So here it is.
Room 15. Acacia ward. The bed has many functions. Rise dear head, lower ye legs. I feel in the mood for a sunbed. Plentiful room, if one could physically reach it.
So here it is, and this is it. The bed I will die in.
The view is nice. There is a level-wide balcony for visitors to catch up and speak in hushed tones about deteriorating conditions. The treetops cover most of what I fathom of the outside. The son will note that across the road there is a primary school with a small soccer field, the kind of place I used to dominate. He will only discover the primary school by the fourth day, when his knowledge of the hospital and its numerous exits has been mastered. He will also compare the two institutions side by side, a glimpse of what’s to come, and a reminder of what was lost.
I am already dead, by the way. This is merely a review of the last weeks and days in this bed, until the final breath drawn with the wife holding my hand and the son fetching coffee. Perhaps this review is the son trying to commercialise my death, or, delve deeper into what was behind some of the ramblings and rants my brain offered in its decay. Perhaps he is trying to do both. Either way, apart from the quotes in italics, everything is else is strictly conjecture.
The pastor arrives after the first night. I am conscious. He asks me if I’m religious. The son notices my stiffening up, the brain rousing to give an impassioned defence of what I believe. “I’m not religious… but I love people.” Isn’t that the basis of religion?
The son watches me choke up. He saw me bawl my guts out over and over in the hospital before this one, the deluge beginning when I said to my wife “this is it, isn’t it?” Saw lots of it. But in palliative, this is one of the last times he will see me cry, confusion taking the baton from sadness. He always wondered what it would take to make me cry. Wondered his whole life just how bad a thing had to get before his hero finally broke. And when he eventually saw it he realised it was something he never wanted to see.
Because you asked for it, I will now describe in colourful detail the subplot battle: The passing of the great big poo, or at least the attempt.
This bed is where I will end. I know this because my right leg is gone. All the kinetic signals I took for granted now a static silence. Unresponsive. My right arm too. Such is the situation that I find walking an assisted adventure. Assistance has progressed from a cane, to a frame, to an even sturdier frame, to a steady eddy and, finally, the crane.
Ah, the crane. Strapping me up and lifting me high above the bed. Can you see me soar? They swing me over to the en-suite, this big green net securing me like an oversized diaper.
The son has advised me that, on account of the labour-intensive qualities of the crane, trips to the en-suite are permitted on a results-based basis, otherwise it’s back to the pan or the diapers and a loss our greatest ally, gravity.
The son tries to rouse me. He wants a win. A last battle we can actually claim victory. My stomach shall bloat no more. The son beckons Churchill: We will fight them on the beaches, on the land…
“We will never surrender,” I join in the fun. I lean forward gripping the railing with my only arm left and push with all my might.
There is…only a little bit, nothing as substantial as the three meals a day I’ve been wolfing down.
The son demands extra effort, allows more time, despite my sitting-balance spent and collapse imminent. Eventually he props me up and reluctantly presses the assistance button. It was not to be.
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
—Heard in the waiting room after leaving the patient to his delirium.
This is self-evident. A ricochet in the brain searching for what it all meant brings me back to high school and the old bard. I never uttered Shakespeare to the family before, but now is as good a time as any to pose the question to the hallucination above my bed, facing me, staring back.
The family returns and see a stretched hand pointed upwards at my nemesis (the all-encompassing LED ceiling light). It is not turned on however, the room is dim, and the answer to the question remains elusive.
The photos. An attempt on the son’s behalf in sparking a memory and bringing me back to life as it once was. First, a photo of a man by the river, hanging sideways against a pole, like a flag in the wind. A remarkable athletic feat only recently revealed to the family by an old friend. I don’t recognise this person so the son tries another polaroid. A young man holding a baby. The man is happy as Larry—that’s a thing I used to say about people who attained a respectable level of joy. The son flits back and forth between myself and the picture, his flow of hands suggesting the two people in this room are related to the two people in the photo. He is hoping for a loving spark, a Hollywood spark with minor orchestral accompaniment. When we are robbed of most expressions, people in our line of debilitation find the scariest, most foreboding method of communication can come from a simple shaking pointed finger and horror on our face. Surrounding family will pass it off as delirium, but a part of them will always question what those close to the other side are seeing. Either way, I certainly rattled the son. Take your joys when you can get them, I reckon.
Going back to the food going in and not coming out conundrum. The time is early. I wake with a hunger that can only be satisfied with the blandest fodder. A bar of grain cobbled and fused together, lined up on its side with several other brothers and sisters, submerged in milk and halved with spoons. I talk of course, about my first love, the breakfast of champions. Weetbix. Sanitarium’s saviour. Their favourite soldier.
The son does the feeding. With each bite I tell either the son or the weetbix itself: “Thank God for that”. Over and over again. Each bite. Thank God for that. So much for not being religious. I finish one bowl and ask for more. The son disappears for a while. How hard is it to get some damn weetbix when a guy really needs it? He returns with more. Thank god for that.
The visitors. They come in from all different timelines. Family. Friends. Family friends. I am nice to all of them. They are new. They have new things to say. But I get tired keeping up, trying to squeeze out a sentence from my dried-out sponge. The motor, the brain, is firing false starts. And I stutter and stutter until I give up and say, “Well, you know what I mean.”
The family though, the son and the wife. They don’t have anything else to say. “I Love you. I’ll always love you etc. etc. Broken records. How many times am I supposed to say it back? How many breaths do I have left to utter the obvious? Facts already established. Let’s move on and be done with it.
Speaking of repeats, I’m now repeating the last thing a person says. Over and over. Echolalia they call it. The son has caught onto this and is now playing games. I’m too loud, apparently. “You’re screaming.” The son points out.
“You’re screaming,” I counter.
“I’m screaming?” he asks.
“I’m screaming,” I admit.
“I scream, you scream…” he says.
“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ICE CREAM!” I finish.
The son laughs, the wife laughs. I’m hungry.
Another craving. This time for bananas. I eventually catch on that I’m repeating my demands over and over. “How many bananas?” The son asks in front of his girlfriend. “Bananas bananas bananas bananas bananas bananas,” I emphatically explain, a smile on my face.
The son turns to his girlfriend. “Was that 5 or 6?”
“Little Dreams Big Dreams… little dreams only 99c.”
I kept repeating that it was all like a dream when I broke down in the other hospital. Now that I’m left completely immobile, my bed an island sinking in the pacific, dreams have become my only means of escape. Based on the above statement, all dreams have value, no matter how little they appear. “It was all a dream,” was a movie line. I asked the son what movie that was from. He said it sounded familiar, but couldn’t determine the film. So much for all that schooling I paid for.
One time, close to the Driver, I turn to the son and tell him not to get the kring disease. This is a disease that we have been planning for since childhood. A family term for any ailment, big or small. “Oh no, it’s the kring,” I would shake my head, checking the son’s little ears, open throat, or wherever the source of discomfort lay. A shocking diagnosis none could have predicted.
“No No No No No…”
This is before the Driver. Every night. I turn on my side, the only direction my body will allow and cling to the railing on the other side of the bed. My arm shakes trying to keep balance. “No No No No No No.” Hard for the others to determine what exactly I’m objecting to, so I shall fill in the gaps. “I am dying and it hurts because I love living and I’m scared and I do not want to die, even though that’s how it’s looking at this moment.” These bedsores are getting to me. “Don’t you see?” I say over and over again. To state the obvious, they do not see. They don’t want to. No further explanations required for this one.
Did I ever tell you in the previous hospital I spent many circles trying to solve my disease? If the cat has tumours growing out of his head, and he’s still going, why can’t I keep going? It’s different they say, but I press on with my investigation, time running out and all.
The catheter. It seems that after a few accidents, the saintly nursing staff reconvened with the doctors to prescribe a catheter. I hover above myself in the bed, studying my naïve face, unaware of the benevolent forces conspiring to stick a tube up my tube. The procedure is enacted without much fuss. It’s the times after though, when I forget it’s there and each rediscovery comes with a lot of pulling and wrenching a sensitive part of me.
The son takes one look and reactively touches his own working parts to make sure they’re still in good knick.
Every explanation of its necessity is met with further calls for justification on my end. “But Why?”
All dignity is leaving my body and collected in a bag that hangs on the side rail of the bed. Not the kind of life support I had envisioned.
In my review, as I wince with every tug of my own accord, I cant help but ask the same question. After everything else, now this?
“This is the most depressed I’ve ever been.”
I say this every now and then. I shake the railing I can reach, every now and then. I slam my fist down on the pillow the wife and son provide when rage is imminent. I will say this sad thing and the son will quote it in his eulogy, reaching for the silver lining: that if this was the most depressed I’d ever been, then the rest of my life must have been just dandy.
Good for him.
The drugs taste awful. You’re not supposed to taste them, someone informs. Easier said than done, buddy, ma’am. Would you rather I automatically swallow everything instead? Because I’m running on instinct now if you wouldn’t believe… Sometimes late at night the son tells me to be quiet, to stop wriggling around in the only two motions I have left and quit moaning so loud. What is dying supposed to look like, I remember thinking at the time. Now I have a better clue as I hover above the bed. The old me takes notice of my presence, but he also sees everyone else, all the people he thinks he failed, the missed opportunities he never took. He sees so much, and yet here is a man who lived a good life and enjoyed it. So what chance do the rest of them have on their deathbeds?
Close to the Driver now.
This is close to the end. Before the driver. The son has reached an impass. Too tired to care anymore, apparently. He has tried to explain something to me and I have tried to explain something to him. Listen here, son. Listen to my voice because you’re going to miss it. But he’s tired and he leaves my pain with the words, “whatever”.
“Whatever to YOU.” I say back. Or do I? Maybe the person writing this has forgotten how this conversation went, perhaps for the best.
Before, the son said the sooner the better. Now it is sooner and he eats his words and swallows each like fermenting glass in his belly. Oh, soon? He is not ready. But maybe I am. Let’s finish up, the review is coming to a close.
“Would you like some custard?”
“I would like some custody for my constituency.”
The context here is obvious. If I’m ever to declare my good intentions in this world, I think I will use this utterance as my proof. A dying man, willing to share his custard with those in his electorate. I’d win in a landslide.
The Driver. Morphine and clonazepan, delivered through this thin, wispy tube into a pretty cannula they call a butterfly. I take a break from screaming and sleep. I think the review is going well. We are almost at the end.
The son will note one last “I love you” in this new state of mine, when all I have left is the energy to whisper. It’s a reaction, a yeah, yeah, I know. Because at this stage I’m sick of goodbyes. Sick of everything. From one angle in my sedated state the son will catch a glimpse of my eyes half-open and my lower jaw slack and he will witness exactly how the end will look. I shift over to the son’s perspective and happen to agree, though I am disappointed by the spoilers.
The food is no more. Eyes remain closed. The breathing is laboured. When my breathing stops, so do the others. Everyone in the room holding their breath. What is it supposed to look like, this dying business? Curiosity doesn’t cease for the dearly beloved. Yet still they urge me to continue, each breath a little more time for whispered goodbyes.
Morphine dreams. Big dreams. The son will always wonder what went on in my head these final days. Who visited me in my subconscious, which ghosts made an effort. Whether I saw my version of god and it made me feel all right.
The son is desperate for some last advice. He knows the blueprint for a successful life, a life well lived, and yet he wants a different life. Something to call his own. On his own two feet. But he still needs his dad. He will always need his dad.
The last night they both sleep at the hospital. The wife on a foldout chair, the son outside the room on the enclosed balcony. This is the wife’s idea. Usually they take turns staying over. She has no idea why she decides this night they sleep as a family, the decision leaving her mouth before the brain registers the point. It’s been four days on the driver, no food. Logic or luck?
And so they sleep, every now and then bobbing their head up; staring, listening and exhaling relief when reaffirmed I’m still here.
Where else would I go?
In the morning the breathing is different. They have a pamphlet that explains this is all par for the course. I enter the body and remember the quiet valleys of heartbeats, the slowing of things, before three gasps of air are sought as reflex.
The wife debates whether to shower at home. It’s an hour there and back at most with a quick rinse, but she decides to use the basic shower in the en-suite. Smart move, and I will forever be grateful.
Eventually, the son declares that this isn’t his dad anymore. Isn’t the man who took him to all his sports games. Who turned up wherever he was needed and had a genuine joy in doing it. Who brought home a DIY toy dinosaur from Japan and built it that night despite flying in that day. Who yelled at the son when he broke the car sun visor by hanging on it like tarzan. Who stayed overnight on the son’s first operation at the hospital because he twisted his testicles watching Black Hawk Down in an awkward position. Or the last time they went swimming at their favourite beach together and the son got mad and had a hissy fit because the dad wanted to swim between the flags where there were no waves.
It isn’t his dad and it will be OK if he passes, the son doesn’t have to be there as long as it’s peaceful. So when the wife wants a coffee from the shops and not the hospital blend, the son says sure.
It is 9.40am.
Well here we are. The wife & I. Just the two of us. 29 years of marriage as of only a week ago. I didn’t have time to get her something for our anniversary so the son got the wife flowers on my behalf. Flowers were perhaps a naïve choice, given in the coming days she will receive a garden’s worth. All I really gave her was everything I had, and she the same, while we could.
She holds my hand and she watches my breathing, sending prayers from deep within. It’s OK, she whispers, It’s OK to go. A light leaves my pallid eyes. I drift above and hover and I catch those prayers as I catch myself, ascending.
My review complete, I am ready to leave Room 15, Acacia ward. I watch the son and the wife take in the room with a view, one last time. They know a part of them will never leave this place for as long as they live. As for me, it’s time to look back further. Re-live everything else over and over again. I don’t mind though, because it was a life truly well lived, no matter how it ended.