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Illustration by Rachel Wada

Stay calm. This is not a drill. Regular routines are erased and replaced: Stay at home, stay away, stay the course. Just “stay.” Okay. Got it – so strange, so impossible, but, we understand. COVID-19 Act One.

Will Act Two be a return to normal?

We wait on a stage, knowing we have to stay where we stand as the lights flicker and dim. As everything familiar fades, our grief takes predictable forms – rage, denial, bargaining, blame. Sadness is there, too. I know, I have been here before.

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When I woke up in ICU, there were tubes down my throat, lines linking what I sense is me to machines that drip and beep and blip, and there – my darling husband and my dear daughter saying, “Hi. We love you. You are in the hospital. You have been in a coma. You are okay.” I smile (or think I smile) at them and sleep sweeps me away.

The ER doctors diagnosed an aortic dissection. My aorta waits until a second ambulance ride and transferal to the operating room before deciding it might as well go all the way and rupture. My heart stopped again – the electrical impulses are there but it can’t work without blood and I am, well, bleeding blood at an alarming rate. Skilled hands cracked open my sternum. Kind hands massaged my heart and mend the broken and ripped tissues with grafts and stitches, glue and staples.

Nothing is certain.

The doctors and nurses told my family what they could, without attaching guarantees.

Instead, the people taking care of me talk about tomorrow to the beloved people who care about me. “We will remove the tubes and see if she is able to breathe on her own.”

“We will see if she is able to move her limbs.”

My job is to hold on. To cling to the prospect of tomorrow. I am barely aware of this tomorrow notion, so I simply cling. Those around me are all too conscious of the role time plays at this stage and the nights stretch unmercifully.

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But night opens to day and each morning becomes a revelation: from coma to consciousness, from ventilator to lungs pulling ragged breaths on their own, from immobility to making muscles move. Each day is a page turned.

The pages are blurred. Sweet people bring me pieces of paper and I thank them for their thoughtfulness, gripping the Sudoku or cryptic crossword as best I can. The puzzles remain blank. Their purpose is a fragment that floats, unpinnable, in my head.

Ten days postsurgery, I rest in my hospital bed, my daughter beside me, a book open against my raised knees. I laugh.

“What is it, Mum?”

I smile. Though unable to harness the black squiggles to read, I’m not upset. “It’s like wind through long grass and notes singing and swaying as they rise from the grass.” This is how pages filled with words, beautiful words, appear to me. A reasonable joy courses through me.

My struggle is figuring out how to swallow and turn onto my side and stand and help my broken body find its physical self.

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As my body rallies, however, it becomes obvious to me there are skills I had that have been lost. I had been able to make sense of writing and numbers and much more. Now I can’t. What’s happened to my world? My mind is clearing and with this new awareness comes shattering panic.

While my body was fighting to survive, as the vessels meant to channel blood ripped open and my chest flooded, parts of my brain lost their lifeline. I suffered a stroke.

I stand, swaying on unsteady legs, in front of a bathroom mirror staring at something, mystified. It is meant to clean my teeth – that I know – but how? I can locate my teeth, but how does this thing do that? And, even if my mind could visualize the connection, my fisted fingers cannot open to curl around the handle, wherever that might be.

Toothbrushes and I were long-standing intimates in my old world, but that was then. That was before and as I struggle with the toothbrush concept, tears spill onto my hand.

I cry from confusion, frustration and fear. I want to know when life will get back to normal.

Three months later, experienced, caring people at stroke rehab tell my group of stroke survivors that what we are discovering is a “new normal.” Looking around at the women and men living with the consequences of something they hadn’t expected, hadn’t been given a chance to plan for, I am awed by their strength in facing the future despite fear and pain and loss. We aren’t alone and we will figure this out together.

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Political leaders and medical scientists are being asked, “What can we expect? What will the ‘new normal’ look like?” We want to make a plan, to exert some control. We want an end to the grief and will bargain and blame and deny and any number of acts to put a stop to the pain and sadness, the pain of sadness. We didn’t want this, we want our old lives back – but they aren’t coming.

Life won’t be the same after this COVID coma. It will be different. And we will get there together to stand on that stage, hand in hand, taking a bow.

I tell my husband, “I want to say we will be okay.”

Martha Morris lives in Midhurst, Ont.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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