What shocked me after the operation was my sheet exhaustion. I asked Chang what was wrong. “Let’s recap,” he said. “You’ve been hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka. You’ve traveled halfway across the world, not to mention the trauma. You have just undergone a five-and-a-half-hour operation, and we’re not even taking into account what is going on in that stubborn head of yours.”
When I was up and around and walking on the streets of New York, people glanced at my eye patch and looked away. American friends said they loved the patch, but wanted to see what was behind it. On a week’s recuperative holiday on the Ligurian coast, I was told by Italian men that the patch was very sexy. Back in London, where I live, I find that friends are surprised I don’t appear worse. People in the street still glance away, but children ask me why I am dressed as a pirate, which is delightful. And the Prince of Wales pronounced it “very fetching” when I was introduced to him at a reception.
I have become very fond of my patch. At home I usually take it off; but when I see myself in the mirror without it—rarely, as I am not a great looker in mirrors—I am taken aback. What I see doesn’t look like me.
In some ways it is harder to cope with the frustrating tiredness. I used to be so energetic; now I have to have a nap after lunch, like a little child. I can’t drive—which is fine, as I have always hated driving in London. But the Underground is also out, as I don’t trust myself on escalators. I now know what “blindsided” means.
Ridiculously, I can’t even light a cigarette—I’m always lighting them in the middle of the waving flame two inches from the end—but I’m learning to pour a glass of wine without missing.
At the back of my mind is the fear for my good eye. As I understand it, the autoimmune system can react to the injury and the surgery by attacking the other eye. At Moorfields Hospital two weeks ago, I was assured there was no sign of this. But the retina in the injured eye had become detached again. This isn’t unusual, but it was depressing.
I have been asked if my trip to Sri Lanka was worth it. One blunt BBC reporter argued in an interview, not unkindly: “Some people would say it was stupid, Marie.” Was it? That’s a hard question to answer.
Certainly, Sri Lanka is a forgotten conflict. Some 83,000 people have died since the country exploded in civil war in 1983, a loss barely noticed except by their families. The public message for the Sri Lankan government that I was given by the Tamil Tiger leadership was barely noticed, either. They said they were willing to negotiate for autonomy rather than the independence they had sought for 18 years. After I left, they ended a four-month unilateral ceasefire, saying the government had refused to reciprocate. Fighting has resumed. On a smaller scale, however, the trip did seem worthwhile. I may be exhausted and haunted, but not all the images that flash back to me evoke dread. I remember a government agent who put his neck on the line to give me information. He received me late at night in his office and asked me not to reveal his name for fear of retaliation from the very government that paid his salary.
Not everyone was as easily persuaded that I was worth talking to. Father Xavier, the Roman Catholic priest of Mallawi, was garrulous, opinionated and angry. He told me he had given up on the West; nobody cared about the plight of the Tamils, so why should he waste his time talking to me? When he calmed down, he served me sweet tea and we talked about his parishioners. He said people were tired of the war, mostly that it had its own dynamic.
Weeks after my operation, a letter arrived, wrapped in brown paper. It had been smuggled out by Father Xavier—no doubt at great risk. “I was sorry to hear of your injuries,” he wrote. “You are remembered here as a brave and honest person.” It meant a lot to me.
A surprising amount of mail arrived from Sri Lanka during my weeks of recuperation. Messages from Tamils were mostly sympathetic. None was under the impression that I supported their cause, but they sent heartrending appreciations for providing the first report on their homeland in years.