Once upon a life: Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld has always known that as a toddler she fell into a coma with a life-threatening virus. She recovered eventually, but she has few memories of that time and her family has never spoken of it. Here, the novelist pieces together the drama of her parents' worst nightmare

When I tell my father I want to talk to him about the time I was ill, he invites me round for lunch at my parents' home in Peckham, south London. We get very polite with each other. He's bought a fancy lunch for us, all the ingredients for Bloody Marys and a lot of sushi. He makes my drink for me, arranges the different sorts of fish on my plate, and the subject does not present itself for discussion for the longest time. It takes until the food is gone and the plates are cleared, and he's made sure he's caught up on everything else – that I'm not drinking too much or eating too little, that work is going well and that my partner and I are happy, that everything is headed in the right direction. We are into our second drinks before he says: "So, this illness stuff you want to know."

My father says that the first inkling that something was wrong was when I sat at the top of the stairs not talking to anyone at my second birthday party. I don't remember the party, but I remember those stairs. They were steep and there were lots of them. I remember pushing myself down those stairs often, head first and on my belly, I remember the rough weave of the carpet and the small burns you'd get if you went too fast. I remember that spot on the landing at the top of the stairs, where the light didn't reach, a small part of that house you could get afraid of if you thought about it too much, a place that was dark and somehow remote.

I tell my father that I have one memory of the hospital, being tucked into an apple-pie bed so tightly that my toes were stuck pointing downwards. I can remember that my skin hurt and that everything was bright white and hot looking. Through a venetian blind I could see him and my mother talking with a doctor in a white coat, but because the venetian blinds were over a glass divider I couldn't hear what they were saying. I remember wanting them, strongly.

I have no idea if this is a real memory, or my imagination filling in blanks – two years old is pretty young to remember anything at all. The week before the sushi with my father, I asked my older brother, who has just had his first child, if he remembered what it was like. He told me that on the day I went into intensive care, he climbed a lime tree and stayed there, hiding, with the feeling that he'd done something wrong. It was difficult talking about childhood sickness while he cradled his first-born; I felt cruel for just bringing up the subject. His son is the first baby I've experienced up close – and as lovely as he is, there is a horror in his fragility. An overloving squeeze could do it; the slightest sniffle from him feels terrifying.

In the week after I sat at the top of the stairs at my birthday party, I was running a high fever. We were spending a few days in a rented cottage on the lee of Blackdown forest in Sussex when I started having violent convulsions in the early hours of the morning.

By the time my parents got me into the car I was in a coma. "Eyes open," my father says, "but not there at all."

My mother drove us to the local emergency doctor who gave me a shot of Valium, which did nothing, she tells me, apart from making me look even more lifeless. The doctor called an ambulance, made noises that suggested things didn't look good, that this wasn't something they'd be laughing off in a week's time.

Drinking a coffee before we both start work for the day, my mother tells me about this moment. She tries to do it matter-of-factly, and it makes me think of the time we went together to have my dog, Speedy, put down. No hysteria, just something quiet and difficult. She says: "You were blind, stiff and hot like you were cooking inside." And though it's a long time since this was all over she still avoids looking me in the eye.

When the ambulance came, the doctor groped my mother's bottom as she climbed in the back. She shrugs her shoulders when she tells me this, because my mouth is wide open, and I'm close to spilling coffee on myself. "I just thought: 'Oh well. Least of my problems.'" And she smiles at a toddler sitting in the seats next to us in the café, even though she is not really a baby person.

When I mention the groping episode to my father at lunch, he strokes his chin and says: "Ah yes – I'd forgotten that that happened."

At the hospital I came out of the coma after six hours. "You stretched and curled the hair at your temple around your finger," he says, "and then you were awake, and we had to put you back to sleep pretty much immediately for an MRI."

My father took a doctor aside while my mother sat with me, and asked him what he thought the likely diagnosis would be, and was told a brain tumour. He didn't tell my mother. While I went in for the MRI, he sat in the infant intensive care unit, watching a very small baby who was dying of kidney failure.

My mother went for some air, and stood in front of Guildford cathedral, an ugly brick building and said: "Right." She did not pray because she does not believe in God, and it was not one of those places where you could convince yourself of such things. She must have thought about her own mother, who had believed in God, who had prayed hard when her baby was sick and given up her faith when her baby had died. My mother just said: "Right." And she said it to the building, not to anything else.

My father says the doctor was in tears when she told him they couldn't find a tumour. She was a junior doctor, but it seems strange to me that she would do this. It makes me imagine my father comforting her. It makes me wonder why these medical practitioners were coming on to my parents.

"You had a lumbar puncture, which must have been very unpleasant and painful indeed," my father tells me. I didn't know this, and my only perception of the operation is hearing of my uncle as a young boy being held down on the kitchen table to have a thick hollow needle twisted into his spine, then the waking nightmares and the stutter he had afterwards. Then there's the spinal tap scene in The Exorcist. I have no memory of this happening to me because the brain is wonderful.

The doctors diagnosed me, through a process of elimination, with viral encephalitis, and I stayed in intensive care for a fortnight, with the virus working its way through different parts of my brain. Every day when my parents came to visit me, there was a new strange symptom. One day I would be unable to move my limbs; I went blind and deaf in turn. On one of these days, I was very thirsty – my mother says it was like I had rabies. Eventually, though, the virus left, and it's this point, I imagine, that my first memory comes from – the calm and quiet afterwards.

From then on, for several years, I had to have my brain waves measured. The virus had cooked a part of my brain, and left me with "slow waves". This is the part I remember well. The neurologist was a nice woman; I remember her rolled-up sleeves and long, beaded necklaces. She had a black Labrador which she had trained to lay its head on the laps of her young patients. I remember the weight of that big warm head and the coolness of his ears. My legs were too short to bend over the edge of the chair seat and so I could see my feet out in front of me. At the time I was a fan of red patent-leather shoes worn with white woollen tights.

I remember the fear each time that the hat of electrodes with its multicoloured wires straggling out of it had needles in it. Every time when the rubber stuck to my hair and pulled at it in little sharp tugs, I thought I was feeling the needles going in and pushing into my skull. With the dog's head on my lap, I'd have to keep very still and watch a multicoloured disk spinning in front of me. When it spun fast, it lost all of its colour and turned into a spiral of black, a blur, which made me want to blink and push at my eyeballs, which made my head twitch with concentrating. If I shifted in my seat the dog would nuzzle his head deeper into my lap, and produce a long deep sigh.

We stopped going to the lady and her dog when she told us I still had slow waves, but I'd probably be fine. Just be careful; beware of puberty, when the brain would change again. I stayed on anti-epilepsy medication until I finished primary school, and by that time it was an annoyance – the rest of the drama had faded for me, and had also, I had always assumed, faded for my parents.

What stays with me, now, having talked to my family about that time I hardly remember, is the thought of my mother driving through the night in the countryside with my father sat in the back seat, and me out cold on his lap. And that my father told me he was sure I had died, and for those minutes that passed driving down country lanes in the dark, he was glad my mother couldn't see what had happened in the back seat, and the terrible prospect of arriving at the doctor's where he'd have to tell her that I had died and then everything that went with losing a child would start.

Evie Wyld grew up in south London and Australia. Her first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

Evie Wyld

The GuardianTramp

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