Five years ago I was working with stroke survivors in the NHS. They were facing one of the biggest traumas life can offer – the loss of their former selves. Limbs that didn’t work any more. Words that wouldn’t come. Yet I saw no self-pity. No sense that just by getting up and trying to move or speak again they were being brave. And I realised that this was what I wanted to write about.
One couple in particular springs to mind. Anaya had only just married Vaseem when he had his stroke. He fell onto the sofa one morning and couldn’t get up or speak. Theirs was an arranged marriage and she was terrified as she held his hand in the ambulance, watching as the man she was just getting to know shut down in front of her.
Over the next eight months she carried on working full-time while visiting him every night and weekend in an NHS inpatient rehabilitation centre. He started learning how to walk and talk again, and she learnt to celebrate the small things: his first shave without cutting himself; the day he went a whole stop on a bus without her and managed to stay on his feet; the moment he came home. She stopped thinking about who he had been – and fell in love with the man he had become.
To the world she was just another woman on the Tube, going to work in the City. But underneath she was finding the courage to be the wife he needed – steadfast, optimistic and loyal in the face of his loss and pain.
The two main characters in my debut novel My Everything are brave too. Tom, who has a stroke aged 32 and who can’t walk, put on clothes or cut up his own food. And Hannah, who has made plans for a new life away from him, who must sacrifice her dreams to stay and care for the man who has made her so unhappy. They both have to adapt and find a strength they didn’t know they had. It’s this resilience and courage that fascinates me – the way the worst of situations can bring out the best in us.
Thanks to working with people like Vaseem and Anaya I now see the world differently. Bravery is everywhere – often hidden beneath a joke or a defiant smile. Of course courage can still come dressed in a uniform, but, for most of us, bravery is exactly what you can’t see. It doesn’t stand out. It’s not celebrated or shouted about. It’s just a core part of what it means to be human – of protect-ing those we love and of making the most of our lives.
*names have been changed