In March 2020, as the pandemic rumbled through our lives, writer and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized, spending 40 days and nights in a coma. Before he was sedated, a doctor asked him if he would sign a paper that would let them put him to sleep. “Am I going to wake up? Rosen said. There are 50-50 chances, answered the doctor. “If I don’t sign? He asked. Zero.
The truth, he learned later, was that the doctor didn’t know whether Rosen would become brain dead or not. When he awoke he was a different person: unable to speak or walk, and with hazy vision and hearing in only one ear. “I’m not who I was anymore,” he tells us in Getting Better, and yet “I’m still that person, it’s just that something big happened to change me.”
What does it mean to be a changed person, to experience such a seismic event that you find things are never the same afterwards? How to understand and accept the new reality? That’s what Rosen, now 76, tackles in this moving memoir and guide, in which he grapples with the moments that marked him most: facing his mortality, understanding the legacy the Holocaust in her family, losing her job, chronic illness, and dealing with the loss of her 18-year-old son Eddie to meningitis.
It’s a book about survival. For Rosen, this invariably involves writing, processing thoughts and emotions. Through a mix of reminiscences and lessons, he also shows us to “get better” like running, like taking pills, like getting better, like something you can’t do on your own, like joy; and even putting difficult feelings in a box if necessary. Rosen never imposes answers on us: “We can watch what other people are doing, listen to what people are saying, but in the end we have to make it work for whoever we are and whatever the life situation. in which we find ourselves. »
In the most moving section, Rosen describes how her son Eddie went to bed one night with flu-like symptoms and never woke up again. He expresses silent horror at finding him cold in his bed. “How can you improve on something as total and as devastating as this?” In the process, he describes a trip to Paris with the mother of Eddie, his ex-wife, and a wandering in the Montparnasse cemetery. They spot a woman crying near a wall: she can barely speak through her tears but tells them she is mourning her son who died 10 years earlier. Rosen is terrified that this is his destiny: to feel so distressed for the rest of his life.
There is no solution, but he details the slow process of finding a voice that allows him to speak about Eddie, aided by a child asking him a question about his son during a conference. He later wrote about the experience in Sad Book (2004), illustrated by Quentin Blake. More than 20 years later, he discovers that Eddie is “here, he is in me, he is around me… Is he ‘at rest’ in me and with me? Yes, I think it’s something like that.
It’s as much a book about finding words to express our problems as it is about the life of the author, and Rosen, who is Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a generous teacher. We feel his doubts, his uncertainty and his curiosity. “I’m on the edge of what I understand,” he says, but by writing, by sharing, by searching for meaning, he offers readers a lifeline, and shows them that they don’t live alone.