Bye, bye Beauty

It’s just past 9pm. Sitting, half lying, on a hard and uncomfortable chair in a cold hospital room, I stare at Beauty as the life slips from her body.

“Am I dead yet?” she asks.

“No, Beautiful. Not yet,” I say.

“Are you just waiting for me to die?” She struggles with her words and I can hear the pain in her voice; I can hear the cancer in her chest and in her lungs as it gargles up her throat. It sounds like air being blown through a straw into a glass of water. It’s “moisture on the lungs,” the doctor said.

“No, Beautiful. Of course I’m not waiting. I just don’t want you to be alone.”

“Oh,” is all she manages, then she coughs. She coughs a lot.

“Hallo Oumie,” says the largest of the two nurses as they walk in. She looks like a giant black plum, slightly overripe, but still polished to a waxy shine. The other is as quiet as a dead church mouse, and just as skinny.

They utter a few mumbled words in their native tongue as they move around the bed. I say, “hello,” several times, but they choose to ignore me.

“Are you ready for your wash, Oumie?” asks the plump one.

The anxiety is clear in my grandma’s face, but still she smiles, and forces a shy but polite, “yes,” and gives a slight nod with her tired old head. She has not energy enough to raise her arms or to turn around in bed. Her body has withered to nothing but skin and bone, and soon, I know, it will be nothing but dust.

The plump nurse notions for me to leave and then draws the curtain around the bed. Groans and moans and grunts come as my grandma is being pulled to this side and then that. Up. Down. Left. Right. Her cries are low and blunt, but they cut through me like ice, and then burn like fire. I dart towards the curtain, reaching out to pull it away, but then stop. Who am I to tell a nurse how to wash a sick, old, dying body? Who am I and what do I know? No. I know nothing. With shame, and an overwhelming feeling of defeat, I retreat back to the shadows; a silent bystander, too weak to help the one he loves. It is said that still waters run deep. But I cannot help but think that my silence only hides my cowardice.

“We’re done,” says the plump one without as much as a smile or even a look in my direction. The dead mouse follows her out of the room, shuffling her feet across the bleached floor.

“Thank you,” I say.

They say nothing.

Grandma’s face is bleak with pain. “They have hands of stone,” she says. “They handle me so rough.”

“Where there is still a breath, there is still a person,” Grandma always said. “Be kind to everyone.” If only the nurses could see that. But no. Grandma is just a number, in a bed, in a room, in a building for the dying and the dead.

Her crumbled and crumpled old body lays bundled up in an awkward position; like the nurses had tried to tie her in knots, but then gave up once they realised that her limbs wouldn’t stretch.

“On your side, Grandma?” I ask.

She nods, and then smiles.

I move to the other side of the bed and pull hard on the draw-sheet under her, lifting it up and then rolling her onto her side. She makes not a sound, but I know that every time I touch her, it hurts, and that my fingers are hammers on her fragile flesh — purple, black and blue, bruised and battered. I stuff pillows behind her back and move the one under her head until she is comfortable.

“How is that, Beautiful? Better?” I ask.

She smiles. I leave the room and wipe the tears from my eyes. Be strong. For her.

It’s just past 3am. In the hard, uncomfortable chair again, I stare at her as life slowly parts her body. She stares back at me. Her eyes are deep, green, endless wells of compassion, of kindness, of love, and of all the things that I cherish in this life. Her eyes say, “it will all be okay. You will be fine.” But it is not I who is in pain. It is not I who is dying.