Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
“Are you telling me that despite all that chemo, and all those optimistic opinions, when you opened her up you found you couldn’t do anything? Why didn’t you just let her die on the operating table? What has she to look forward to now? I’ll tell you. Weeks of pain, lots of drugs and an unpleasant death.”
The specialist tried to be reassuring.
“She might only have a few months but we can make her physically comfortable and in that time she can still grow spiritually. Her soul might well be stronger at the end.”
His complacency made me furious.
“Comfort and a stronger soul? Is that all you can offer? Some specious hope and purpose to someone who is effectively dead. Is that consolation?”
“When we get the balance of drugs right there will be a difference, I promise you. Her pain will diminish.” He sighed and smiled. “I do have some experience, you know.”
I looked through the half-open glass door at the pale, brutally thin figure in the bed, her unconscious body invaded by wires and tubes, a few strands – the remains of that glorious golden hair - plastered thinly across her forehead.
A puff of wind could blow her away, I thought.
The September sun streamed into the ward. As the specialist left I sat down and took her hand. There was a ghost of a response. Had she heard us talking?
A couple of weeks later they let me take her home.
We’d always been close. Friends used to call us Siamese twins, the time we spent together. But in the next few weeks we became closer than ever. At first, apart from the marvellous visiting cancer nurse, she relied wholly on me. Feeding her the special diet. Helping her to toilet. Washing her. Managing her drugs. Playing music and reading to her. Just being there. Doing all I could to quieten her mind, ease her pain.
I calculated one day that she’d spent nearly twenty hours asleep. When I told her she smiled.
“I have to get up my strength to fight,” she said. “We’ve a lot to do, you and I.”
Slowly the drugs took effect. Her bad days became fewer and her good days became better. As the pain diminished her sense of humour returned. Even though she was still physically weak she tried to get back to a normal life.
We borrowed a wheelchair so I could take her out. On one particularly good day we actually went shopping. We visited our favourite café, where they made a tremendous fuss of her. She made me order two coffees as usual, even if she could only take a sip of hers. But all that exhausted her. She took a long time to recover and we never did it again.
Christmas Day. I knew she’d been saving herself for today. One last push. A candle flaring at the end of its life.
In the kitchen, our two daughters, newly reconciled, were preparing the dinner. From the dining room came the murmur of voices and chink of cutlery and glasses, where sons-in-law were laying the table. An explosion of noise as grandchildren burst into the sitting room, demanding to sit on her lap or ride on the wheelchair. The four-year-old, fascinated by her fuzzy bald head, played with her wig.
Only the eight-year-old, glimmerings of understanding in her eyes, came to sit on my lap and hold me tight.
Across the room I could see her face, bright with the happiness of the moment, exultant that Christmas was turning out just as she had planned.
One evening during that quiet, flat time between Christmas and the New Year we sat by the fire, holding hands, listening to one of our favourite pieces of music. She was wonderfully relaxed. As the music moved towards its climax she sat upright and gripped my hand tighter and tighter. When it finished there was momentary silence.
Then she said, “God, I’m so tired,” and fell back in her chair.
That was all.
The early Spring sunshine floods into our bedroom. I’m clearing out her things. I should have done it long ago but I just couldn’t face it. It would have been like seeing her die twice.
But now, with the better weather, it’s time.
I’m doing well. I’ve dealt with everything to her instructions, filling umpteen charity bags. Now I come to her dressing table. I find her vanity set - comb, mirror and hair brush, each with her entwined monogram - hidden in a bottom drawer. She must have guessed, once the chemo started, she wouldn’t need them again.
Suddenly I’m back once again lying on our bed, just watching her brushing her long golden hair. At one time it had reached almost to her waist and I used to tease her.
“You should hang it out of the window. I would climb up into your arms and we would make passionate love for hours and hours.”
She would laugh and continue brushing and brushing, the air crackling with static. Soon she would plait it and with a few pins deftly coil it around her head. Turning to me she would arch her eyebrow, inviting my approval.
Now I pick up her hairbrush. It still has her hair entangled in its bristles. I pull out a handful and scrunch it into a golden ball. I can feel its silken texture between my fingers. I smell it, finding her still there.
Turning, I toss it from the window, where it sinks like thistledown to the pathway outside.
It lies, quivering in the sun, until a little gust catches it, turning it over and over like tumbleweed, then lifting it high into the air and out of sight.
In the end a puff of wind did blow her away.
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