannot sleep thinking about the operation, and the slow recovery afterwards. And then the staff nurse comes in to make a quick spot check to see if all is well, and while turning to leave spots me lying awake, trembling. She sees I am worried, so she sits on my bed and soothes me as best she can, saying how I will be fine, that there is nothing to worry about. I am inclined to disbelieve her, because I have a lot more experience than her at this stage. I am a veteran after all, with lots of surgeries under my gown, so to speak. But she smiles reassuringly, and talks and talks, smiles and soothes. God she is good. She holds my hand and pats it, and though I cry a little she does a fabulous job in exercising her calming magic. Everything will be alright.
She stays by my side for an hour or more, but maybe it’s a lot less, and I am so grateful because to me she is an angel, a beautiful one too. And when she finally leaves me I surrender to sleep.
The following morning all my doubts and terrifying thoughts return. I lie in my gown, waiting, waiting, waiting, each second moving depressingly slowly. I can see the room vividly still, and each bed, for I have occupied every single one at one time or another. My mouth is dry and getting drier. Nothing to eat since midnight and I am starved. Oh what I would give for a bowl of porridge (served with salt here) or some semolina, which I detest normally, but sounds wonderfully appetising amidst my hunger. And the minutes and hours take their time extending my torture.
And then the trolley arrives. God, why me? And then a nurse and attendant move me onto it, I half in dread, but more concerned not to let my naked backside stick out from the back of loose gown. As I lie on my back and the trolley moves out to the courtyard, moving along one side towards the lift, I feel a little shiver, a little cold (probably fear) even though I am covered by a blanket. The world looks very different looking upwards at the faces of my trolley assistants who say words of comfort. But they don’t fool me. I know what’s coming.
Inside the lift is strange and forbidding. Resting on a trolley in a confined space feels even more unsettling. And once the door opens and we move into the operating room I fear the next moments and my body stiffens.
Gas. Horrible, suffocating gas. That is the anesthetic they use in Dr Steevens, and when the mask is placed over my face I resist, wriggling furiously. “I’m dying,” I want to scream, “they’re killing me with these fumes. Take the mask off, please.” I want to escape, to breathe clean fresh air, but in seconds it is all over, my resistance futile.
I come too hours later, groggy and confused, hearing voices that feel otherworldly. Am I dead? My mouth is painfully dry, as if filled with sand, and I long for water to quench my thirst, but I hear someone say it is too soon, that I might get sick. And someone dabs a wet sponge on my chapped lips to ease that discomfort just a little. And I fall asleep for what seems like hours, but is actually minutes, and awaken as they lift me into my bed, conscious of the busy sounds of hospital life and then I sleep, wonderful sleep.
But not for too long. It is evening time again and visiting is about to begin. I am alone in a crowded room and no one cares. Little boy lost. All alone 160 miles from his family and the love and affection he craves, but cannot get. I won’t have any visitors today. I know that, but still I steal a look every now and then, hoping mum and dad will walk through the door. And of course they don’t. I could do with a hug right now but there is no one willing to give me one.
I am sad again and sore from the ache of fresh stitches and another skin graft. There is no end to this cycle of solitude, friendlessness and absence of love. No one in this hospital or city wants to know why I feel such deep sadness. I am alone.