After a brush with death in 1995, Robert McCrum had settled back into life as a literary journalist. Then, aged 60, came a fall that would force him to contend with mortality once more
No one will ever know exactly what happened inside my head on the night of 28 July 1995, but probably it went something like this. First, for reasons that remain mysterious, a surreptitious clot began to form in one of my cerebral arteries, cutting off the blood supply to part of the one organ in the body that, after the heart, is most greedy for blood. Eventually, perhaps some hours later, like a breaking dam, the clot burst into the right side of my brain, causing an uncontrolled bleed that would achieve the irreversible destruction of cerebral tissue deep inside my head, in the part of the cortex known as the basal ganglia. In medical textbooks, this is a severe insult to the brain; in everyday conversation a stroke; and in my own life, an exceedingly closeshave.
My first reaction, when I came round in University College hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness, was a kind of weird exhilaration. I had no idea about what had happened to me, but whatever it was, I seemed to have survived. Lying naked under a pink blanket in the intensive-care unit, wired up to the monitors, I was aware of being in the antechamber to the grave. Even now, years later, I can still recall the eerie fascination of this experience and of having, by great good fortune, returned to tell the tale.
Physically speaking, Id been poleaxed. My left leg was paralysed, and my left arm hung from its socket like a dead rabbit; the left side of my face, which drooped badly for about 10 days, felt frozen, as if my dentist had just given it a massive novocaine injection. I could not stand upright, or even think of getting out of bed; besides, my penis was attached to a Conveen, a condom-like device that drained my urine into a plastic bag. My speech was slurred; every few hours, a team of three nurses would turn me over in bed, as if I was a slow-cooking roast. In place of pain I was never in any pain there was a hallucinatory sense of detachment, as if I was outside myself, lookingin.
That was the day I should have died, but didnt. Thankfully, within a year, I was on the road to some kind of physical recovery. Since then, a fortunate convalescent, I had lived from day to day as if nothing had changed. Call it carpe diem, or call it denial. In the back of my mind, I always knew there had to be a reckoning.
That eventually came one fine summers day in London, Friday 27 June 2014, when I tripped and fell while crossing the uneven pavement outside a row of shops an antiques store, a hairdresser and a 24-hour grocery in Notting Hill. At 1.30 in the afternoon, I was leaving my weekly session of pilates/physiotherapy with Dreas Reyneke, a retired dancer from the Ballet Rambert, renowned for his healing ways. When I came out of his anonymous black door, I was thinking about going home to shower and change for a long drive to Devon, where I was due to attend a wedding. Three steps later, I was pitched headlong towards the opposite of joy.
The fall itself my fall occurred in an instant, but also in a kind of slo-mo. That old weakness on my left side, the residual deficit from my strokes paralysis, had long been a source of vulnerability, and now my worst fears from two decades were coming to pass. My first thought as I hit the kerb with my face was Tintin not Kierkegaard: Oh, *@?%$*! Then the menace kicked in: this was what people meant by a fall, an Anglo-Saxon word thats as old as the hills, rooted deep in our past, and edged with fear.
Its just a tumble to a child, or a pratfall to a clown, but falling is the curse of our later years, and a troubling one, too. The failure of the human frame, even in a fall, is a deep humiliation to our sense of ourselves. In the UK, per annum, about one in three people over the age of 65 will thereby break a leg, or a wrist, or, worst of all, a hip. That fall can be a gateway to incapacity and decrepitude: about 40% of these fallers will end up in a nursing home; 20% may never walk again.
In khaki shorts and scuffed trainers, it was not until I saw the blood splashed on the pavement as well as on my white T-shirt, and found its sinister metallic taste in my mouth, that I realised how badly I was bleeding from my head. Just a few days before my 61st birthday, here I was passing into a new world in which (as I lay full-length on the pavement) concerned passers-by were bending over me with Are you all right?, and a smiley young West Indian woman on a quad bike was phoning for an ambulance.
Were at the junction of Kensington Park Road and Pembridge Road
While she gave directions, I was groggily getting to my feet, and staunching the flow of blood, gingerly feeling the cuts on my forehead. Mixed with gratitude, my main reaction was to be massively pissed off. I was bloody, bruised and disoriented, but otherwise OK. Perhaps I was concussed, but I didnt think so.