The eyes never lie. Windows to the soul, they are unyielding in the game of life.
‘Isn’t it always the same old story – that hindsight is the teacher who always arrives too late and says I-told-you-so? We’re always blissfully ignorant and complacent leading up to life-changing events.’
The opening lines in ‘The World I Fell Out Of’ by Melanie Reid.
The poignancy in these words. A warning to each and every one of us – and who isn’t guilty of taking life for granted, fixating on the small things which mean absolutely nothing at the end of the day? Why is it that one feels indestructible? Safe in that invisible bubble, one acknowledges the everyday news of death, disaster and tragedy – life beyond Brexit – and, pausing to empathise, briefly, moves on. Horrible things only happen to other people … Well, no they don’t and Melanie Reid is the embodiment of stark reality. Her story, tragically, is a gift; a plea to take stock, cast off that complacency and realise what – and who – is truly important. In the words of Perry Como (And I Love You So), ‘The book of life is brief …’. Problem is, none of us knows just how brief.
Tickets to see Melanie Reid at the Book Festival (Edinburgh International) were hard to come by. The acclaimed writer of the Spinal Column in the magazine section of The Times, life as she knew it all but ended in April 2010 when she broke her neck and back falling from her horse. Paralysed from the chest down, her book, The World I Fell Out Of documents her year of recovery, as such, and her endeavour to adjust. Brutally honest, it is a book written with characteristic intelligence and humour but, moreover, it is one of immense courage. Sitting in the front row, feet away, I watched her wheel herself up the ramp and onto the little stage. I was immediately struck by the sadness in her eyes.
As she read aloud from the opening page of her story, I was caught off-guard by the impact of her words. Like most of the audience, I am sure, I had read them myself. Caught up in her world of hindsight and regret, however, I was merely the reader; a third party looking in. Now, the words were real, given expression by the author, herself, sitting in front of me in her wheelchair, her body lifeless from the chest down as she willed her arms and claw-like hands to co-operate as best they could. Truly humbling, this amazing, courageous lady, herself a reminder of life’s fragility, was asking each and every one of us to take heed. There but for the grace of God …
Or a twist of fate. I remember when Christopher Reeve, aka Superman, fell off his horse as it refused a small practice jump. Growing up riding, that was a regular occurrence; par for the course. One just got up and straight back on, regardless of any pain, in a bid to minimise the embarrassment. There were bruised egos and bruised limbs but no thought given to lucky escapes. Lucky. How different it could have been. Christopher Reeve fell awkwardly as did Melanie Reid. Why them?
As she read further excerpts from her book charting her year in hospital, she spoke candidly about her feelings, her emotions, her fragile mental state as she struggled to come to terms with … everything! Cruelly tormented by the loss of a happy life she took for granted, she was forced to face her own mortality in her injury and physical paralysis and dig deep to find the strength to carry on for her son and her husband. The power of love.
An intelligent, talented woman, she credits, too, her writing as being paramount in her recovery. Speaking into a dictaphone strategically placed at the side of her head, words were her vehicle when nothing else would move; a vehicle through which she could vent her anguish and frustration whilst reaffirming her keen sense of humour. Inherent throughout her book and her writing, humour emanates from this remarkable human being and, I suspect, may well be her real saviour. Part of her make-up, the ability to recognise the comical, the absurd, the ironic in the most testing of situations is a gift. However, one which is sorely tried.
Questions were invited from the audience which produced a sea of hands but many sought, only, the opportunity to heap praise on this courageous lady, an inspiration in the true sense of the word. Visibly moved by the reaction to her story, Melanie fought back the tears unable to maintain the mask. For a mask, it understandably is. Like us all, she has a public face. Each of us has a persona which one chooses to present to the outside world disguising a truth which may be very different. An armour, of sorts, it is a means of survival in everyday life; a form of privacy protecting one’s inner feelings; one’s soul. For most, each new day in this cut-throat, egocentric world brings challenges requiring courage, confidence and a smile and pride ensures one complies – hence the mask. Buried deep inside, though, are the real feelings and insecurities which, if ignored, may go away? Sadly, no. Few are given access to this inner sanctum and the rest will look no further than the mask. Said mask, however, has holes for the eyes which, for those who choose to see, render it useless.
Growing up with ponies, we learned the importance of the eye. The window to the soul, equine eyes are huge and revealing. Kind and intelligent, frightened and wild or hurt and sad, the character synopsis is there for the taking. People may be more complex with the ability to disguise but no amount of window dressing renders the glass opaque.
So it was with Melanie Reid. She wears a mask. Of course, she does. Courtesy of her courage, intelligence, humour and unyielding support system, she has learned to accept – or has she? Would anyone? She has no choice. Tell that to her eyes; to her soul. I watched as she smiled and strived to adorn her fate with humour in a bid to make it, somehow, less daunting but her eyes were not receiving. A few feet away, there was no disguising her inner sadness.
That hour and her story will stay with me. I left with huge respect for Melanie Reid but, moreover, with a feeling of sadness – and shame – at how much we all take for granted.
Looking through my little red book of quotes, I stopped at this one. Courtesy of, perhaps, my favourite author, Alexandra Fuller, it seemed appropriate:
‘ … but the pathos and the gift of life is that we cannot know which will be our defining heartbreak, or our most victorious joy.’
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller.
This is Trish, signing off.