I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
Read: 9 - 10 May 2020
Release year: 2017
This memoir by Maggie O'Farrell was recommended to me and I absolutely loved it - so much that I finished reading it within a day. After the first 15 of the 17 chapters of the book I wasn't so sure about it, but after reading the last two chapters I was sold. In I Am, I Am, I Am the author describes 17 situations where she came close to death. Confrontations with murderers and robbers, a couple of almost drownings, close calls with cars and a plane, complications in childbirth, complications after a miscarriage, an encounter with a circus knife-thrower and several diseases. How can someone go through all of these things in his/her life? Is she unlucky to encounter so many life-threatening situations or is she lucky to survive them all?
At first, I found the writer pretty reckless in some of the chapters: she jumped of a harbour wall, she walked alone in remote mountains, she took night trains through Europe on her own, arriving in cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay, and she swam in dangerous waters. However, in the penultimate chapter she describes the reason why, after opening up about being diagnosed with encephalitis at the age of eight.
Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls.
As a teenager she decides to jump of a harbour wall in the middle of the night after being encouraged by a group of friends. This on its own is already stupid, but because of her childhood illness, her sense of spatial coordination is not what it should be. Her ability to sense where things are or should be and her place among them is impaired. When she ends up in the dark, black water, she has no sense of which way was up.
It was not so much that I didn't value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that I could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine - perhaps to a fault - about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn't scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it could so easily have been otherwise, skewed my thinking. I viewed my continuing life as an extra, a bonus, a boon: I could do with it what I wanted.
The chapter about her childhood disease was really heartbreaking. Because of the encephalitis, she ended up not being able to move her body and required a lot of therapy to get back on her feet. One of the passages in this chapter that made an impact on me was when she needed to be restraint and eventually sedated to endure a CAT-scan.
The people in the room shift uneasily, fiddle with charts, with blinds. They are not used to dealing with children, especially distressed ones. They are radiologists, machine operators, graph producers, results analysers. They have no idea what to do.
Sedation is, I discover, only skin-deep. It covers you in a hot, suffocating rush, as if you're being swaddled, tightly, in a thick blanket. It makes you unable to speak, to articulate, to communicate. Sensation departs from your limbs, from the outer inches of your body. But inside? Inside, the panic and fear still swarm, just in a smaller space.
The last chapter is just as heartbreaking and reveals the reason why she wrote the book in the first place: to let her daughter know she is not alone. Here she writes about her daughter who is born with a severe immune disorder causing her to have on average 12 to 15 life-threatening allergic reactions a year. The reactions can be triggered by eating something with traces of nuts, sitting at a table where someone has eaten something with nuts, sitting close to someone who is wearing sunscreen containing almonds or someone who opens the wrapping of an energy bar with nuts, and so on.
I know I must nod calmly when people tell me they understand exactly how I feel because they have a gluten allergy, which makes them really bloated whenever they eat bread. I know to be patient and genial when I have to explain that, no, it's not OK to bring that hummus into our house. No, it's not a good idea to give her a little bit to get her used to it. No, please don't open that near her. Yes, your lunch could kill my child.
The writer did an amazing job to wrap up the book in such an amazing way, which seemed chaotic to me in the beginning. All of the separate stories made sense to me after reading to last two chapters and left a huge impact on me. I leave you with one last quote from the book.
That the things in life which don't go to plan are usually more important, more formative, in the long run, than the things that do.