What is the point, he asked, sliding down the bed, slowly, imperceptibly and irrevocably, with no strength of his own to heave himself to a position something akin to sitting. He was slipping down a slope that crooked his neck. It was strangling his voice, an already enfeebled uttering constrained by a tumor, a voice that had once crooned his favourite Robbie Burns with honeyed tones.
Not necessary to be completely upright, but something approaching that would do. He lay with his legs stretched out before him at almost a hundred and twenty degrees, at that special angle nature had exploited to its advantage. He could see his feet, white-clean and blue veined. Branches on trees were strongest at a hundred and twenty. He thought of the plum tree in his neighbour’s garden, entwined in ivy. His last venture outside had been to curb it. From an unstable set of step ladders, he had tracked the ivy to its most extreme hook-like root and pulled, losing his balance. May, his neighbour, unable to save him, had stood back giving moral support, repeating all the while her imagined visit to her son in France. It was Jim next door along to her who had heard the fall and called the ambulance.
He was almost horizontal when the medics came. They surrounded his bed behind drawn curtains. His feet had disappeared from view. He liked being able to see them. His toes were nice, he thought, familiar appendages to his legs; they had served him well without him paying them much attention. They were evenly ordered from big toe to little in a neat trajectory that reminded him of a hundred and twenty. Arthritis had not yet wreaked its full damage on the joints. He had seen his feet in x-rays, so well defined in boney whiteness. He worried about losing the ability to see his feet. He kept them out of the bed covers as much to be seen as to be cool. They had looked disembodied. He was not asking to stand on them, to be upright as in perpendicular, for his muscles had atrophied; he knew that. To walk he needed the aid of a nurse. Dependent. Now they were talking about him in earnest.
A nurse came to his aid and set him sitting. He smiled.
It had been slow at first, his decline in strength, and more recently, quite abruptly, it was rapid. So obvious to see. After the fall had come the dizziness that had left him lying on the grass, still clutching ivy leaves, wide awake, conscious but without the will to raise himself. The wasting came from days of lying in a bed. A bed with cot sides. How irksome that his obsession now was with these limitations – wrists that dropped as he held a cup of tea, legs that could not take a step, a voice that rasped. Even so a cot was not wanted; its implacable sign of his withering offended him. A memory. He did not want a cot.
He did want his medication either. His eldest daughter was nodding, but not to him. She was not, he thought, in concert with him when he had doubted there was a point. She had bent her head forwards and raised her eyebrows to show her disapproval. She was not his ally, then. Not at this moment. Not at this critical juncture of life’s inexorable process of dying. She had power of attorney – yet she had not filled the silence that had followed his affront to the doctor’s humane practice, his hypocratic oath, not even with a comforting platitude. She could have said it will give you an appetite, but she must have known that appetite was not the issue here. He was suppressing appetite. It was the will to live that mattered, or the will to die; oh that unutterable unthinkable thought that challenged everything. But no, she withheld her comment and straightened her shoulders the way she always did, meaning now let’s think some more before we follow that line of thought. And without saying anything she had taken the wind out of his sails, drawn his pathetic protest to its very small demise.
She might have said something like well you need to get your strength up, especially if you want to go home. But she didn’t. She didn’t even mention going home. No one mentioned going home. He noticed how they didn’t mention that. No, instead this was another one of those silences she had cultivated over the years. A lacuna, he called it. A bit like a page from the alternative colouring book they give to children these days. You know, the ones with titles so wide open to interpretation that they worked for everyone – draw the thought you have when you are about to sleep, picture an imaginary bird in an imaginary tree. It was an opening, an invitation to supply your own response – if only you could make the right one; the one that fell in line with what was expected of you.
So everyone kept their own counsel. And said nothing. All eyes that were looking at him stopped looking at him. The doctor scanned his notes. His daughter cupped her face in her hands and seemed to look into the blank middle distance. He was being impossible. Again. The nurse avoided looking altogether and busied herself tidying round the edges of the bed, finally interjecting into a space she seemed not to belong to, to say with a practiced coaxing in her conciliatory manner well you need to get your strength up, Tom. And then came the sting. Or you won’t be going home, will he, doctor?
There you are. The matter was dealt with. They could all move on, except not him. They talked some more and he was still in that gap, that dark place, incredulous that anyone could think there could ever be a point to keeping his strength up. To do battle with what? With death? He would not do battle with death. He was doing battle with life. But to go home, perhaps. Was that at all possible? Was that what he really wanted? All that time on his own. Long days endured by constant dozing. The house. The upkeep of the garden, the birds to be fed at the bird table. The birds, yes, he missed them here. But the house. The rain. The interminable rain and cold, rain on the window, birds sheltering in the canopies, bread on the bird table soaked to soggy softness. Weeds growing like Leylandii, ferns like a forest and maybe a newt or two in the pond he could no longer see from his window. The neighbour’s tree in blossom he might never see again. His last effort was to prune the ivy that entwined it to a smothering. He had been doing battle with life for some time now.
His question still unanswered, he felt no one was by his side, only his own inner mutterings. His daughter maybe was there – she had rarely strained against his will. She had not taken her own path like his other children had. She had wandered away from time to time as daughters do, but returned for episodes when called upon to carry out a favour or a duty. Always acting out of duty when what he wanted was devotion, a daughterly dedication. Total obedience to his will. Was she afraid of him, his temper? He knew he had a temper.
But she was always there when called upon. It calmed him to remember that. So she was nodding, and what did that mean if anything had a meaning still? She was nodding again, and now not only to the doctor. She was nodding her concern for him to the doctor, but then she was nodding towards him as he lay there so far away in his own mind, and nodding with her eyebrows raised like a question, wanting his consent, willing it of him; but consent to what? To the fiction that there was a point? Could she herself expand upon the premise, he wondered, that there was a point. Had she thought it through? Could she ever reach his state of sublimated reasoning when she herself was not the person loitering at death’s door, when she was still in control of things, summoning the nurses, contacting the hospice, the social worker. He felt he was only loitering. Holding up a bed, that tainted affliction he had no desire to call his own.
The gate into the next world, into a void as he believed, was pregnant with a possible opening, at any time soon, at some time, in a week, before Christmas, before reaching a hundred. He looked sternly at it. Did it shake, was it about to open to his knock. Oh what impudent thoughts, so appalling he could tell no one. The mortifying suspense. How to fill the time in between with a point.
But then at least she would do nothing without his consent, and that was sufficient control for him, control of sorts, he supposed, for after all he had chosen her. She was his emissary in the world. And she would only do what he agreed to. He would only do what he agreed to. She would see to that. She had the authority to, didn’t she? To say No for him.
So there it is again; the question looms. What is the point of being brought back to an animated existence? What was it all about, this great concern that he should cling on? For he had already faced the same overwhelming surrender to the ending of life when he had fallen that afternoon, the reason he was here. He had felt then as he feels now, that he had had enough. I have had enough he said, and, as tears filled his eyes, he did not see the imponderable alarm on her face, the doctor’s helplessness. Must he be stoic? Must he cling on after all?
Now, Tom. You know it will make you feel better. It was the nurse speaking, the same who had insisted on pulling up the side rails to stop him falling out of bed the day before. Or was it in the night? A shadowy memory taunted him from the sidelines. He would not tolerate a cot. It will make you feel better, though he only caught the last word. Better she had said as she came into view pulling the side rails of his bed up, to keep him safe she had said. No it is not better, he growled. I will not be in a cot. Then he summoned up a strength he did not seem to have. His face contorted with the effort as he rattled on the metal bars. I will not have a cot. It will not make me feel better.
He was not going to slip sideways anyway. He had told them once before and had had a fight about it. In the night too. Something in his memory. But more importantly, and imperceptibly to those around him, or so it seemed, so imperceptibly that they carried on talking to a general space he felt he no longer occupied, he was slowly but surely slipping into a fully prone position so that his view was slowly and imperceptibly shifting away from the ease of eye direct to eye – no, more like away from the lesser ease of raised eyes to lowered eyes – towards the strain of stressed eyes almost closing, seeing only the doctor’s chin moving. The chin was clean shaven. The doctor was a fastidious man clearly in control of things, in his white coat and stethoscope, his mouth moving and contorting making sense of words only by its clear articulation of word shapes.
His own chin rough and bristled, days unshaven, three days perhaps – he had lost all track of time, but he was unshaven to a degree as good as three days; and, ‘unshaven’ being the clearest evidence and tactile sense of the state of loss he was sinking into, it was a symptom of his floating away, of all things falling away from him. In particular, the loss of independence without which there was no point, could not be a point, the very point he wished to make and wanted to have pointed out otherwise, to counter his despair. For what could be the point of clinging on? Of loitering.
As the doctor mouthed the words of palliative intervention woven around the prescription of pills and capsules of his caring trade, which were the material evidence of his human compassion, the fact of which he the patient did not see the point, he could not see the point, not when unshaven he had lost his own independence. Staring upwards tired him. He closed his eyes and the words spoken were now unseen and so were unshaped. Voices were muffled as behind a scarf. Their vibrations were accompanied by a new strain – the strain of making sense of a distant hubbub that was forever losing itself in the walls, in the vast window. Involuntarily, his own unsleeping and closed eyes flickered open. The mouth still moving said it will ease things, make him more comfortable.
Now his torso lay at an angle to his neck, his neck at an angle to his torso, an awkward angle where a hundred and twenty is no longer natural. His head was tilted on a pillow, a soft pillow that hurt him, unreasonably so when it should have cushioned his weight more gently. It was then that he knew, for first time it dawned on him, that he had become quite deaf, his hearing almost gone, gone to a pool of melting sound, his eyes now the sole interpreter of everything. Looking up at the doctor looking down.
He was deaf. Slowly and imperceptibly hearing had slipped away from him, so gradually that he had not realised. And he was angry. Angry at that. Angry with the doctor who made the case for a point, the point of his continuing life, made it with undeniable compassion, the point being the point of easing this time, this last phase, the last phase of his life which was not a life any more, not a phase even, just a lacuna, a large hole, a black hole that all his hearing had fled to, sunk into as into sinking sand, slipping away, deeper, wider, breaking away, scattered, shattered, all gone.
Just as a black hole proves to be a gorging vessel, hungry for matter, sucking into itself everything of universal significance like the making of sense of the world, like hearing music, the music of birds, the songs of the planets, like hearing humanity and human kindness and understanding how sound is meant to sustain, like retaining a sense of being engaged in the world, so this lacuna of his going, his loss, absorbs him entirely. For when the body and mind are wholly consumed in dying there is no soul remaining, he believes, he fervently believes. There can be no spark to set his animus aflame, no imagination, no illuminating cognition. Intelligence is all gone.
Then he remembers to rage and rage against the dying of the light, and it was never his way in any case to go gently, not anywhere. When everything is consumed, it is then stormed out, like the massive supa-nova the black hole has become, but not in anger just because he did not want to die, not because he was not ready, but in anger because he was ready and the world would not let him go.
Why was he so ready, you ask. When did he decide he would not submit to life’s mean trick at its ending, not to the end itself, but to the struggle with the end, when he could no longer have his own way, when cancer had the upper-hand, when cancer would decide the moment for him. What was this outrageous beast that took control of him, uninvited. Ah yes, that was where logic defeated him. Perhaps it was invited in, after all. A guest that inveigled itself into the intimacy of his being. He could not deny his own hand in the coda of his own life, the resolution. It was a doctor after all who had warned him years ago to cut down. He had done so; switched to a pipe, though too late; but then not so late that he had not managed against the odds to hit the nineties, long enough to nurse his wife who had died before him. He was glad of the stay of execution. He had done that well.
Still, he feels he has unreasonably lost control of things. So he does not eat. Not-eating is not an act of not doing something. It is an act of doing what he can, of being non-compliant. He is doing something. He is taking control.
Even so, his behaviour is erratic. He tosses his complaint into the midst of a team of busy nurses, young women, tending to his needs albeit within a bounded framework, the only way they can. He troubles them with his existential discomfort. He is, as he knows, a difficult patient, just as he was a difficult husband, difficult father. Lurching from praise and gratitude to sullen rudeness. He is all at sea with his emotions. They will not be disciplined. They jostle like unruly children in an ill-formed queue. He cannot get them into line.
He was staring straight ahead, when his son arrived. Straight ahead. Transfixed. His face whiter than his son remembered it ever being. Perhaps it was the way the light fell on him from the large window, light uninterrupted by trees or buildings, light that streamed in from the clouds. His hair was whiter too, not grey, but white in long slicks drawn over his head from his brow. But more compelling was the gaze, a white gaze, his brown eyes almost blue in their intensity, light shining on the iris. Looking forwards as though he was listening to something. But there was nothing before him, no sound around him apart from the busyness of ward traffic, voices that did not speak to him. Perhaps he was listening to music, strains remembered, stressed and tortured sounds from symphonies he used to play, over and over. Searching for the music that was gone. His eyes hearing the sound, willing them there.
It was a stern profile, the bony contour almost handsome, chiselled. Could have been a composer’s face, perhaps a conductor. Fiery in temper, steely in passion. Eyes that pierced. But now frozen over. Like a bust, made of alabaster. It had that austere stillness he remembered from some time back. He tried not to think about it. It was difficult enough to retain compassion for so difficult a man, so difficult a father. A man he had not befriended until recently, who had not befriended him until recently. An achievement he had marveled at and expected would be felled in an instant like apple blossom in a heavy downpour.
The son. Long lost. Still a stranger to him. At the bottom of his bed. He stands there diffident. Distant. How he wishes he would throw himself forwards into an embrace. But he withholds himself. He is too far to reach with a handshake even. Not as close as the doctor. The doctor’s eyes leaned into him, poured their healing into his space. But the son was stiff as wood. Hurting still. And he knows his son is hurting still but he cannot change a whit, cannot alter a lifetime of relating in this way.
Sell the house were the first words he had uttered when his son had broken through his frozen stare on that last visit, when he had stood back, kept his distance. Sell the house. Too much to worry about when the brain was occupied, concentrated on the point that he could not find or envisage, or formulate into a philosophy of being. The son was taken aback. He could see he was. Perhaps that was why he did not lean into his father’s space. It was an angry kind of space, a belligerent kind of surrendering to Fate. Not the sort of welcome a father should give his son.
But then at the end, he had managed to hold onto his son’s hand as it reached out to shake his own. He had found strength enough to pull him nearer and with his eyes speak of something he could not say. He had tolerated long enough this not-leaning in, this father’s wanting to say …… what he could not say. What could not be said anyway, after so many years of relating in another way. See you again son. Was it a wish, a pleading, or a statement? Was this, after all, the point? Was it enough?
The son had forced a smile. And embraced him.
“I love you, son,” he said.
“You and me are fine, Dad.”