‘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

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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

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