Summer of 1978
When I was five I went into hospital for the summer, a warm August in 1978. I had been born with a hole in my heart that had left me officially failing to thrive. I was small, sickly and struggled to breathe with a fairly constant cough that sounded like a barking seal. I had been under the care of a cardiologist for a while, going through a couple of exploratory operations to determine the size and location of the hole before the main surgery.
Off to Hospital
This was in the days before dedicated children’s wards so I was staying in the cardiology ward where the child patients tended to arrive on a relay basis while most of the patients were of my grandparents’ generation. I had lost two of my grandparents that year; they had been living with us and I had spent a great deal of time in their loving company so their loss was palpable. In hospital I was adopted by a whole host of new ones.
My mother stayed with me. Having said that I had two brothers and a sister at the time, all younger than me, all needing care, so she can’t have been there all the time. When she wasn’t I don’t remember pining for her or lacking her love. This gap seems to have been filled by my adoptive grandparents and a very special machine.
A Very Special Machine
As I was preparing to go into hospital I was given a tape recorder. It was cutting edge technology in its time and even allowed you to record on it as I remember. Along with this I was given a book of a different kind.
I was a keen reader; being sickly and unable to run around I had learned to read early and devoured every book I could. But in hospital, especially after a major operation my mother recognised I would find reading a book difficult.
A Book of a Different Kind
This special kind of book would solve that. It came in a plastic container, set up like a book, with several cassettes embedded inside, revealed as you opened it up. It was my first audiobook, “Watership Down” by Richard Adams, read by Roy Dotrice. I can still see the cover and remember the feel of the package in my hand as well as the excitement of having my very own tape recorder.
It sat on the cupboard next to my bed and was a constant companion over that summer. Books have always felt like friends to me and here was a book that could talk to me, in a voice that could be heard beyond my head. It was a true friend, keeping me safe and comforted at times when I was alone, distracting me and entertaining me when I was in pain, teaching me a little about injustice and why liberty is worth fighting for.
It also taught me about death and not to be afraid of it. It was portrayed as something that comes to all of us in our time, a doorway to a new life for us, a natural part of our existence here on earth. It took me into that space I had become newly aware of; the bridge between the tangible living world we inhabit and the metaphysical one beyond, a liminal space that transcends our understanding but is nonetheless there.
I needed that in that time. I was grieving. I knew my own life was at risk. The operation had good odds but no surgery comes without its casualties. My life was in another’s hands. My heart was in another’s hands. The audiobook helped me to face that with a calm serenity that surprises me now, having had children of my own. My mother chose well. She took great care of me. She was there when she could be and when she wasn’t she left me in the expert care of Richard Adams and his wise band of rabbits.
The surgery was, as you will not doubt have realised, a great success. I am very much thriving now, thanks to the surgery and thanks to audiobooks. That first foray into a listener became a precursor to a career that has built up over the past three years and continues to astonish me.
The Voice of Love
Taking a moment to reflect on this in audiobook month I have been lucky enough to become the voice that talks to children like I was, in hospital, who can reassure them when their parents are unable to be there. My voice carries the words of many wonderful authors, fiction and non-fiction, for children and for adults.
Their stories are told in my voice to people all over the world, listening in hospitals, in cars, on their dog walks, on the train, during bouts of insomnia, while cooking, clearing up their homes or sitting down for a bit of relaxation in the middle of a busy day. It is a huge privilege, a labour of love and a labour for love.
Audiobooks were there for me at the start of my life, in the midst of one of my greatest struggles and they remain with me now, part of the fabric of my life, as both a narrator and a listener. As a listener I feel as if a friend is telling me a story, reading to me, taking care of me, guiding me through my life. As a narrator I feel as if I am reading to a friend, breathing the words of the author into life through my voice, making their stories part of mine, part of me.
We are the stories we carry, the ones we have experienced, the ones we have read, the ones we have been told, the ones that have been read to us. And in my experience, these stories are made from hope and tell of the triumph of love over suffering.
Weaving the thread of all these stories together we are weaving magic as we live, making one story out of the strands of all of our lives, a beautiful tapestry of the best of humanity. Audiobooks provide some of those threads, already combining the stories of the author and the narrator until finally they also join with the ones who listen, for whom I am always thankful.
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