By Sophie Olson
Sylvia Plath wrote in The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am”
I recently read a memoir by Maggie O’Farrell – in which she describes 17 brushes with death. The title of this book: ‘I am, I am, I am’, has inspired this writing.
I’ve faced death at times in my life. Sometimes it’s been at the periphery, other times it has tapped me on the shoulder. When I was a baby, it slid inside, quickly and deftly and began it’s insidious theft of life. I don’t remember this of course, it’s a story that has been told many times; a tiny premature baby turning blue in the bath. A fragile chest not rising. The panic, the rush to call for the local doctor (the doctor?) on a shiny black rotary dial telephone, the lifeless body, more baby bird than human, placed on the Yellow Pages (‘see how small you were?’) because my mother didn’t know where else to lay me. The mother who breathed for me, for 30 minutes, mouth pressed over miniature bloodless lips and pinhead nostrils, the heavy receiver cradled between ear and neck. I imagine how she must have heard her own heart pounding along with the calm voice that travelled across phone lines, up sunken country lanes, instructing, repeating, reassuring. ‘One two three four five’. The sister who arrived from upstairs with a blanket “to keep the baby warm”. It’s this part of the story that fills me with relief, more so than the ambulance arriving or taking that first breath again. I’ve always hated being cold, in particular my feet. Having cold feet makes me to this day feel like crying and I wonder if the cells of my body remember the frozen sensation of death-kissed little toes. My mother blew death out of me that night and it sat in the corner of that draughty hallway and watched and waited, biding time, as it does, not concerned if it was now, or later as it knew, indisputably that it would be one day. When it happened again a few weeks later, I was caught out in my sleep by a rogue drop of saliva, travelling the wrong way. Unable to cough as the reflex was yet to be developed, I simply stopped instead. I turned blue for the second time, and waited patiently, silently communicating my needs to my mother, who woke from deep slumber with a start, stumbled in the dark, grabbed the rubber apparatus that had been sent home from the hospital with me, sucked out the blockage and willed me to breathe.
Another time I felt death was in a hot, silver, grain silo, on a farm next door to the girl’s house where I’d gone for tea. I can’t remember much about how we’d got there, or why, or whose idea it was. Probably not mine as I was inherently cautious as a child. I knew bad things happened, I’d seen them and I was anxious and nervous most of the time. I don’t remember how we got in, did we climb? Was there a ladder? Was there a door? A hatch perhaps? All I remember is death, a sudden and unexpected presence on the hot summer’s day. Death shadowed me as I breathed the cloying air, and coughed; the dust and particles incompatible with my young pink lungs. I remember my feet that kept slipping and the feeling of being sucked in and down. It was a curious sensation, exciting at first, this shape shifting treadmill until I saw death out of the corner of my eye and understood completely how close I was to disappearing, to being lost forever under that grainy quicksand, that my legs were tiring and if I rested for a moment I would lose the game that was never a game at all.
Like Maggie O’Farrell, we could probably all write a book documenting our continued brushes with death; I could describe childhood pneumonia, a near miss with an outboard motor, being thrown from a horse. I could recount numerous falls down the stairs. I could try to explain how it felt to have life pushed out of me by human hands that wished me harm. I could write about the times I invited death, welcomed it, when it shook its head at me: No. Not yet. It’s not time now. There is still more to do. Death would continue to taunt me through life, as it taunts us all. It is the devil on the shoulder, or the angel, depending on how your life is going, clutching and hanging on, nearby, never quite out of sight. It is there on the corner you slow down for, it’s in the day- too- old chicken you don’t eat. It hovers, just steps away from the cliff path. It hides by the left turn, that should have been the right; up the dark alleyway, where the wrong man awaits. It stands before us all and the inevitability of it becomes clearer to us, as the decades come and go. We all feel it, some fear it and some don’t, but we all outwit it everyday, with every step, breath and blink. I live says the swell of our lungs. I am here say our footprints in the sand. We are, says the beat of our hearts. And so it is, a purpose for us all: I am, I am, I am.