Constellations by Sinead Gleeson

Picador

Most of us have probably forgotten, but as children there must be a first moment of realisation on gazing at the stars on a clear, bright night that they are very far away and the sky is very, very vast. On closer, deeper thought there is awe, even fear, and many choose not to think too much about the universe, what it holds and what our place in it might mean, but others choose to map the stars, to investigate in more detail, to impart some meaning on these beacons of light scattered over the rooftop of our earthly home.

The constellations are pointed out to eager children willing to be shown, by those who have learned them from their own parents or teachers, who in turn learned from theirs. I can just about identify Orion’s Belt and The Plough, but have mostly imagined, or pretended to have identified the others that are clearly visible from vantage points on cloudless nights. But they are there, and they have purpose both mythological, philosophical and scientific. They are a fitting metaphor for Sinead Gleeson’s personal identity; “I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles”.

Constellations is also an appropriate title for this collection of essays that ties together the complicated medical history of the author with her sense of self, both innate and acquired, her strong feminist ideology cultivated by years in and out of hospitals and by simply existing as a girl, then woman, and her Irish identity, from pious 1980s schoolgirl Catholicism to post marriage and abortion referenda, pre-Brexit Ireland. Through the author’s many medical issues she observes life and society, roles within it and the treatment of its minorities, both unwilling and unable to speak for themselves.

She describes a school trip to Lourdes, when she is forced to use a wheelchair to combat the unwieldy terrain and long distances. The wheelchair is required in temporary bursts thanks to a diagnosis at the age of thirteen of monoarticular arthritis, a condition that caused the fluid in her left hip to evaporate and thus the connective bones to grind together and wear down. A whole hip replacement is to come, years later, but in Lourdes she uses the wheelchair for the blessing, and from her vantage point at the front observes those in conditions much worse than hers, too infirm to communicate, too ill to function. Her faith in an impending miracle wavers.

Later on she writes that in hospital “the patient is always visible in some way, if not always seen”. I imagine that this sentence in and of itself will strike a chord with many people, patients former and current, who have been treated not as people who deserve dignity but as medical marvels in need of fixing. There must be a relief that there is someone there in the form of Gleeson to describe a version of what they have felt and seen, but perhaps had been unable to put into words due to pain or confusion overwhelming any other thought, deference to physicians who may seem like deities with healing powers or even the dismal by doctors of valid concerns that then go untreated. Now, by Gleeson, they are seen.

The author also points out that no two instances of diseases are the same, no two instances of pain within a disease, or condition, or syndrome, burn or fall. This is what makes is so hard to articulate. But maybe the writer’s distinct, vibrant, poetic descriptions will help others find their own words. In a chapter based on the McGill pain index she lays out the words she chose to describe her pain levels in 20 different instances, elaborating on them in stanzas, each different in style from the other. They’re very effective, visceral and powerful, pulling no punches and apologising for nothing, least of all how she feels and has felt.

Never have I felt more fortunate that I have been spared, so far, pain others have been faced with; chronic, acute, recurring. Gleeson calmly yet lyrically, with ferocity and with wisdom born from a lifetime of observation writes her truth, and thus the corresponding truth about those in similar situations. Her awareness is possibly amplified by childhood self-consciousness, times spent in unwanted solitude in which her bright, sharp, intellectual mind has been forced, in some ways, to reflect. I am in no doubt that this collection will ring true for a great many, and it’s one that women, patients, carers, doctors, citizens of a humane society should read.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 08 05 19.

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