"Have you ever been, completely and utterly, destroyed?
Have you ever suffered so grievous a wound, so deep a pain, that the very act of living is excruciatingly painful? That it went straight to the core of who you are, and changed, for you, what it meant to live? To be human?
I loved her. And what's better, she loved me. My first love. And the universe was fair. The world was beautiful. For all its sham, drudgery, suffering and broken dreams, it was beautiful. I could live through anything that happened, because there was someone by my side. Someone to share everything with. Someone you knew would be there for you to rush to no matter what happened. Someone to face the world with. Your own little corner of God's great universe wasn't so small and lonely anymore.
And whilst it lasted, it lasted beautifully. You'd walk in the park, and see all these couples holding hands, and you'd smile. You'd pass a corner cafe, and see young lovebirds gazing into each other's eyes and laughing, and you'd smile. You'd pass billboards in the street advertising the latest romantic blockbuster, and you'd smile. Because you had someone to watch it with. You had someone to take walks in the park with. You had someone to sit down and laugh with, to pick up from work, to take to dinner, to fight with, to cry with. You had SOMEONE. Someone who fit you. Someone who completed you.
And you could understand how the world kept going on, despite all its tragedies, injustices and sins. Because people were still in love with each other.
And then it happens. Things grow old and die. Nothing lasts forever. All happiness fades away eventually. The bright days grow dark, the black clouds cover the sun, trees shed their leaves and grow bare.
Suddenly, she's gone.
And you're left alone to face it. No explanations. No one to answer your questions. You're lying on the ground, gasping in pain, trying to comprehend the blind horror of it all. You're reaching out for help, you turn to everyone you knew, asking for some sympathy, some support; you don't feel like living anymore, and you've lost the fear of death. In fact, you think it might be better off to die; to float up, far far away, and return to the arms of the Creator. Whatever supreme being is up there waiting at the end of this journey, He might have some answers. And comfort. Some soothing relief from this blinding pain.
Because no one else can offer you any. Everyone around you is wondering why you're so weak. Why you can't be a man and deal with it. Why you're wasting their time telling anyone who'll listen how painful it is. Everybody breaks up, and they're still walking around. What's wrong with you? The world is full of tales of broken love. Everyone's got a tragedy. Take it like a man and get on with it.
So you keep it inside. You walk around with this deep, searing wound within you, a pain that goes so far down into your core that it's become part of who you are, and you plaster a smile on your face and pretend that everything's okay. You walk through the park, you walk past cafes, you walk under billboards, and you pretend you don't see anything."
He sighs and fidgets with the IV line in his arm. For a long time he stares at his own feet, making impressions in the hospital blanket.
I sit there looking at him. I do not speak. The Patient Interview handbook stays clutched in my hand, forgotten.
After a while he perks up. "But last night she came back to me." He smiles.
"Last night I dreamt of her. She was standing in a field. She'd hurt her foot. I bent down to help her, and she kneeled. I teased her for being a klutz. She always was. She laughed, and I smiled. I felt happy for the first time in years. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was, how much I loved her--"
He stops. A single small tear rolls down his cheek. His expression hardens, but he continues staring into space.
"And then he woke me up."
And he looks up for the first time, staring at the nurse standing a few beds away. His expression contorts into one of pure rage. But he does not say anything. He knows the nurse is innocent. But he needs somewhere to pour his anger and his heartbreak. In this cold world of unfeeling, uncaring people, he needs somewhere to vent.
He turns to look at me. The moment of rage is gone. "You're young. You of all people should know how it feels to have a really good dream interrupted."
I try and smile. I am no stranger to pain. I know what he must have gone through. This man, this former drill sergeant, who fought in some of the worst wars of our time, who has seen men die under a hail of bullets, comforted grieving widows and suddenly fatherless children, this man knows pain.
The sound of chairs being drawn back makes me look around. The other medics have finished their interviews and are leaving the ward. I turn back to him, unsure of how to make a gracious exit.
But he smiles. "Go, young man. The best of luck to you."
A week later, he is gone. I find out from a patient follow-up meeting. He went peacefully, in his sleep. The night before he died, his condition had worsened. His last instruction was "Don't wake me up".
I find myself feeling glad. I do not know if that makes me a horrible person.
Picture credit: 'Outline of a Love Lost' from abstrusezincate