Casualty has a lot to answer for.
It may have inspired a whole generation to step into Charlie Fairhead’s scrubs, but when it comes to death and dying, it’s a wee bit off the mark. People do not slip away quietly, having said their last goodbyes and made tearful amends with their loved ones. Death isn’t calm and tranquil. It’s often messy, desperate and chaotic. We tell ourselves (and our friends who read the local newspaper) that people passed away peacefully, but this is just a gratuitous phrase, mumbled alongside things to do with a good innings and people not really suffering. Something we say when we need to make ourselves feel better, because the human race isn’t particularly skilled at dealing with death.
A little while ago, I sat with a patient whilst they died. A few hours earlier, on the ward round, she had been told by the consultant and his team that they could do nothing else for her and they were just going to concentrate on just making her comfortable. She looked up at them and said thank you. She actually said thank you. Because when you’re ninety-something years old and lying there in your nightdress, when there are five men in suits standing over you, wielding their stethoscopes and public school educations, there is probably very little else you can think of to say. Then the five men in suits moved onto the next patient and left her to wait for God in a brightly coloured side-room, surrounded by puzzle magazines and packets of Polo mints and all the other debris you collect when you’re in hospital for a very long time.
God didn’t take very long. In the morning, she had told me all about her sons and her bingo and her addiction to gingerbread. When I went to see her a few hours later, she had stopped talking and just gazed into the distance, past the open door and the nurses’ station to somewhere my eyes couldn’t see. So I sat and held her hand. I told her about my day and the sunshine outside and what I’d had for my lunch. I told her anything I could think of, just in case she could still hear my voice and every now and then I had to turn away to adjust the curtains just in case she knew I was crying.
I wondered when it was that the world started to slip away from her. When the open door and the nurses’ station and the rest of the ward moved beyond the horizon … and I wondered what had replaced them. Eventually, her eyes grew milky and she began struggling to force air into her tired lungs. And then ninety-something Christmases and ninety-something birthdays left this world and she was gone from me. I sat there, amongst the polo mints and puzzle magazines, with books she would never finish reading and photographs of great-grandchildren she would never see grow up and I cried for a lady I didn’t even know.
I still held onto her hand for a very long time. I knew that when I let go, she would be swallowed by the hospital machinery. She would be numbered and tagged and swept away into another part of the building and I didn’t want that to happen. After ninety-something years, she deserved a few more minutes in the room with the photographs. It was sitting there, trying to reassure myself with gratuitous phrases, when I first noticed her other hand, cold and lifeless on the top of the bed … and I saw that her fingers were curled around the top sheet and she was gripping it so tightly, the material had gathered into folds within her fist.
And then I realised how much she’d wanted to stay.
Even after all this time she wanted to hold on to this world. Because despite the consultant and the men in suits and the world in general thinking that you’d had a good innings – you, yourself, might have different ideas.
And I suspect that, even after ninety-something years, you would like just a little more time.