Six years ago I started a new job working with stroke survivors in south London.
As part of my induction I went into a rehabilitation gym and saw a man trying to learn to walk again. John. He was supported on both sides by physiotherapists, who were helping him to inch forwards across the floor. His left leg dragged behind him. He tilted to one side. Sweat was dripping down his face and his jaw was clenched. Slowly, he made it to the plinth in the middle of the room and collapsed against it, breathing heavily. His eyes flicked towards me. I opened my mouth to speak, but had no idea what to say. He exhaled. ‘I look even better when I dance.’ Then he laughed. He was one week post-stroke, and he had made me feel less awkward about what he was having to face.
That defiant humour was something I saw a lot of over the next few weeks as I started to work with clinicians and patients. One woman visited her husband every night in his inpatient rehabilitation centre. Every evening he was there waiting for her, full of stories of what he had achieved that day. They celebrated every mouthful of food forked into his mouth, every word remembered, every T-shirt successfully pulled over his head. They didn’t look back at what he had lost. They set their eyes on the future.
My head was full of these people and their bravery. I kept wondering what it would be like to have your whole being shattered like that – to be unable to make a cup of tea or hold your loved one in your arms. And then – too – what it would be like to be married to someone and to support them through this crisis? To lose the person you married and to be forced to adjust to whoever they became?
By now it was 2010, and I was about to get married, and somehow – the night before my wedding – the two things coalesced into the biggest ‘What if?’ question I could think of. What if your husband had a stroke on the day you were going to leave him?
Five years, and many many rewrites later, ‘My Everything’ is about to be published by Hodder & Stoughton. I am overjoyed to see my story in print, but I can never forget where it came from. From brave men like John, fighting to walk across the floor in an NHS gym. That bravery is what inspired the book. That courage to keep carrying on.