In March 2020, as the pandemic rumbled into our lives, the writer and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised, spending 40 days and nights in a coma. Before he was sedated, a doctor asked if he would sign a piece of paper that would let them put him to sleep. “Will I wake up?” Rosen said. There’s a 50-50 chance, the doctor replied. “If I don’t sign?” he asked. Zero.
The truth, he later learned, was that the doctor had no idea whether Rosen would become brain-dead as a result or not. When he awoke, he was a different person: unable to speak or walk, and with foggy vision and hearing in only one ear. “I am not who I was,” he tells us in Getting Better, and yet “I am still that person, it’s just that something big happened to change me”.
What does it mean to be a changed person, to experience an event so seismic that you find that things are never the same afterwards? How do you understand and come to terms with the new reality? That is what Rosen, now 76, tackles in this moving memoir and guide, in which he grapples with the moments that have most affected him: confronting his mortality, understanding the legacy of the Holocaust in his family, losing a job, chronic illness, and coping with the loss of his son Eddie, aged 18, from meningitis.
This is a book about surviving. For Rosen, that invariably involves writing, to process his thoughts and emotions. Through a mixture of reminiscences and lessons, he also shows us “getting better” as running, as taking pills, as self-improvement, as something you cannot do on your own, as joy; and even as stuffing difficult feelings into a box when necessary. Rosen never imposes answers on us: “We can watch what others do, listen to what people say, but in the end we have to make it work for whoever we are and whatever life situation we’re in.”
In the most moving section, Rosen describes how his son Eddie went to bed one night with flu-like symptoms and never woke up again. He conveys the silent horror of finding him cold in his bed. “How do you get better from something as total and as devastating as this?” In the aftermath, he describes travelling to Paris with Eddie’s mother, his former wife, and wandering through Montparnasse cemetery. They spot a woman crying by a wall: she can barely speak through her tears but tells them she is mourning her son who had died 10 years earlier. Rosen is terrified that this is his fate: to feel so grief-stricken for the rest of his life.
There is no fix, but he details the slow process of finding a voice that allows him to talk about Eddie, aided by a child asking him a question about his son at a talk. He subsequently wrote about the experience in Sad Book (2004), illustrated by Quentin Blake. More than 20 years on, he finds that Eddie is “there, he’s in me, he’s around me … Is he ‘at rest’ in me and with me? Yes, I think it’s something like that.”
This is as much a book about finding the words to express our troubles as it is about the author’s life and Rosen, who is professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a generous teacher. We feel his doubts, his uncertainty and his curiosity. “I’m right at the very edge of what I understand,” he says, but in writing, in sharing, in striving for meaning, he offers readers a lifeline, and shows them they are not going through it alone.