Here’s the truth. The big bad world is scary as hell. Getting out of the hospital was thrilling and exciting and terrifying all at the same time. I was almost salivating over the idea of a clean slate. Who doesn’t love the chance to start over?
Most people don’t get to do it very often, but I’ve been lucky. I’ve packed up and picked up more often than some people change their… well, often enough. I’ve had new countries, new cities, new jobs and new environments. I’ve filled the car with just a few hours’ notice and moved to a new place. I’ve had job interviews by video call in an airport, all my worldly possessions in a backpack by my side just in case, then high-tailed it to the ticket desk to catch the next available flight and be ready to start the next day.
I love it. It keeps life interesting and if there’s one thing I never want to be, it’s predictable.
But this was different. I hadn’t done all of that with a Spinal Cord Injury.
Here I was with an entirely different set of challenges in front of me and suddenly I found myself facing a new beginning that lacked all the excitement of any past adventure.
But there’s a difference between a blank canvas and total hollowness.
My new flat was a shell.
As luck would have it, on the same day as my injury, our landlord broke the news that she wanted the house back. She was renovating. We were out. So, stuck in housing limbo – and in hospital – I was in a bit of a pickle. My friends had moved on. I was on my own.
It was probably for the best really. I wouldn’t have been able to manage all the steps in our higgledy piggledy old Victorian house. The timing, however, was a pain in the arse.
The search for a ground floor accessible flat was pretty straightforward. There was only one available in my borough with the necessary adaptations. It was far from perfect. It needed some love.
I took it.
The flat was worse than empty. No flooring. No white goods. No furniture. In a certain light, I might have looked at it as a blank canvas, but that wasn’t the light that was cast upon it when I was moving in. I saw only a complete dump.
It’s the most inaccessible ‘accessible’ flat in London. My wheelchair didn’t fit through the doors, but then, my wheelchair didn’t fit through many doors. I was stuck in the tank of a wheelchair that they’d dumped me in for leaving hospital. That was a whole other battle.
Boxes ticked, the powers that be were long gone. Mobile enough to be left to my own devices, too mobile to warrant help, I was alone for the first time in 15 weeks. Just me and the hollowness.
There hadn’t been much time between getting the keys and leaving hospital. I’d had less than 48hrs to arrange everything.
Internet installation: booked.
Carpets: being laid on move in.
Gas engineer to install said cooker: booked.
Fridge, Washing machine, bed, sofa, bookcases: in the back of a van on the way over.
Suitcases and boxes of stuff: piled high.
Grocery delivery: booked.
My energy waned some time after the carpet fitter started work. I’d been warned about fatigue, but I never expected to feel so exhausted. My brain shut down. Sitting in my tank that wouldn’t fit through the door or along the corridor, I felt the growing fear that this was going to be a lot harder than I’d realised.
It turned out that I hadn’t turned the electricity on. Not properly. Or, as it turned out, the gas. I’d made mistakes with the cooker and the blinds. The Ruth who used to do this stuff blindfolded suddenly wasn’t able for it. Any of it. Unable to do a thing, I sat there and I waited.
I waited for the carpet fitter who came and solved the dodgy floor situation. I waited for the delivery men who came with my white goods. I waited for the gas engineer who came to install them. And then I sat for 5 or 6 hours and waited for the delivery I was looking forward to most of all; My cousin Collie.
Collie arrived with my trusty Man-with-a-van, Paul. After an evening of driving around South London to pick up bits and pieces of furniture that my friends had offered for the new flat, Paul picked up Collie and the stuff he’d been taking care of for me since he’d packed up and moved my stuff out of the old house.
He was a sight for sore eyes and after the two of them moved everything in, Collie got to work on assembling, drill, cleaning, hoovering, arranging, sorting and generally making the place liveable.
As he worked, my brain shut down.
It stayed shut for days. It was the kind of brain that makes you put toothpaste on your hands instead of soap. It was the kind of brain that takes 2 hours to figure out how to order burritos on deliveroo.
The burritos, fyi, were worth the wait.
Thank God Collie took over. He sorted the gas and electricity that I couldn’t get right. He got my flat into a condition that was not just liveable, but even comfortable. He figured out how everything worked. He had the sense to write simple instructions for me to look at when my brain decided to switch back on.
Over the next days and weeks, more friends came to the rescue.
Laura flew from Ireland for a day to scrub out my new-to-me fridge and kitchen cupboards. Kathy and Lisa painted the pretty shabby living room. My Mum cleaned down the dirty front steps. Nuala patiently walked with me and talked with me and helped me rebuild my confidence. My new neighbour Lee made me dinner. Jenny and Meridian called around and helped out around the house. Everybody got a job.
Mostly, though, my friends called by to pick me up and take me out. They kept me sane. And they pushed the tank.
I couldn’t have known on that first night just how big the challenges ahead were. I couldn’t have known that my chair was too difficult to get out of the building, or that I would effectively be trapped in the flat when I was by myself. Even if I’d gotten the tank out the door of the flat, I couldn’t manoeuvre through the heavy doors or on the slopes outside the building. And then there were the gates which I’m sure must be heavy for even the most able-bodied person. They were enough of a challenge in the lightweight chair I’d had when I came to view the flat, but they were simply impossible in the tank. Shoulders strained and pained from the effort of trying to get in or out, I gave up on trying and took to sitting beside the gates in my chair, waiting for a neighbour to come in or out.
And the neighbours were lovely.
What I did know was that what had already passed on this Spinal Cord Injury journey was just prologue. The story was just beginning and I had it all – good bad and all the inbetween – waiting just a heavy metal gate away.
It took a few weeks for the brain fog to really clear, but things started to change around the time of Kylie. It was just after Nuala’s visit and I felt like I was actually capable of doing normal things again. I saw someone on Facebook talking about an upcoming festival in Hyde Park. A 90s throwback. Kylie was headlining.
While I was in the Spinal Unit, I’d learned that my glutes were really weak. To stand and walk, I needed to build up my muscles. I’d been working on them non-stop. It had become a half-joke with my physiotherapist, who was too polite to tell me I had a shit bum. Instead, he told me to ‘Be More Kylie’.
So when I saw the concert on Facebook… well, they had me at Kylie.
I wangled some disabled and carer tickets and off we went – myself and my friends Meridian and Jenny – to the accessible area where festival queues were a thing of my able-bodied past.
The line-up was like stepping back in time. All Saints, Boyzone, Lenny Kravitz, Manic Street Preachers. I felt like my 16 year old self at Slane ‘98. I was Ruth on wheels.
Sun shining: check
Pint in hand: check
Happy friends: check
Glittery festival war paint applied: abso-bloody-lutely.
As night fell, the apparition that is Kylie Minogue burst onto the stage with all the energy you’d expect from a 20 year old. My jaw dropped. She’s just turned 50. She’s beaten cancer. Twice. How the hell was she still so fabulous?
My love for Kylie was not necessarily a new thing. It was more like a resurrected thing. I’d had posters of her and Jason on my walls as a kid. I’d watched Neighbours religiously. I loved them. I didn’t do Princesses and Knights in shining armour. True love, in my childhood eyes, was Scott and Charlene. If there was a soundtrack to my childhood, it was ‘Especially For You’. I played it over and over.
Ever since, when she sings that song with someone else, my heart sinks a little – to the point where I was mortally offended when she once sang it with Kermit the Frog.
How very dare she.
Part of me always hopes Jason will appear on the stage, sweep her off her feet and the two will sing together once more. Balance will be restored. Things will be as they should. Oh, what a moment that would be.
Kylie starts to sing it to the 50,000 people gathered in Hyde Park.
“No,” I think. “Not without Jason.”
I don’t think I can handle them breaking my heart all over again, 30 years later.
A gospel choir sings his part. I might have cursed.
I catch glimpses of Kylie in her hot pink dress through the swaying and bobbing able bodies that block my view of the stage.
“I wish they’d all sit down” I think.
…OH GOOD JESUS CHRIST…
Has my heart stopped? Is that..?
I think I might actually be dying.
“It’s fucking Jason!!”
“It’s fucking Jaaaaaaason!!!!!”
I don’t know if I screamed that out loud. Probably.
There he was, sweeping her once more off her feet as he picked her up and twirled her around the stage. They’re laughing. They’re singing. They’re “back together… together…”
I may or may not have teared up a little.
I’m pretty sure my friends are laughing at me.
Here’s the thing. It wasn’t as simple as just seeing two people prancing around on a stage that made something shift within me.
Because that would be silly.
It was being there. It was witnessing for myself, even if it was just glimpses through the bodies between us, a moment that I never really believed would happen. It was actually being part of it. It was like the final piece in a puzzle that had been slowly coming together. It was realising that I could, in fact, be part of things – disability or no disability. No tank or gate or slope would get to take that away from me.
And I also realised that on the stage in front of me was this amazing woman, just turned 50, a survivor. She’s strong and independent. She can dance with Jason all she likes, but she doesn’t need him. She’s overcome all sorts of obstacles and she’s still dancing. This was the real icon. 50 year old Kylie is the best Kylie. That’s the kind of ‘Be More Kylie’ that I want to be.
And after the last 5 months of battling my Spinal Cord Injury and working hard to regain my own independence; after coming through my fair share of dark moments; after recovering from paralysis just 4 months earlier and getting to the point where I could be at a festival with my friends, glittery warpaint and all, I wondered if maybe, just a little more than before, I am more Kylie.