In mid-October I had a CT scan at Merlin Park Hospital on both my lungs and groin area. I had developed what seemed to be a swollen lymph node on my right side hip/groin.
I first noticed it in very late July when I was in Stonehaven near Aberdeen in the north east of Scotland taking part in a poetry festival. Where the swollen lymph node was, right at the top of my right leg, it gave me a slight limp. At first I thought it might be tendonitis.
Or perhaps I’d pulled something while dragging my small suitcase on and off the plane? Like everyone else, I was only getting used, post-Covid, to dragging cases around airports again. Or could it maybe be a hernia? I hadn’t a clue.
I also have chronic sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease which in Irish people usually hits the lungs, but can turn up, and inflame, any part of the body. My GP referred me for an ultra-sound scan, like the one pregnant women get. I could see the lymph node on the screen, inches in front of me, doing its thing. Though I didn’t know yet know what its thing was.
The ultra-sound scan proved “inconclusive”. I hadn’t been worried really. It is, as my late Mother used to say, hard to kill a bad thing. I’ve dealt with loads of complicated and initially confusing sounding health stuff over the past ten years. Before that I was someone who maybe saw a doctor once every eighteen months.
Back then, the hospital had been a place I knew as an outsider, it was part of my work: I have been writer-in-residence at University Hospitals Galway since 2007, working with Margaret Flannery of SAOLTA Arts on, among other things,. reminiscence projects with long stay older patients at Merlin Park, several of which were published as pamphlets and launched as part of Cúirt Festivals. Since then my health had led me to get to know our two local hospitals in an altogether more intimate way.
I am now one of the regulars. Nurses and consultants know me on a first name basis. But I’ve never had a morbid attitude to having to attend the hospital. As you get older, your body is a bit like an old car. You take it to the mechanic more and more often, and when whatever it is is fixed for now, one of the door handles usually comes off in your hand on the way out.
After the inconclusive ultra-sound, I was scheduled for the more revealing CT scan. What was going on with this lymph node? What was happening on my lungs? The doctors wanted to know, and throughout October I was moving from discomfort into pain. The CT scan was on a Monday morning at Merlin Park. The night before I was trying to read myself to sleep, something I always do.
My bedroom at home is like a disastrously arranged library, where a biography of John Milton or an anthology of Italian poetry in translation is likely to fall on you at any moment. That night I was struggling a bit with the light. I had ordered new reading glasses but hadn’t yet got them.
To add to the overhead light – I always sleep with the light on - I turned on a bedside lamp and took off the shade to accentuate the brightness. I was immediately struck by the severity of that bare light bulb against the black night at the window. There was something about that light bulb that seemed to speak to the big yes or no question that would be answered pretty soon by the scan I was having the following morning.
It made me think of relatives, such as my grandparents, who would have faced their own bare light bulbs and black skies. For a moment, the room I was in looked like one from the small farmhouse cottages where every single one of my ancestors lived. For them, of course, the light bulb would have at one stage been a newfangled thing, like TikTok or Twitter now, for when they came into the world there was no electric light in those houses.
I suddenly saw myself as one of a line of people who had faced potentially stark verdicts without the noise of the world being there to distract them. I wasn’t special. It wasn’t a question of “why me?” Or if it was, the question: why not? is equally valid.
There is a sixteen year old in the same haematology ward as me right now. My situation is nothing special. This poem grew immediately out of that image of the light bulb juxtaposed against Sunday night sky and the idea that I am one of line of many who have faced this sort of thing.
The night before my CT scan
they all drop by at once,
throw eyes about the room
which, like myself, is organised
in a disorganised sort of way,
I am nothing special
just one in a line
those gone before me
who also lay
alone on mattresses like this
night at the window
offset only by a bare light bulb.