It was the tweet that let the world know Michael Rosen was back on form and on the mend. “My wheelchair days are over. Stick now. Sticky McStick Stick,” he wrote in June last year, after having come down with Covid-19 in March and spent 48 days in intensive care.
Now, the poet and former children’s laureate has written a moving picture book about Sticky McStickstick and his battle with long Covid on an NHS rehabilitation ward last summer.
Illustrated to great comic effect by Tony Ross, Sticky McStickstick: The Friend Who Helped Me Walk Again details Rosen’s transformation from a man who could not stand up by himself to a grandfather who proudly walks home, into the open arms of his beloved family. It is dedicated to his wife and children, and “all the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and hospital workers who saved my life.”
The 75-year-old author of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, told the Observer: “It’s a way of opening up a conversation with children, across generations, about that cycle of illness and trying to recover.”
He hopes the book, which will be published in November, will help children, parents and grandparents struggling with long Covid and other debilitating illnesses. “One of the things we’re always saying to children is: try harder. We put in front of them great sporting successes – we’re all watching them now at the Olympics. But I think if I had to list my greatest physical achievements in life, one of them would be learning to walk again this last year. This book is a reminder that there are very, very ordinary achievements that are amazing as well.”
He found his rehabilitation experience “utterly infantilising” – so it made sense to write a children’s book about it. “Six months earlier, I was giving lectures on narratology at a university. And now, here’s somebody saying, ‘Michael, throw the balloon’ and I’m going ‘eeurgh’, and the physio is saying, ‘Come on, Michael, you can do it.’”
On another occasion, he was re-learning how to get up from a bench and was told to put his hands behind himself and his nose over his toes. “Like a child, for the next few weeks, I just kept repeating to myself: hands behind, nose over toes, hands behind, nose over toes.” He adds, with horror: “I should have put that in the book, shouldn’t I?” A few hours later, he emails to say that ‘nose over toes’ has been added, last minute, to the story: “We’ve squeezed it in. It’s in!”
As Rosen starts to regain his strength, Ross’s illustrations show him zooming around the hospital in his wheelchair. “I remember a nurse saying, ‘Slow down, Michael, slow down,’” he recalls.
He is then told to start using a walking stick. “I was scared. I thought I would fall over,” he writes in the book. But soon, he grew to love his Sticky McStickstick. “He helped me walk.”
In total, Rosen spent 40 days in an induced coma, and when he came out he couldn’t even feed himself. “I sat there waiting for someone to put a spoon in my mouth. I really did feel like a one-year-old.”
Writing about his “childlike” experiences on the rehabilitation ward has helped him to come to terms with the trauma of what happened to him, he says. He has lost most of the sight in his left eye and most of the hearing in his left ear, and still gets bouts of dizziness. “You realise that you’ve changed so much, fundamentally, physically and so on. And that life has changed, for all of us. That seems to take a lot of work. You have to do a lot of mind work, thinking about your frailty and fragility.”
He has discovered he can sit in a room and just dwell on this. “I have to make an effort not to let it drag me down or prevent me from doing things.” He fears many others are in the same situation. “It does sometimes feel as if the country has experienced some kind of war. There have been no guns, bullets or bombs, but the pandemic has had a huge and profound effect on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. It isn’t a war, but it is a trauma – personal, for many people, but also societal.”
Though he no longer needs its support, Rosen is keeping hold of Sticky McStickstick. When he sees his old friend looking at him as he walks out of the door, it is a poignant reminder of his difficult journey, “the wonderful people” who cared for him and all he has achieved. “He’s my reward.”