When the writer and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen emerged from eight weeks of intensive care last year, during which he was put in a medically induced coma, he was unable to speak. At intervals, doctors would come over and tell him how unwell he had been.
They often seem pleased – surprised almost –
That I’m less poorly.
I get the feeling that some people
Who were very poorly, died.
I didn’t die.
Through a mixture of prose poems, notes written by medical staff (“keep fighting!”) and occasional emails from his wife, Emma, relaying his progress to family members, Many Different Kinds of Love paints a harrowing picture of being hospitalised with Covid-19. Through Rosen’s customarily sparse and unaffected language, it documents the days leading up to his hospitalisation, when he was bedbound and short of breath. “It feels like I can’t get enough air,” he told Emma. Calls to 111 were made, during which he was told to stay at home and rest. But then a GP friend came over and measured his blood oxygen levels, and instructed him to go to A&E. In hospital, Rosen recalls a brief conversation with a doctor before he was put to sleep. Would he wake up? “There’s a 50:50 chance,” came the reply.
We are now seeing a trickle of books attempting to make sense of the pandemic, variously examining the science of Covid, the government response and the ways we have failed to learn from history. Many Different Kinds of Love is perhaps the first to tell us about the disease through the eyes – and wheezing lungs – of the patient. Fear, despair and frustration feature highly in Rosen’s recollections; his sense of powerlessness is visceral and upsetting. But the book’s beating heart is the love shown to him by others.
We feel the panic felt by his family, unable to visit and praying for good news, as well as the care and kindness dispensed by medical staff, who pin a copy of Rosen’s poem “These Are the Hands” above his head. Among those looking after him was a urology nurse, a Great Ormond Street nurse and a speech and language therapist, each of them drafted from their usual posts to help in ICU. After intensive care comes the gruelling physiotherapy to help Rosen breathe, talk, move and eventually walk unaided. His body, by now a stranger to him, wills him to give up. But on he soldiers, reflecting on his new reality of pills and procedures, tests and consultations. Months later, tottering to the shops, he meets well-wishers on the street who gasp at his triumph over mortality, though he doesn’t see it this way. “I didn’t cancel death,” he writes. “It just didn’t happen right then.”