I write this on Easter Sunday, sitting comfortably at home, recovering from my brush with COVID-19. I was hospitalized for 12 days, of which five were in intensive care fighting for my life. While the experience is still fresh — I came out of hospital nine days ago — I thought it may be useful to share some aspects of my journey. They can be divided, I think, into three themes: faith, hope and charity. To begin with, faith. Of all the images that came to me in intensive care, the strongest of all was that of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. At the time, if I coughed I was unable to perform a following in-breath as my lungs were full of infection. I was being kept alive by a respirator forcing air into my lungs through a pipe inserted into my throat. This inability to breathe quickly turns to panic. We can all remember larking about in a swimming pool and being held down one breath longer than we expected, with a subsequent adrenalin rush as we wriggled to get to air as quickly as possible. This was a magnified version of that. I would reach out and clasp the side of the bed — or the hand of the nurse — as panic set in. The appearance of Christ rising from sleep in the bow of the boat to calm the waters was precisely what I needed to calm the storm in my throat and in my mind. Jesus didn’t address me, but I felt His peace radiating out from the boat towards me. My storm abated.
Throughout my time in intensive care, I was aware of a worldwide web of friends and family — together with many people I have never met — praying for my recovery. In calm moments, I focused this energy as light and brought it into my body — starting with my toes, ‘Thank you toes. You’ve carried me so far, so well, and I’ve never thanked you…’, then moving through my body to my lungs.
However, by day four of the struggle, I started to feel physically exhausted and doubt began creeping in. For how much longer could I hold out? I never actually contemplated dying, but I began to remember Sister Wendy’s remark that she loved her life and her art, but she thought it was all a dress rehearsal for the time that she was really looking forward to, the moment when she fell into the arms of a loving God. I began to see piles of infinitely soft pink pillows into which I could fall. The temptation to call it a day was certainly there, but various things kicked in to keep me going — hope was one of them.
By definition, hope is a projection into the future. I had many hopes at this stage, an indication of a will to live and a sense of purpose if the umpire gave me another chance at the crease. First and foremost, having lost my darling wife four years ago (I am writing this on her birthday) I wanted to live for my boys, now 19 and 23. I wanted to see them, hold them, smell them as any parent would their child. Secondly, my father died the day before I was taken to hospital. I had already planned to plant some walnut trees on the farm and getting the trees into the ground at the same time as my father’s burial became an obsession. With March turning into April, I knew that planting time was coming to a close and as soon as I was able I was sending texts of encouragement (maybe more than encouragement!) to my farm manager to get the job done despite my absence in Leicester Royal Infirmary.
Then a wider hope kicked in. I have been an environmentalist for nearly 25 years, ever since the birth of my first child made me think about the state of the Earth that my generation will leave to the next. All the international discussions on climate change are framed by the need to keep levels of CO2 in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million in order to limit temperature rise to two degrees this century. Action or inaction in the next 10 years will quite literally define the future of human life on Earth. As chairman of Global Canopy, I am focused on the urgent need to bring deforestation in the tropics to a halt, especially in the Amazon, which is showing alarming signs of reaching a tipping point. In short, now aged 61, however small or delusional, I feel I have a contribution to make, a reason to be here.
And finally, charity. For many years I have admired the Dalai Lama and supported the people of Tibet. I have read many books and listened to many talks on compassion, but I have never witnessed compassion being lived, day in day out, as it is lived by the doctors and nurses of the British National Health Service. When you are as ill as I was, you return to a childlike state of total dependence on the kindness of others. I would not be here without the professionalism and dedication of the staff of the NHS. But my abiding memory of that time is of human kindness and compassion. A nurse bringing a cup of tea in the middle of the night; giving me a shave on my birthday; whispering in my ear ‘It’s going to be OK’. In my hour of need, I reached out and found the hand of the NHS holding mine.