I am approaching this post with some trepidation. One of the things I did yesterday was to visit my friend who is dying of colon cancer. My wife and I arrived at their house by car and the husband greeted us at the door. L was resting on her bed and he didn’t know if she would want to move to the sitting room. He told us to sit down. My wife and I discussed where to sit. I sat opposite where L usually sits whereas my wife wanted to sit next to L but recognised that this might make it awkward to L to see her. My wife ended up sitting next to me. I felt very vulnerable sitting there waiting to hear if L would come through.
It has been two weeks since I last saw her so I was expecting a deterioration but I knew from my wife and daughter that she would be looking worse than I expected (does that make sense?). It had been rather an emotional day for me already and though I knew I wanted to be there, I didn’t know how I would be. I had faith the experience would be okay but as I waited, the sadness leaked out, I stared out of the main window to the front of the house out at the blue sky and accepted my vulnerability; I wanted to be somewhere else but I wan’t going anyway.
L is not the first person that I have known that has suffered from colon cancer. My good friend Diana from my book group died 22 months ago now. I had been weekly visiting her with my dog for a while since her husband died and had helped her in various capacities but particularly with gardening and sorting out books. She had a tremendously interesting life and I enjoyed hearing her tales of days long before I was born. Life continued to be eventful around Diana. She was reversed over by a white van and her arm needed pins. I had helped Diana move to a smaller flat when shortly after she had a stroke and had visited her in hospital.
She was well on the way to recovery from that but then the colon cancer appeared. I continued to visit and help as I could but eventually she moved to the hospice just down the road from me. I think I managed to visit her twice in there. She wanted to see my dog (her dog had died shortly after her husband had) but I didn’t try to take him. I feel a bit guilty about that. I remember going away for Christmas that year expecting her to die whilst I was away, but in fact she didn’t die until near the middle of January. Diana knew that I found it difficult to come to see her because I found it so upsetting, we had talked about it and she said she understood. I couldn’t face seeing her in January so I never so her again.
Diana was still able to talk when I last saw her, she couldn’t always stay on focus and might drifted off for a few seconds but we had a conversation; L is well past that stage.
I have an image now of L sitting in her usual position. She is so gaunt now that skeletal seems to be the best description. She cannot gather enough breath to talk, barely understandable single words are whispered out though in that faint sound I can detect her familiar accent and somehow that comforts me; I guess it is an indication that she is still there. L sits, eyes glazed not focusing on anything it, her mouth is slightly open and that stays with me; does she need to keep it open to get enough breath? Is it just too much energy to keep it closed? She seems to be almost gone from an outside view.
I find it difficult to look at L, it feels like I am staring at someone I shouldn’t be maybe because she can no longer return my look and make a connection. I know that she likes to hear our voices around her, so I concentrate on talking to her daughter about the physics practical she is writing up. The lab was to do with improving the quality of light microscopes and it is something I have enough knowledge about to ask intelligent questions.
At first L barely manages to suck on some pineapple juice ice cubes, it is a struggle but she perseveres. Dryness of her mouth and throat has been a struggle for a long time now and whilst we are there, applying gel and eating ice cubes are the only things I see her do for herself. Otherwise it is as though she is a static point in time, holding one position on the sofa whilst the world continues on around her. We drink tea, eat biscuits and talk about the usual things I guess while L sits there, her husband at her side. Occasionally he reaches out and rest his hand on her thigh for a bit in I am sure an act of comforting himself as much as for L.
The daughter leaves for a violin lesson, and L is uncomfortable seating now, so her husband lifts her up onto a wheelchair and takes her back to her bedroom which before the cancer was the study. My wife and I have a chance to talk to the husband alone now for the first time since this all kicked off. We are anxious to understand how he is coping, and to see what we can do, but really the best support we can give is to listen to him. He describes what he thinks will be the most challenging times. Sometimes he becomes choked up but mostly he continues to talk despite the occasion tear that rolls down his cheek. He really is a most amazing man.
I think the thing that most upsets him, is the thought of L never seeing her grandchildren if there are any. L is devoted to children, first her own, then others so much so that when she sorted out a job after her kids when to university, it was as a nursery nurse. One of the things that enabled L to accept her approaching death was that she felt she had completed her job of raising her children and she was proud of what they had become. The thought of L not being around to support her grandchildren somehow gets to the core of being a parent; I remember the most upsetting thing I had about the possibility of death before my transplant was not seeing how my children had turned out. I shed tears with L’s husband.
When I woke up this morning, it was the image of L sitting there static whilst the world continues around her that haunted me. Perhaps Halloween is having an effect on my choice of words there, but the picture I have does disturb and unsettle me. Is this image a metaphor for death then because when we do die, we are left in one place whilst the world continues on without us? People will remember us as how we are when they last see us. It is hard to believe that person in front of me yesterday was my friend L, so maybe I can hold two images after all.