Walk up the hill from the carpark to the hospital entrance. Raspberry plants tussle with nettles by the old building. They say the air here is better for the lungs. The lobby is yellow, and we are directed to the third floor, and everything is just a newer version of the last hospital, but with an older version of us all. As we exit we are directed to the visiting room while the nurses finish helping the Old Man. I haven’t seen him in three years.
I stand at the window and below lies the buckled world, the old hospital, the new town. Pines gather on the steep slopes like whispering mourners, and the sun pours life onto almost everything it touches. When I hug him it’s like holding a baby bird in my palm. I feel that he will drift away if we go outside, but we go there anyway. He cannot buy cigarettes here, but there’s still a little gazebo for smokers. He picks up three butts and tries to smoke the few millimetres of tobacco on the filters and I feel my head coming apart with a species of anxiety I have never known. I feel frustration and anger pour out of me as a flood of distress and I ask him, “Are you ready to die now, today?”
He doesn’t answer.
I take him for a walk and leave the others in their awkward puzzled sadness. His eyes are grey today as they flit towards the forest above us and I hope he will talk about trees and mushrooms, squirrels and snow. That he will ignore that question I asked. But then he says:
“Yes I think I am ready to die.”
We talk and later I go to a supermarket in the city and buy oven bags. I check the prescription sleeping tablets I brought, and physically, organisationally, I am ready. Emotionally I am walking into those nettles by the carpark, and I wish it could be as simple as releasing a ribbon in my hand and watching him drift joyously into the sky.
The final request never comes, but every day I wake early from vision of using violence to cause peace. Most mornings when I walk I cry in the woods. Many nights I sit upon the cutting and watch the purple hills frame Schneeberg and press my face to the dry grass and wait. Barking dogs frighten me more than usual, I can feel grass bruise underfoot and the smell of quartz and cold water suffuse my being. It is like falling in an endless nose dive towards water that never gets any closer.
When I have been home a few months the call comes that he died. Heart attack, emergency buzzer, three hours in ICU. I take out the prescription tablets and pop them out of their blister packs, then wrap them in the two oven bags and bury them deep in the rubbish. I don’t cry then, but go outside and scrub the barbecue into shining submission. I cry a little once, and deny it when concerned family member notices.
Tears come when they will, and grief flows in its own way. They turn him into dust and ashes but there is no funeral, as we are scattered across the other side of the world. I think about that first visit often, it drifts through my head the way gentle piano music floats over a lake at night, the way a balloon that slipped from a child’s hand may shimmy in the wind, but always yearns for the sky. I think about the promise I made to help him, and hope that he never denied himself dignity to spare my soul.
My heart is a deep forest on a steep hill on the road to a hospital. Some days dappled sun shines through and illuminates a carpet of moss, pine needles and grass. Some days the snow drifts under the canopy and the shelter is harder to find. But always the forest is there, and for every tree that falls, someone will plant a seed.