“My Voice” by Nick Smart

Nick Smart - 'Survivor'

Smiling Hooks

After recovering from testicular cancer and its complications, I, like many survivors, was faced with the realisation that life is as short as it is sweet, and with the desire to use my time well. I guess the sudden awareness of one’s mortality tends to focus the mind. I decided to follow a dream, and take a degree in English literature. I had the time of my life. It was through my studies that I discovered the work of the great American poet, Sylvia Plath. Her poetry became very popular after her suicide in 1963, and so her work is often read in the light of her problematic life and untimely death, though many feel it has a great deal more to offer than simple clues to explain her mental and emotional state. One poem, ‘Tulips’, resonated with me. In it Plath describes her body as a “pebble”, moved by external forces and tended by others, existing independently of her own will or volition. She also speaks of photos of her family as “smiling hooks”, which catch on to her skin and pulling and willing her back to life, though she is unwilling to follow…

I became seriously ill very quickly. On the previous day I had seen my oncologist who had said that, two weeks into my chemotherapy, I was doing really well. The following morning, we had left home for the hospital, where I was to receive a one hour infusion of Bleomycin – one of the chemotherapeutic drugs that were saving my life from the cancer which had begun in my testicle, and travelled to my abdominal lymph node, lung and possibly my neck.

I had arrived feeling fine, and sat as before in the reclining chair, ready to receive the treatment, a quick one hour infusion into a vein in my arm, after which I could go home. I was surprised at how quickly things moved. My temperature was taken, and was found to be raised. It was a sign that I had some kind of infection. As was to be expected at this point in my treatment, the level of my white blood cells was also low, so I had little reserves with which to fight any infection. I was asked how I felt, and realised that I was feeling very weak – beyond the weakness and fatigue that one expects during chemotherapy. I was admitted to a bed on the hospital ward, and then quickly moved to an isolation room. A large yellow sign on the door warned potential visitors that they were not permitted to enter, for fear they would pass on some innocuous germ which, in my depleted state, could kill me.

By the time I entered the room, I was very weak. I wouldn’t say that I was unable to move – possibly I could have done so if I had wished, but I had absolutely no desire to move or do anything. My only wish was to lie quietly and peacefully. As I was placed onto a bed, I was dimly aware that people in another room were making a loud noise. I may be wrong, but I recall the sound as wailing and shouting – perhaps someone’s grief for a patient who had died. My wife and mother, who were with me, were concerned and annoyed that I should be disturbed in this way, and asked the nurse if this noise could be stopped. The last thing I needed, they felt, was a disturbance like this. For my part though, I didn’t care at all about the noise. As long as I was permitted to lie still and was not required to move, then – live or die – I was content. I felt calm. If I was to die, I felt complete acceptance. It felt right.

My wish to lie still was not to be granted for long. Against my inclination, I was put into a wheelchair and pushed through the underground labyrinth which connects the Oncology Centre with the larger infirmary in Bristol. As we travelled, my head lolled about, unsupported. Again, I may have been able to hold it up, but why bother to try? We arrived at the x-ray machine which was to be employed in trying to discover any signs of the source of the infection. I was almost unable to stand to be x-rayed. As I half stood at the machine, my hands – which the radiologist had requested I put on my head – hung lazily at my sides while my knees could not straighten to stand my body up straight. Rather than stand behind a radiation-proof screen, as is customary, my wife Kath remained with me and held my body in position. I don’t remember the trip back to my room.

I was in hospital for ten days in total; seven for the infection, followed by three for the next round of chemo. During that time, the doctors kept the infection at bay by administering broad spectrum antibiotics intravenously, until such time my natural immunity recovered to the extent that it could fight the hidden enemy. After a few days, I remember lying in bed feeling bored, and then feeling delighted that I was well enough to have such a feeling.

A year or two later I had no time to be bored. Spending my days in the historic city of Bath studying great poetry was a dream realised, and I enjoyed and savoured every moment. So it was that I came across Plath’s ‘Tulips’. As she describes her hospital stay following a suicide attempt, her body is likened to the pebble, moved around by outside forces just as mine was moved – unaided by me and independent of my own volition – along the labyrinthine paths to the x-ray machine. She describes the feeling of “learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly” as I felt peaceful for as long as I was undisturbed in my bed. “The peacefulness is so big it dazes you”, she said.

She also describes her “husband and child smiling out of the family photo; / Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks”. In the same way, my family forced reactions from me that I – in my peaceful and accepting state – was unwilling to give, but were necessary for my recovery. But for them, I would have been content to lie still in my bed and drift away.

Plath states, simply, ‘I am nobody’.

Thankfully, I am somebody. I did not become the non-person that Plath did. My family – my smiling hooks – and the medical profession carried on the fight in my name while I was incapacitated. Through their endeavours, I escaped the fate that I had accepted, but which they – thankfully – did not accept. I survived to enjoy and savour my time at university, and to read and understand the words of Sylvia Plath.

It is to my smiling hooks that I owe my recovery, and to Plath I owe my understanding of that debt.