It came on in the van just as we reversed out of the parking space. Queen gold. Those first few seconds of rhythm last just long enough for me to smile, gear myself up for the pause before I join Freddy in his opening line.
‘I want to break free-he…’
It’s a bittersweet moment. I had thought it was the soundtrack to my 2017 when I was cramped in a teeny office with colleagues who were working on the upcoming Bohemian Rhapsody Film. Queen played on repeat. Not once did any of us get sick of listening to them. And when ‘I Want To Break Free’ played, I sang along.
After six months of it, we went to see them in concert at the O2 and sang along louder than ever before.
On tough days in the office, when we thought we’d lost the will to work, someone would make the suggestion that we should listen to Queen. We all wanted to break free.
It’s become the soundtrack to my 2018 for such different reasons.
It seems like Queen are played everywhere. From ‘We are the Champions’ piping through the Sports Hall when my Occupational Therapist, Victoria, and I were engrossed in a wheelchair race (she won), to random Spotify playlists, to the radio in the physio gym. That’s where ‘I Want To Break Free’ played for the first time since I’ve been here.
When I’d heard the familiar sound in the deep background during a physio session, I’d become distracted.
‘That’s my favourite song.’ I’d told Superman.
‘It’s appropriate.’ He reasoned, and I drifted off into fantasies of where I might go if I could break free from hospitals. Nine weeks in and I was feeling the stirrings of crazy.
I hadn’t expected that first trip would be to a funeral. Yet just a few days after that throwaway comment, here I was, buckled up in the Spinal Cord Unit’s van. When it came down to the wire and organising a trip out at short notice, in the evening and under the circumstances, the ward staff really rallied around to make it happen and one of the lovely Rehab Assistants had agreed to take me. We were on our way to say goodbye to Billy when the song came on.
It’s like he’d bumped into a few smart-arses I know up there and they were all taking the piss out of me.
It hadn’t escaped my attention that it was the summer solstice. So, whatever trick Billy and the rest of them were playing, the bitterness of the occasion balanced with the sweetness of the sun shining, the long evening and the moderate freedom of actually breaking free from the hospital, even if just for a few hours.
I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult. Not the transport or the mobility side of things. That was actually the easiest part. I’ve become a bit of a whizz with the wheelchair and Victoria made sure that I was prepared to handle uneven surfaces, curbs and lifting myself in and out of a car. I was wheelie-ing around the hospital for two full days and bombing up and down hills over stony ground in preparation.
Ok, so bombing may be an exaggeration. And the wheelie-ing may have been more like very, very little hops. And I may or may not have had Victoria spotting me while all of that practice was going on, but the point remains. I was ready. If anything, we’d over-prepared and I was slightly disappointed when I got to the van to leave the hospital and found I just had to roll my chair into the back. No car transfer or lifting myself required. Even more of an anti-climax was arriving at the church to find it fully kitted out with a ramp and automatic doors. No wheelie-ing to be done here. How inconsiderate!
No, all of the logistical and operational side of things was under control. The problem started when I arrived and the Rehab Assistant pulled the van into the wheelchair parking spot. I could feel eyes on me. I probably even imagined eyes. I could feel myself heating up. I hadn’t thought of this. I’d seen many people since the injury. My friends and family have been amazing for visiting. The thing was that everyone I had seen was in a hospital, where they had come to see me. They knew what to expect. Those people weren’t surprised by the wheelchair. They wouldn’t have been shocked or held hushed conversations within earshot. Or stare.
I wasn’t ready for the eyes.
The mass was lovely and I was so happy to be able to celebrate Billy. I sat off to the side, out of view of the people who might know me. And I said a quiet goodbye.
But it came time to bite the bullet. Sick with anxiety, I joined the crowd leaving the church who patiently lined up to shake hands with Billy’s loved ones. At first, I thought I might get away with sneaking out a side door and I made a roll for it, but soon realised that I was blocked off by the hearse. Typical.
There was only one way out.
With no alternative, I rejoined the crowd and I waited my turn to pay my respects to Billy’s partner Des, his sister, Ann and other family members.
The moment I wheeled myself up to Des, I knew that I had done the right thing. I got over myself. I put into perspective what I had lost compared to what he had lost and the moment became what it was supposed to be. A moment of respect. He reached his arms out wide and I reached mine up to him and we gripped each other. Our recent German adventure flashed before my eyes. We exchanged as many words of kindness as possible during the time allowed by an onward-moving chain of sympathisers. Ann’s parting comments about how highly Billy spoke of me made my voice catch and I could barely say goodbye before I wheeled on, heading straight for the van. I just wanted to get back now.
But of course that couldn’t happen at an Irish funeral.
I got intercepted.
I thought I would have shocked some people, but it turns out Billy had broken the news. Everyone knew my story. Some are reading the blog. Billy was one of my first readers and a huge supporter. He’d told his friends to follow my recovery. I didn’t have to give explanations or look at pitying eyes and puppy-dog faces. I escaped most people, but the few who caught up with me were gentle and thoughtful and kind. I remembered them from past nights out. My connection to the Irish community in London is not strong and those nights were few and far between, but always memorable. Billy was my link. His large circle of friends appeared at Irish Embassy dinner dances and late nights in the Crown Moran. Nights of dancing and drinking ’til it didn’t matter if we all fell down. Nights I won’t have again.
I engaged enough to smile and greet them; a congratulations on a pregnancy, a few funny memories of Billy, an update on a job change. I barely registered any of it (sorry!).
Keeping the Unit’s van firmly in my sights, I untangled myself. I didn’t want to wait around for others to drift over. Victoria’s lessons on wheelie-ing and bombing paid off.
Then I was in the van, strapped in, ready for off. I looked out the window and saw them. The eyes. I looked away again.
“Do you want to pressure relieve?” The Rehab Assistant asked.
A swift shake of the head. Bending forward to hold my feet for two minutes may be good for relieving the pressure on my bum and back in the wheelchair, but my bum and back weren’t my main concern just then. We’d be back in the hospital soon enough, where pressure relieving wouldn’t draw even one sidewise glance.
It was the neck brace I needed to wear while travelling and that was the final straw. Strapped in and strapped up, I was immobilised. That’s when they came; tears, hot and salty, slipping down my cheeks. They were tears for Billy, for Des, for me and for that moment when all of those sadnesses mingled. With no other option for where to face thanks to the brace, I rigidly faced forward and stared blankly ahead. I wiped away the tears with the back of my hand as we made our way out of the church carpark. I focused instead on the silver linings.
I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. I’d said goodbye to Billy and I’d given my love to Des. He’s the person I really wanted to see. As difficult as the circumstances were, I’d gone about something in the real world. We all know that the real world can be a bit shit sometimes. It was a first step and maybe next time I’ll aim for something with far fewer eyes.
So, here’s a request to family and friends – which automatically includes the rest of you loyal readers – for God’s sake, please stop dying. While I know Billy’s going to have some of the best company with some of the brilliant people already up there, the rest of you guys are needed down here. I’ve got a lot more ‘firsts’ to get through and I’m relying on all of you to be around to get me through them when I eventually break free for real.