“Oh, not that high”, I snap at the young nurse who is supposed to assist me. The timid girl immediately apologises and twists the lever a bit to the other side, and after some more grouching, I decide my bed has been elevated to my optimum angle. I shoo her out of the room in annoyance and feel around for the glass of water the incompetent girl claimed to have left on the tabletop. I take a sip and listen to the news on the television.
The chemo they give me is rough. I don’t like admitting that it hurts me, that I notice it at all. But it does, and after all, I’m all alone right now. But I won’t have to go through it anymore. They’ve given up now. I told them to. The weakness wasn’t helping me, and we’d all acknowledged the fact that I wasn’t getting any better months ago.
I’m grateful for my sightless eyes, for I’m sure I wouldn’t like what I’d see in the mirror. My skin is wrinkled, because I’m old. But now that I’m sick, I know it has to be drooping off my frail bones; Christ, I’m sure I look like death. It’s funny how that makes me chuckle. I’ve lost my hair. I’ve always loved my hair, it had stayed young and thick and black long after all my friends and colleagues had turned to hair colour or the like. It’s best I can’t see myself now.
My daughter calls me sometimes. She calls me today. I hear the rapid click of heels echoing down the hallway outside, and I know it’s for me. The nurse hands me the phone, saying, “It’s Ade”, and busies herself with non-existent work in a corner of the room. I always throw a nasty glance in her direction, just to scare her. Her presence never really bothers me. But I know I intimidate her, with the way my blind eyes look directly at her- thanks to my excellent ears. I can practically smell her fear. It’s nice to have a little fun, he always says.
“Hey, Mum, how do you feel?”Ade asks, the same way she does every single time.
“You know, hon. I’m coping; they’ve been using lots of needles”, I say, grimacing, and Ade laughs.
“I’m sorry I can’t come to visit. I’m a bit-“
“-tied up at work. I know, darling. I understand.”
There’s a pause, where I listen to Ade’s soft breathing. She feels guilty.
“I’ll call tomorrow, Mum. You take care”, with the hint of a smile curling those thin lips.
Not guilty enough.
I hang up with a hum of acknowledgement, and ask to be moved into my wheelchair, handing the girl the wireless. She’s hesitant to leave me alone, but one blank stare and she’s clicking away in the opposite direction. I smile and place my hands where they’re supposed to be. I go slowly, making sure to listen for sounds of unforeseen obstacles. The hospital sounds quiet today. Paul, from room 208 in the next hallway doesn’t call out my name. I pause where I know his room is supposed to be, and strain my ears to hear. Nothing. So Paul is gone, then.
It makes me pause for a while. We’d had a pleasant conversation once, a couple of months ago. He’d mentioned that he was a teacher, an English teacher for fifth graders, and I’d told him I’d taught Math for high school kids before I retired happily. He’d laughed and asked if I could teach him how to do long division someday. He had a nephew who was learning it and needed help. I’d said I would definitely do it; someday.
In the days since, we’d talked about the weather, discussed politics, and if nothing, simply acknowledged each other’s presence with a greeting. His voice had grown raspier in the last few weeks. But I’d shut my ears to it, as one must in a place like this. I’d known. He’d known. Reality, however, is sometimes too much for knowledge to moderate.
The sound of my squeaky wheels alerts me to the fact that I’ve started moving again. I focus on slowing down and not on what I’ve just learnt. Today, I quickly lose interest. Sighing, I turn around and begin moving back to my room. Then I hear it. An unfamiliar sound in this wing of the cancer ward: loud, innocent, raucous laughter. A child’s laughter.
Had some kid strayed from the paediatric ward? Probably. If so, why hadn’t someone taken care of it? Incompetent staff, the whole lot of them. Why the hospital pays them such a fat sum for doing nothing, I would never understand. How do you know it’s such a fat sum? he asks playfully and I give him the look. The one where we both agree that I’m right, no proof necessary. Before I can see him shaking his head like I know he will, I find myself crashing into something. Something hard and solid, if the pain is anything to go by.
I mutter an expletive. I’d gotten distracted, and lost control. “I’m fine”, I announce, rolling my eyes even as I rub my throbbing forehead. The nurse girl is right beside me, hovering. I can feel it, her annoyingly bright, optimistic aura gratingly penetrating my personal bubble.
“Oh my God, Ma’am, I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone. Are you okay?” I tune her out and roll away, but she’s hot on my heels. And then she grabs hold of my wheelchair’s handles. I scowl at nothing in particular, and she gets the hint. But she pushes me to my room nonetheless. I make sure I’m more picky about the bed than usual, and scowl again, straight at her. She doesn’t respond, but that’s when I hear it.
“Why is she so angry? Is she alright? I thought you said she’d be fine”, a whispered voice whines from the foot of my bed, where the nurse girl is pouring out some water.
“Oh she’s fine”, the girl says in a panic, knowing I’ve heard and petrified of my reaction. I’m certain that girl needs anxiety pills.
Something compels me to smile and say, “I am”, clearly and sweetly, sweeter than I sound when I’m speaking to Ade. “How are you?” I ask the owner of the whisper.
The pause is long enough to make me slightly embarrassed at making the move, but then:
“I’m good. I like your shawl”, the little boy says, and I make the connection. The girl is trying to keep the child entertained.
“Oh, you do?” I ask, fingering the satin blue shawl wrapped around my head. “I do too. It was a gift from my husband”, I smile. He winks from the doorway.
“Your husband?” the boy asks, stepping closer. He sounds more confident, presumably since I’m not scowling with all my might now. “Where is he?”
I can picture the boy. Big, innocent eyes peeking out from under shaggy hair, face entirely open as he waits for my answer. He’s right beside me now, and I pat the bed with a smile.
“He’s asleep”, I tell him as he jumps up onto the hard spring mattress.
“Asleep?” he questions. “When will he wake up, then?”
“He’ll wake up when I fall asleep too”, I say, as if I’m letting him in on a big secret.
The boy doesn’t speak for a while, but I hear his noisy mouth-breathing. It’s endearing enough to make me think back to when Ade was a little girl.
“Does he watch over you?” The boy’s voice is quieter now, more sober, and I wonder if I’ve erred in telling him what I have.
“Every minute”, I finally say. I clear my throat.
A tiny cold hand grabs mine, and I’m startled. The hand remains, and I squeeze it, feeling it relax into my larger grip.
“I’m Tommy”, the boy says, “My sister says that when I fall asleep, I’ll be able to watch over her and my Mom and my Dad. Is that true?”
It’s one of those moments when you realise that your answer is going to mean something. That you can’t treat this lightly. That you’re responsible for something much bigger than this conversation, much bigger than a few words strung together. It’s when you realise you’re responsible for someone else, for even the smallest period of time. You’re responsible for what they feel, and what they do, for a minute or a second or a nanosecond; but you’re responsible nevertheless. And you know you have to make it matter.
“You’ll be able to watch over everyone you love”, I say, enunciating every word, feeling the weight of the hand in mine. “My husband says he sees my daughter too.” I wish I can see Tommy’s face, gauge what he’s feeling, what I need to say, or should I just keep quiet, am I making it worse, but I can’t see, and I have to wait.
“Will you let me watch over you too?” Tommy asks, and in that instant my heart feels more vulnerable than it has in years. I realise that this precious child doesn’t have much time left. I know. He’ll be gone soon.
I feel words would be too little. So I smile and squeeze his hand harder. I don’t move, and I sense that he doesn’t either.
I exhale when I hear a tray clattering to the ground, and Tommy’s pulse jumps too.
“Sorry”, the girl apologises, and the moment we had is broken. Soon, the girl cleans up the mess, and takes Tommy away from my room. I listen until I know they’re gone.
I reach for the glass of water from the usual place, and take a sip. They’re saying something about the election now, but I tune it out. Today had been a good day. Tomorrow will be, too, he promises, and I give him the other look. The one of affection and I’m humouring you and yeah right and I love you.
The girl comes in later, lowers my bed and covers me with my sheets and warm blankets and says, “Good night”, quietly. For once, I greet her right back with a pleasant smile. I snuggle in, and the “night tubes” yield to make me comfortable. I smile at him; he holds my hand and grins sleepily. Good night, love, he says softly, and I mumble the same, muffled by the pillow. I’m tired, exhausted for no reason; I fall asleep-slowly; and then I’m there.