“There is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires—that mysterious, inalienable spirit, spirit of Oxford. Oxford! The very sight of the word printed, or sound of it spoken, is fraught for me with most actual magic.”
Oxford burst into my life through a dramatic phone call from Rome:
“This is Cara in Rome,” my niece choked into the telephone.
“Mama had a massive brain hemorrhage in Oxford a few hours ago. She’s in the Intensive Care Unit at the John Radcliffe Infirmary. It’s the worst bleed doctors have ever seen where a patient has lived. If you want to see Mama again, you best go to Oxford right away.”
I recoiled. My head began to whirl. Just a few years before, my husband had lain in an ICU dying of a brain disease. Now this? I didn’t want to believe it.
I knew that Cara’s mother, my beloved younger sister, Anne, had gone from her home in Belgium to Oxford, England, the week before to help with her newly born granddaughter. I knew that for days and weeks prior to her departure she had had relentless headaches for which her doctor in Brussels had merely prescribed painkillers. What doctor in his right mind lets excruciating headaches go for weeks without a CAT scan? I thought, as I tried to come to terms with the dreadful news.
“I’m so sorry,” I gulped to Cara when I found my voice again. I tried to extract every last morsel of information about Anne’s condition from her, forgetting that she, a young, housebound mother in Rome, could only have learned of the Oxford crisis long-distance herself. She could only repeat that her father had said the situation was grave and that she, too, would fly to England as soon as she could make childcare arrangements for her toddler.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I moaned as we ended our conversation. “I’ll check with the airlines to see if I can get a flight today.”
Since it was early November, the off-season, airlines were only too happy to accommodate my last-minute need for a Seattle-London ticket, and thus delivered me, in the late afternoon of the next day, to London’s Heathrow Airport. I then taxied 54 miles northwest to Oxford’s Warnborough Road. There, Anne’s son, my nephew Eric, the proud father of the new baby girl, lived with his wife and two sons under the age of seven.
After heartfelt hellos to this stricken family and a quick deposit of my luggage into the guestroom upstairs, Anne’s husband, Paxton, walked me along Oxford’s already darkened streets to the John Radcliffe Infirmary (“the JR”) on Woodstock Road. Here family members could be with their loved ones 22 hours a day.
Anne lay intubated. Tubes coiled out of her brain, spilling dark blood into a plastic receptacle behind her head.
“She is not out of danger yet,” Anne’s doctor told us soon after we arrived. To underscore the seriousness of her condition, he added: “Her brain is bleeding in three places.”
He went on to explain that the blood’s darkness suggests old blood, as if Anne’s brain had been bleeding internally for some time. It began to pool, he speculated, creating pressure, thus the debilitating headaches she had experienced prior to her trip to Oxford.
I spent my first hours and days in Oxford focused single-mindedly on Anne’s condition. Each morning around eight as I marched from Warnborough Road to the JR, I took only cursory notice of the city’s honey-colored skyline of towers, pinnacles, and spires looming around me.
I hardly cared that this was the seat of England’s illustrious University of Oxford (informally Oxford University), a learning center since about 1167, and now a federation of 36 colleges specializing in the humanities, which has graduated 25 British prime ministers, assorted kings, Nobel Prize winners, and a president of the United States (Bill Clinton).
That the University of Oxford had also educated such luminaries as John Donne (1572-1631), Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) seemed a mere curiosity. I felt indifferent when a neighbor showed me the house where Bill Clinton lived as a young Rhodes Scholar years before. To my distraught mind, such references seemed completely irrelevant at that moment in time.
During this period, when only Anne seemed to matter, I arrived at the ICU one morning to find that her endotracheal tube had been removed. She could breathe on her own. She was conscious. She knew her name. She knew my name. Her four languages appeared to be intact (in Brussels Anne had worked as a translator for the European Commission).
“Anne stands a good chance of making a full recovery,” her doctor announced, clearly surprised by the sudden turn of events.
With the doctors’ positive outlook, a veil seemed to have lifted. It was as though the doctors had suddenly given me permission to take notice of Oxford proper, a comfortable walk from the JR.
Before, I had stumbled almost unconsciously from Eric’s home to the hospital. But now, during the morning hours, when family members had to vacate the ICU so the staff could bathe the patients and conduct medical procedures (usually from 9 to 11, sometimes until noon), I sipped coffee at Starbucks on Cornmarket Street, and explored this ancient town.
In the next three blogs, I’ll tell you about some of my Oxford discoveries.