Friday, April 24, 2009
‘It. Robs. Me. Of. My. Dignity,’ he gasps, chest rising and caving with each word.
His thick fingers gently stab at his heart.
Holding his left hand, careful not to interrupt his oxygen flow, I hang my head and the tears fall.
He continues, and it’s such an effort for him. Eyes open and shut with the words: ‘I think of your dad, John, and how he battled.’
His fingers squeeze mine. I roughly wipe the wetness away from my face, and blow my nose.
‘My, how he battled. I think to myself: if John can do it, I can do it too.’ He believes this.
The hospital smells of hospitals; of death, and dying, and despair. Looking around, I count 23 pieces of A4 notices, and only 2 dreary artworks.
VISITORS PLEASE NOTE: IN THE RESPIRATORY WARD NO FLOWERS ARE ALLOWED.
It is silent except for a muffled chat show across the hallway. An old lady watches her television, her feet in lambskin slippers. I remember how dad’s feet were also wrapped like that, the heel splits; it’s the first sign.
The young cleaner bristles past, blue mop squeezed with such enthusiasm you have to see it to understand. A passionate mop-squeezer. We exchange smiles.
When I sit beside Dennis, the nurse warns me to ‘watch the wet patch’ in case I slip.
I let Dennis speak, it’s important to him.
He continues - ‘The days are in limbo, I look at the clock and it says 2pm, but it feels like the middle of the night. When I sleep I hallucinate. I dream I am sleeping in a garage’; and his eyes dart quickly around the room as if to confirm he is indeed in ward 2M at the Wesley, Brisbane.
‘I drift off, and have to struggle to recall which sentence I am saying.’
I glance quietly at his arms: thin, bony, once carrying his heavy pack and gun; in war.
‘I’m 89 and-a-half.’ He smiles briefly as his life memories fly past.
There’s not much to the room. Another old man, behind me, lays a silent witness to our conversation. It doesn’t even occur to me to say hello to him; something I regret now, but my thoughts and attention were for Dennis, my late father’s old Regimental buddy.
‘It’s my kidneys, they’ve given up, had it,’ and he flicks his wrist in contempt.
‘But there’s nothing-wrong- up -here.’ He taps his head. ‘ I’m 110%,’ and indeed, his mind is very sharp.
He asks me ‘How’s Chris?’ and I am delighted he remembered my husband’s name. Pretty good really. Mentally, I applaud him.
‘I have never lost the Faith,’ he tells me, and we discuss the realities of simply getting to church, the physical challenge of pushing his new wheelie-walker in the rain, and up the ramp. 'I used my new walker and they greeted me like I was the Governor,' he chuckles to himself.
‘Then,’ he whispers, ‘they started the happy-clappies, and I just won’t go.’ He breathes hard at the memory - it stings him - he needs to go to his church; and he needs to hold onto his Faith. It’s important to him, at the end. Old people don't cope well with change.
‘I’ve told my daughter, Susan, to just have a small private service for me - that’s what I want, but she might do something different.’
I joke with ‘You won’t know what’s going on, you will be up there with dad, having a beer,’ and we smile at the image of seeing John again.
‘He was always my Padre,’ he says. His eyes are closed. I wonder if he will nod off, and whether I should go.
I stand and stretch, leaning over the bed has pinched my back, and I walk to the Nurse’s Station to see if I can source some Blutack. The Nurse is unhelpful, so I then ask if she might have some sticky-tape instead.
‘What are you doing here tomorrow for Anzac Day’ I enquire. Her eyes narrow.
'Will the street march be on telly,' I persist? Yes. They can watch it on their telly.
Grinning, I walk back into this room, this room of old men and over one-and-a-half-centuries of memories. I tape up the little Chinese-made Australian flag to the end of his bed. He also has a paper red poppy, and I wind the wire of this around the top of his little flag. Dennis beams at me, now he is truly happy.
I hold his hands - both of them - and he grips them more strongly now.
We continue to chat about our children, and his grandchildren, now well into their 30s and 40s.
‘Oh, the times we had playing cricket at Marchant Park,’ he enthuses.
Outside, Brisbane turns on a spectacular autumn day, sky mad with the blue, no clouds. He tells me that when he gets out - and he will get out next week - that he intends to sit in the sun and enjoy its warmth.
I have brought a small packet of Anzac biscuits, store bought, not home-made, but it’s the thought, right? Some barley sugar jubes, and a small bottle of shiraz, so he can toast his buddies tomorrow.
Tomorrow is Anzac Day – Lest we forget – but whilst we continue to talk and chat to the living, we won’t forget.
I kiss his cheek, say a little prayer in my head for him, and let him sleep.