‘COMING SO CLOSE TO DEATH MADE ME EMBRACE ALL THAT LIFE COULD OFFER’
Novelist Maggie O’Farrell contracted viral encephalitis, a sudden swelling of the brain, when she was eight years old. She describes its lasting legacy
Novelist Maggie O’aFrrell describes the life-long impact ofonctracting viarl encephalitis when she aws eight eyars old
Maggie as a child in 1973, above, and, left, on vacation in Istanbul
Irecall my encephalitis, in its most acute phase, in flashes, in staccato bursts, in isolated scenes. Some things are as raw and immediate as the moment they happened. Others I have to almost force myself to confront and I watch them as I might a film: there is a child in a hospital bed, in a wheelchair, on an operating table; there is a child who cannot move. How can that child have ever been me?
Of its aftermath, I have a stronger sense. The coming home from hospital, the weeks and months of being at home, in bed, drifting up and down on currents of sleep, listening in on the conversations, meals, emotions, arrivals and departures of family life below. The visitors who came, bearing books and soft toy animals and, once, a man from over the road bringing a basket of baby guinea pigs, which he let loose in my bed, their tiny, clawed, panicked pink feet skittering up and down my wasted legs.
Convalescence is a strange, removed state. Hours, days, whole weeks can slide by without your participation. You, as the convalescent, are swaddled in quiet and immobility. You are the only still thing in the house, caught in stasis, a fly in amber. As the only sound you hear is that of your own body, its minutiae assumes great import, becomes magnified: the throb of your pulse, the rasp of hair shaft against the cotton weave of your pillow, the shifting of your limbs beneath the weight of blankets. The mattress presses up from underneath, bearing you aloft. The drink of water waits beside your bed, tiny silvered