A Visit to the Hospital

Or where The Story might start…

Since gangrene took the neighbour, we’ve been relocated to the private side room. Now, visiting hours have been relaxed, no-one checks my protective clothing and I’m left unsupervised. Good. I leave the mask off. I want to kiss. I want to smell. I want skin contact. It’s a visceral thing. It’s also March, and today it’s unseasonably stifling. Oh, and the air-conditioning has broken down. I open the windows as far as they’ll go. Not very. Are they worried he might jump? Now, that would be a miracle. Not the one being prayed for so fervently, though. Me? I’d like to see him fly. And away, wherever that is. I pull the top sheet down on the bed and then lean over and switch off the radio. The aural wallpaper ceases and the silence announces my arrival. I’m dressed for the season, not the temperature, and kitted out suitably-suffocatingly. I perch on the windowsill and try to breathe before I speak by leaning over the window vent. There’s a breeze, there’s a view. I start by talking about the weather, of course. That explains the changes I’ve made in the room. Then, a phone rings, it’s mine and it’s not even supposed to be there. Technically, I’m not either. No-one comes to complain. It’s a small victory for me. I apologise for the interruption and then take the call. It’s from someone who says his name is Joe. We briefly introduce ourselves. The tone is businesslike yet friendly. Joe tells me he’s heard The Story so far and is on his way to join in by collecting my belongings. He gives me a precise day and time. I give him a precise address. I know he’ll be true to his word (and so he is). The call ends with me smiling, I explain why. There’s a jug of water on the bedside table, I pour myself a glass and sit down on the edge of the bed. Now, I’m talking local politics, then I’m talking family politics and that’s today’s update completed. I apply cologne, remove the monitors, and lie down on the bed. There’s room as I, too, am disappearing – I have the choice, he doesn’t. I actually want to pass unnoticed. I reach over, pull the book from my bag and the marker from the book, and start reading aloud. I know I have an audience, no-one else here believes it. Though it has been weeks since anyone told me non ti sente signora. Now? They almost humour la bionda naturale (there’s a tinta, but she’s in another part of The Story). Almost. Anyway, they know I’m leaving soon. I also know that as soon as I start to read I’ll feel. The numbness I need to function will leave. The pain I need to heal will arrive. I’m furious and powerless and forlorn and so much else. Inside I scream incoherently, outwardly I read calmly. I read knowing that there’s no-one to read to me. I’m on the last few pages and, when done, it’s time to say goodbye. I close the book and lie a couple of minutes in silence, listening to the steady breathing, watching the closed eyelids, feeling the clammy warmth from the bony flesh. At first, I’d joke: He always sleeps when I read! Last night, though, I was introduced to a physiotherapist. She told me: He knows it’s you, so he’s relaxed. That made today even harder. But there is no limit to anguish. I don’t look to see where it stops. Because I can’t; see. I’m as blind as him. That’s that. I peel myself away, get up, reattach the monitors and switch the radio back on. I turn the top sheet back up. I pack my bag. As I leave the room, I turn around and say it – goodbye. It’s been exactly two months since he last looked at me. This is to be my last look. My eyes linger last on his once fluid-smooth hands, today lying spastic dry-rigid on the bed. He’s clinging on for grim death.


Good Night Irene

In the first week of August, 2011, my father died after a long illness. He’d just made 93 when he was declared out. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time; my mother acted as ‘gatekeeper’ to that relationship and to describe her as a difficult person is polite. Once he’d died, she made short work of disappearing him physically. She removed him almost without trace; if you’d wanted to believe he hadn’t existed, you’d not have had to try too hard.

Just under a fortnight later, Dad was cremated with minimal notice and no service. I knew where he’d gone, but not where I was, and still have no words to describe my feelings. How to cope? I carried on working and, in fact, worked harder. I took on a six-day week. Insomnia invaded my nights, precious sleep interrupted by vivid dreams of my father. Frequently I saw him standing, holding a little boy with black hair and pale skin in his arms; both of them looking quite calmly at me, sometimes smiling.

So, my sleep was valuable, and Sunday mornings were my only chance to lie-in. Two days after my father’s unceremonious cremation, a Sunday morning, I was furious to be woken up before 7 a.m. by shouting. Of course, becoming furious made going back to sleep impossible. I climbed out of bed and, unable to see what was happening from my window, pulled on a jacket and went down to the garden. The noise was coming from a neighbor’s house, the voice was almost incoherent, the only intelligible word being ‘Help!’ I climbed on the garden bench, but could see nothing over the fence.

I ran round to the house and knocked on the door. The elderly husband answered in a confused state, I’d woken him up. His wife was calling, she’d fallen and couldn’t get up. She sounded as though she’d had a stroke, I called an ambulance and talked to her while her husband got dressed. The paramedics were with us in under five minutes and were fantastic. We watched while they worked tirelessly. Even while she slipped into unconsciousness, they spoke to her and treated her with the utmost dignity. Yet she drifted away, and we all saw her letting go. She was pronounced dead in hospital.

The husband came round to thank me. He sent flowers and chocolates. I was for a while the talk of the street, but I knew nothing of this. I’d had enough. I’d taken off, travelling light. With a sigh of relief (no-one wants to deal with a bereaved colleague) my boss had signed me off work on the compassionate leave I’d not asked for my father’s death. A good friend told me I was meant to see Irene out; it did feel right and it did go some way to helping me see Dad out, too.