Image: Phobos from a mosaic in Halicarnassus, 4th century AD (@Theoi.com)
The dedicated doctors and nurses attending George in the intensive care unit of Ottignies hospital that spring of 2021 had become extremely concerned for his life. Patricia had been kept fully informed of the implications of a “pronostique très grave” and of the necessity to keep him in an induced coma, now in its 19th day.
Way beyond the tubes and sensors and blipping screens, which enclosed his limp body, deep in George’s soul, the recollection of leaving Samantha at the Corona bar dimmed, as his inner light again began to fade and darkness returned. Now, in that darkness, George could feel the distress and doubts of Patricia, which were reflecting back to him, from the time she had suffered the rashness of his behaviour, following his late arrival home that autumn night.
Slowly, the pain generated by his guilt began to intensify again, until George’s soul beheld the day he returned to the Corona bar, just before Christmas.
George’s soul relived in full how he had fantasised about Samantha, from the instant they had met. Her firm red-nailed fingers rubbing his leg. Her self-confidence, her brilliant financial intellect, her frankness, her pert breasts and enticing, comforting cleavage. Her scorching red lips and the steady gaze of her glittering blue eyes. Then George recollected the intense few hours he had decided he could resist her no further and had resolved to go back to the Corona bar, to surrender his body to her sexual wiles.
He relived the brilliance of the Christmas lights in the street as he made his way from the office, the racing of his blood at the thought of seeing her, the searing lust he felt for her body.
He remembered calling out “What the heck if I get a fine!” as he flaunted a traffic light at red; the clumsy way he parked his car round the corner from the bar; and the excited steps he made to the secret entrance to the bar.
He knocked, once, and paused. The door stayed shut, he had not given the right signal to open. He hesitated further, then looked at the ground. Tears welled up in his eyes. He began to sob, and the trembling of his face accompanied him all the way back to the car and his journey back home to La Hulpe.
Locked in his coma that summer of 2021; with images and memories swirling in his soul, George had painfully retraced each moment of the build up to that desolate 2020 Christmas: Patricia’s bewildered manner that dark autumn; the frustrated hope he felt for the 2020 winter equinox event; Lucija’s stay over Christmas and her seafaring stories. Then the spring that turned everything inside out, right up to the moment the breath started to desert his lungs and he had been taken off to hospital.
Back home, Patricia, for her part, had lived a calvary since George had gone away. Each day had passed in a vacuum. Unable to visit the hospital, she had relied on sporadic telephone contact with the nurses, becoming expert on interpreting the tone of their voices, in order to discern the true condition of her husband.
The last few days a repeated gruffness in the nurses’ manner, which Patricia well understood was only a reflection of the enormous effort they were all making to give George every chance they could to survive, had given way to lighter remarks and gestures.
“Nous sommes tous là, pour lui, à chaque moment” assured one voice. “On voit une certaine amélioration dans ses statistiques vitales” added another, as she described how a rhythm was gradually re-establishing itself in his breathing.
“Je ne veux pas vous donner des fausses espoirs, madame… ” said a doctor at last “…mais s’il continue comme ça, on peut envisager la fin de la respiration assistée…”
Then one, magical call, at the end of May, brought Patricia the relief she had prayed for, since the day George had been taken away. “Il a ouvert ses yeux ce matin, madame,” said the chief nurse “Il commence à suivre nos instructions. Il est toujours très faible, mais il a levé son bras sur demande. Il est sur la bonne voie…”
From then on, though there were some moments of unease, George little by little regained his vitality. He was taken off life support and returned to a normal ward. For the first time in weeks, Patricia was allowed to see him, behind a Perspex protective screen. The spectre of his pale, gaunt face, the look in his moist, fearful eyes and his 18-kilo weight loss came as no surprise to her. “What he must have been through?” she thought.
The doctors became so pleased with the swift recovery of his lung capacity, and general physical progress, that they proposed George returned home before the Whitsun holiday, on the condition that he maintained absolute rest and followed a special dietary and exercise regime to address his severe muscle wastage.
“Fifty days of TLC, courtesy of the Belgian medical service” teased gently Patricia as she brought a cup of sweet tea to George, sitting in the armchair in the lounge looking out over his beloved garden, illuminated by a peculiar light in the garden, pale yellow, almost pure, white light. “I’ll never forget this Whit Monday, my dear” she called from the kitchen, as she went back to fetch the biscuits.
Patricia had been briefed at the hospital that George’s recovery could take time. The important thing was to make small, constant progress every day. Nevertheless, George spent hours at a time in his armchair, rarely reading or watching the television, more often sleeping or staring vacantly across the flat, green sea that was his lawn.
“Go with the flow” muttered George, alone in the chair, trying to recall the inner images he had experienced in hospital. “Des hallucinations typiquement liées à une infection de cette gravité”, the psychologist had put it when the had been assessed shortly before leaving.
If hallucinations they were, George knew they would never return to take him away again from the reality now before him. “Nature is gradually bringing me back to wholeness, to health-restoring totality, eh Mr Gadamer?” George repeated to himself as he thought on.
Each rich evening note of the blackbird, singing on the roof top apex, raised him one small step higher above the hospital bed that was becoming his grave. Each spoonful of wholesome broth that Patricia served him brought him new life, new strength, new hope. Each re-found feeling of happiness to be home, to be safe, to be alive, revealed to George the hidden mystery of those fifty days he had lived in the beyond.
So vivid now was George’s memory of the fear, so real had that feeling become during his illness, that George took to searching on-line for testimonies, and pictures or images if there were any, from others who had had similar experiences. His search for “Fear” threw up abundant personifications of the sensations he had suffered. The panic-provoking glower of Phobos took on a new meaning. The dreadful scowl of Deimos of Leonidas’ shield made new sense. At one point, he even broke a private joke to himself: “Now, dear boys, didn’t we meet? Back in the spring of 2021, if I recall well.”
George seemed to be doing so well, when one afternoon Patricia entered the lounge to find her husband, bowed in his armchair, weeping.
“Whatever’s the matter, my dear?” she asked, reading the desolation etched in his frown. “Have you been thinking too much again? You must worry less, George. Remember what the psychologist said, you must put the suffering behind you, just learn what issues from it,” she added.
“That’s, urb, it, urb, Patricia,” replied George between sobs. “That’s just, urb, what I have to tell you, urb. What I have learned”.
The blubbering shook his shoulders, his mouth arched wide by the pain of his tearjerks. “I let you, schnuff. Down. Those coins I had, urb, those Corona coins. Lecomte took me to a bar, before Christmas, schnuff. A secret bar, a crazy place.”
He let out a muffled squeal and reached to his pocket for a handkerchief. “There were people there, drinking, having, a, well, schnuff. Trying to forget about COVID and all that.”
George took in a deep breath, which caught in his still damaged lungs, causing him to splutter as he reached into himself, deeply, to bring up the truth. “Well, I, well, I met this girl and, and…”
“You had a fling, did you?” interrupted Patricia, with absolute objectivity.
“And now, well, Patricia, schnuff, I can’t even remember her bloody name!”
“Spare me the details” she replied, in a tone free from annoyance and judgment, which reflected Patricia’s unremitting patience, waiting for her beloved George to return to full health.
Patricia’s remark halted his tears. He looked up at her, a look of remorse in his forlorn eyes. Patricia leaned forward to kiss him on the forehead and stepped out of the room.
Even by this quite advanced stage in his recovery, it had never passed through George’s mind to ask Patricia how she had felt during his illness. Now, with the truth at least partially out, George’s mood began to change. With the growing sense of relief came a greater opening to those around him.
For a reason neither George nor Patricia understood, the subject of the Corona bar never came up again.
George’s penitent telling of the truth to Patricia had been dissipated by her matter-of-fact acceptance of his foibles. For a time, he thought that Patricia would make some furtive reference to the incident but, no, it never occurred.
As the weeks passed, what George had come to describe as a “stronger mind in a weaker body” found itself with plenty of time to dwell on the success of the unfolding COVID vaccination programme; the patchwork threat of the rising infection rates and enduring restrictions of that autumn of 2021; the ERA; and the colleagues and the work, his functions as he would refer to them, which awaited him.
All this time, George had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the difference of a functionary being useful and being used. “Lecomte just wants his staff to achieve his aim, and that aim is not necessarily the proper functioning of the European financial markets” pondered George. “In the name of goal-oriented policy making, he and others will stop at nothing to use others to get their prize” he continued, now fusing his thoughts with those of the girl in the Corona bar. “Why, all these policy targets the set just encourage everyone in government to become rifle-slinging hunters, trying to hit the bull’s-eye of success and claim their kill” he mused.
Whether it was the overcoming of the fatigue of the long COVID or the sequels of George’s soul searching throughout his fever, with time a parallel evolution inside George began to take ascendancy over his bleak, abstract thoughts. Patricia’s unequivocal love towards him arrested his decline into self-pity. Her warmth hastened his healing and a stronger, more complete, more open George, filled out through increased self-knowledge, emerged.
“You know what” George chimed one day over breakfast with Patricia. “All that paraphernalia in the hospitals, the protocols and the equipment, the nurses and doctors with their impersonal medical terms, the daily pandemic statistics, they need those professional barriers to protect themselves” he observed. “But at the end of the day, you can see it shining through, it’s Humanity. Deep down, they do it because it’s natural for us to take care of each other, of our fellow human beings. That gives me hope.”
“I know George,” answered Patricia, surprising herself that the memory of Santiago and his all-inclusive view of how things are, and will be, should come to mind. “It’s Nature, and Love is part of it.”
* * *
When George was a young boy, there was a girl in his class. Her name was Patricia. They played games together in the schoolyard. George adored her, though he knew, in his private, childish way, he could never tell her. Out of sight of everyone, at night, as he settled down to sleep, little George would lie to one side of his bed and leave a space on his pillow, for Patricia to lie next to him. When his family moved away from the area, George was too young to think to keep in touch with her, and they never met again.
Now, here, in front of him, was his real Patricia. The Patricia he had met as a man. The Patricia who was lying in bed, facing him. The two were looking into each other’s eyes. There was full clarity, full confidence between them. COVID had wiped away any barriers there had been in their way. COVID had bared all. They were together and the only thing left between them now, was Love.
The gentle glint of a tear welled up in the corner of George’s eye and slowly trickled down his cheek. His eyes were full of joy, full of meaning. The shine in his eyes magnified his confidence, radiating out to Patricia.
George remained silent.
“No more afraid” Patricia could sense him saying.
“Afraid no more” replied Patricia.