Walking purposefully down those long subterranean corridors and in the bowels of the hospital, Stephen felt somehow safer and at home, more at home than across the road where they lived in the house, emptied out now of activity and excessively laden with a heavy emotion of loss.
He had only occasionally visited his Dad when he went across the road for the regular oncology check ups and the eternal Sundays of blood transfusions, where he would be hooked up with a view over the field or in a ward filled with visitors and well wishers, while he yet again was revived, his cheeks turned to pink from ashen, the helping of someone else’s gift, processed, coursing through his veins, ready to face another week. He had been troubled at the sacks of blood, the lines connected to the monitor which loudly beeped when one sack was empty or a new one was attached, and all those people with all those flowers and visitors and the occasional grim figure flat out, a tube in his throat, grey faced, with quiet visitors looking terrified and dulled – the dying ones.
Back home, between those Sundays of revival and renewal, Dad would call him over when he passed the tidy study room with the row upon row of books, filing cabinets, plants, computer scribblings – he’d share some chocolate perhaps, or he’d say ‘I would welcome a quick conversation with you when you have a moment, son’ – sounded like a headmaster – he WAS a teacher – and perhaps he couldn’t help the tone. Stephen always felt a little disgruntled to be called in to talk perhaps sociably, perhaps about something that needed to be done. Latterly, on those long Sundays of blood transfusions, when he visited Dad in the hospital, he and his father exchanged pleasantries for a moment before he felt he had to get out of there and down to buy a burger or a Coke, anything to escape.
All of that normality seemed a long, long time ago. Perhaps he should have sought out his father’s company more in those days when it was easy to stop in for a chat, and perhaps he should have offered to mow the lawn, pick up the dead leaves, carry Dad in a cup of tea. But he’d always had other things to do and it always felt like a chore, and, anyway, he could do it later.
But when the time had come, that evening, that last evening, angrily kicking the machine which dispenses excessively priced cards for bedside TV, angry again at the impossibility of it and the way no one, it seemed, could do anything and the things that hadn’t been said and the things that were going to happen and now would not happen and the sheer blind vacancy of the thought of what next – he had taken good advice from a mate. Stephen’s anger turned through this good advice, instead, to making his peace with his father, settling down after the others had left, in the darkened room lit only by the light above the bed, with the first daffodils from the garden on the tray table from which Dad would never eat another meal or drink another drink. He then had made his peace. What he said, no one else heard, but it was between him and the father he was so much like, and who he fought so intensely and disagreed with so violently and said he hated so much as he grew and grew and grew, towering above his father, who shrank from that terrible illness and became more and more silent.
‘He heard me’, Stephen said – it was good to know that he heard these last things, the son was sure he had been heard – something was settled; something probably about apologies and confusions, the good times, the lack of a future, missing him – we won’t know, he knew, they knew.
But somehow still there seemed so much more to say as time went on and he missed that opportunity.
Dad had died at Easter. It was strange how many people Stephen spoke to who had had friends or family who had been rushed in at Easter or Christmas, some of them seemingly only with relatively minor ailments which needed swift attention in Accident and Emergency, and others with dreadful life-threatening illnesses which couldn’t wait till the end of this period – when it really wasn’t very popular to be ill because the hospital was so short staffed. What he’d found in common with these friends was their shared grief at the loss of loved ones, particularly traumatic over these religious holidays, brief though they were, the one celebrating birth, the other one death and rebirth; the resurrection. Perhaps there was something particularly dangerous about being ill over Christmas and Easter, when even the consultants needed a break. But that was just a silly statistical thought.
And so, taking the ward assistant job brought Stephen back again to the patients and their drips, some on the same wards in which his father had died. D9. And he could give them cups of tea and move their drinks round on their stands and pick up things they had dropped and had no chance of reaching. Some days, he’d feel that one day there would be a moment of awakening, that he might feel at last, maybe here, maybe somewhere else, that this is his calling, this is the job he was intended for, training in the caring professions, altruistic, noble, helpful and cheery in the hospital wards which had taken so much of his father’s time and promised to do much and ultimately gave only a blank and the long silence of death. Then he felt again most keenly the longing and the thwarted sense of so much unsaid between him and his Dad. Maybe just being here somehow continued that truncated conversation that had dissolved into silence.
It was the end of a long Sunday opening onto Easter Monday, ever a quiet time in a hospital where most of the people who worked would rather be at home celebrating this religious festival with their families. But Dad had died on Good Friday those couple of years ago and Stephen never minded being on the wards at Easter, because he felt somehow – silly though this idea was of course – just somehow, his father was still a presence there and at that moment in particular, since he had died on the night of the movable feast that is Easter, that he might be closer than at any other time of the year. The thought was just sentimental of course.
It was the end of his shift, a late one, closing into the small hours.
He got down to the main concourse and then realised he’d forgotten something up on D9. Turning to the security man – ‘won’t be a minute Joe,’ Stephen said, though Joe was ready to let him out – ‘got to go back up for my bag – left behind the desk.’ He had to return up to the ward full of sleeping patients, secure in their false sense that they were going to be cured, saved, released, up there with the hushed, night nursing staff, just as he’d left it a few moments earlier, darkened, devoid of visitors.
But as he entered D9, at this unusually late or early hour, this liminal space in time between night and morning, on the night of Sunday before Easter Monday, there seemed to be much more activity behind the now closed double wing doors than he had imagined. Had something gone wrong?, were the nurses saving a patient?, had someone died or someone woken up? – a bit like that, yes, indeed something like that.
Pushing open the swing door to go and get his bag, he saw quite a crowd in the day room, and another over by the desks round the water cooler. Too much activity.
Somebody must be dying. In the small private room reserved for special patients and their families, those patients thought to be nearing their end, where in fact he’d visited his Dad those two years ago to say his last goodbye, in that private room near the water cooler, there was so much activity behind the shut door the shadows could be seen through the frosted glass and the door itself seemed to be moving, somehow jostling with the heaving people behind it. They must be trying to resuscitate or revive someone. He tried to remember who was within that private room earlier but couldn’t.
Although it had only been about 15 minutes between leaving the ward
and realising he’d left his bag, clearly a lot had changed.
The atmosphere had changed. The nurses looked alarmed at Stephen’s
entrance, those nurses who always only appeared here at night and
never took the day shift. And those others, the auxiliary nurses who
only appeared when nobody else would work at all, in periods like
Easter or Christmas. He felt as though he was intruding on a private
ritual. And oddly, there seemed to be patients up and about. This
was all most unusual. Some of the figures in long hospital dressing
gowns and white sheet-like coats tied at the back looked a little
grimy, perhaps a little alarmed too.
‘I would welcome a quick conversation with you when you have
a moment son.’ As one of the group turned slowly to face him,
it seemed for a moment possible, after all , that they could have
another of their conversations. But the hand his father now held out
to him was decaying, festering. His eyes were hollow, staring, knowing,
intent and the revelling here tonight was no more a religious festival,
no more a carnival than a feast of all souls.
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