His every breath was a rasping struggle. He sucked air into a chest that heaved and swelled like an ancient tide on a decimated beach. He was dying. The only spark left was in his sunken grey eyes.
The ambulance trolley squeaked as it rolled down the corridor of Male Medical. The old man rattled. He was propped up, never to lie flat again. When he spoke, his voice was a strangled whisper. The ambulance men with their big square shoulders chatted to each other; effortlessly young and full of life.
I loved him. I hadn't wanted to be near him; now I didn't want to leave.
It was late in the day. We settled him into cool white sheets. We spread a woven cotton blanket over his thin frame. He waved it away. The weight was too much. His daughter, a tall, graceful woman with a measured step and quiet control, bent low, her ear close to his mouth to catch his words. I shrank back; I could never do that. To be so close to a man more dead than alive; more departed than present.
I bargained with God. I would do anything, take care of anyone, just not him, anything but that. I was too vulnerable, too human. I was clinging to myself the way the old man was clinging to life. I feared myself more than I feared his death, but I also feared his death; his final journey. How would it affect me watching him die? I had never seen a dead body. That empty building left after the essence of humanity has departed.
God ignored me. At the end of the shift I checked the allocation sheet for the next morning. His name was at the top of my patient list. Given more than I could bear, I railed at God, the universe and life itself. I woke stiff with fear; weighed down with dread. I shuffled onto the ward with leaden rebellious feet and heavy heart. I would attend him first, get this burden out of the way; over with.
He was propped up exactly as he had been the night before. Alive; still. His eyes turned slowly towards me. There was no fear in them to match mine; only calm acceptance. And intelligence; this surprised me. I thought his mind must surely have betrayed him in the same way his body had; but no. I bent to hear his words. I leaned in close to hear death’s whisper. He was in the waiting room on the cusp of eternity, and I was trapped there with him. The vibration of his voice felt strange against my ear; so little breath, so little life. He was a shipwreck that refused to sink and leave us surviving mortals to believe in “beauty” and “forever”. He was a monument to the futility in us all.
The other nurses seemed far away with their laughing strides down the corridors. The murmur of daily complaint and the metallic sounds of a nurse’s world barely reached me. Outside there was bundling of linen, ringing of phones, buzzing of call bells. A doctor’s low rumble as he gave instructions, wheels on trolleys, aromas from the kitchen—these intruded, only a little, then receded.
I ministered to him. His name was Jack. I asked if he wanted a shower or a bed bath. I posed my questions so that a simple nod would suffice. His lips strained at the side—a smile? There was no whimpering despondency in his manner. No hasty frustration in the wave of his hands. I took my time. When he was shaved, cleaned and dressed in new flannelette pyjamas a skeletal hand beckoned me to his ear. A tear was glistening in his eye.
“Thank you,” he whispered, “you’re beautiful.”
I loved him. I hadn’t wanted to be near him; now I didn’t want to leave. I read to him. I told him about the world outside his door. I nursed him for five days. Five privileged, beautiful days and when he died he took the inevitable piece of me with him, but he left the bountiful gift of the beauty of his spirit. When I next recognised fear in my heart, I would not shrink but accept; embrace. Forevermore I could sit with death, and not tremble. God had taken me to the edge, then freed me. He had not granted my request, but had gifted me with something more—something immeasurably precious.
We took him to the basement morgue, Sam, Estelle and I. Sam was a senior nurse; a tall blond Canadian with a gentle nature. Estelle and I were new and had never been to the morgue. We were skittish and afraid. Sam smiled indulgently at us. All the way down to the morgue in the lift, Estelle and I talked too much; nervous chatter filling the silence.
Sam understood. We told him we were glad it was him with us on our first time and not one of the “mug lair” male nurses taking every opportunity to torment new nurses with practical jokes. He grinned broadly and reassured us, telling us exactly what we would see and experience.
We positioned Jack’s body and I patted the sheet with an affectionate farewell. The water pipes in the old building rattled loudly; an exact replica of Jack’s breathing. Estelle and I let out identical screams and clung to Sam.
“Well,” he said. “This is better than anything a practical joke gets; two women in my arms screaming.”
Our screams became hesitant giggles of relief. We walked from the cold room, down the cool corridor, into the warm sunlight, arm in arm. We crossed the gardens, jumping plants and walking on the forbidden grass—defying the rules. We were young; we were alive.
As I looked up, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face, I remembered my last conversation with Jack.
“God sent you to me,” he had whispered.
“No Jack, God sent you to me.”
Linda Brooks won the Manifest Creative Arts Festival’s Signs Publishing Writing Prize for 2014 with this piece.