When you cough it takes an eternity to end. You cough and rasp and it goes on because you can’t get up what you need to cough out. You can’t cough out cancer. I watch you silently and I don’t know what to do. I come over with a cloth to wipe up the blood and phlegm sometimes, and rest a hand upon your shoulder. Sometimes you seem to shrug it off during a spasm and I’m not sure if it is intentional or not. When it happens I don’t put my hand back there, because I don’t want confirmation that you may not want my touch..
When the coughing ends there is a long, terrible pause before you draw a shuddering breath. I bring you water, or wine if you want it. You are dying, what need is there to be mindful of your liver now? Often you’ll sink into a thin sleep afterwards, and I’ll listen to your uneven breathing and feel only a howling emptiness, that fear that a lost child feels.
The cigarettes clogged your lungs with tar, steadied your nerves with nicotine, warped your DNA with toxins and left you with cancer. The alcohol seeped into your blood and then your liver, and now when I lift you up from your bed, or your wheelchair I can feel it like a hard branch under your skin. Your arteries and heart couldn’t manage all that pressure, and failed you time and time again.
Coronary artery bypass surgery.
Triple arterial bypass.
Your legs became gangrenous at the toes and so they took them away and fitted you for two prostheses. Then they took more of your flesh, much more than a pound, and new prosthetics were made. And a third time. The wound drew back revealing the bone and you ran the risk of infection. They gave you barbiturates, opioids, morphine to manage the pain. They became a new addiction, another way to manage the pain, just like the cigarettes, the alcohol, the anger and guilt you wore so strongly for most of our time together. You ate less than ever before. The mountain you were had eroded into river sand.
And so death did not rush up to you, but loitered in the dark spaces at the doorway. And I sat there and saw this, as clearly as I saw the dust motes in the sun that streamed through the room.
You went out less and less, both from the pain of fighting to stay alive, and your shame at what you’d become. You became withdrawn and fey. So many of our few conversations were centred around the hardship of your childhood, your fears, your weariness at living. I said you were fighting to stay alive, but a part of you was fighting to find peace in death. I wanted to drag you outside, take you to the forest and smell the air, hear the leaves. I wondered if I should bully you into going to the Gasthaus to be welcomed and loved by your friends, your community. But I thought that desire was my own selfishness, and didn’t act upon it.
Now I wonder if that was the right thing to do. Dying is the loneliest thing a person can ever do, the only journey we ever truly make on our own. Would the support of the villagers, your childhood friends, have eased some of that interminable waiting and fear? I just don’t know, and I’m scared the answer could be yes.
So we sat in that room, and I listened to your ragged breathing and slumped on the couch waiting. When you shifted or groaned I would startle and freeze and wait for you to settle, the way you would have done for me as a baby nearly four decades earlier. The dust drifted down in the sunlight and in the doorway the darkness waited to bring you blessed relief, and me enduring grief.