The Happy Prince
I wrote this on the day described, it is raw, but it is true. Read if you wish:
On the way to the hospital I passed the statue of the cat, Dick Whittington’s cat, and I remembered how she and I had walked many times up this hill past this statue, to the park, to play.
The cat and I were different then; I was a spritely, ragged child, and the cat was unprotected by the steel frame they’ve since put around it — the sadly chipped off ears explaining why. Every time she would tell me, an impoverished latch-key child, to touch the cat for luck.
I find myself doing this now, on the way to the hospital ward where she is lain.
It is early morning and as I approach the hospital entrance the sky is still deep, dark, blue. There is a single silver star sparkling there. A sparrow flits onto the wall to my right.
The bird. The star. I cling to these poetic symbols against the mundane concrete. Against death.
I think of ‘ The Happy Prince’, I have been thinking of it a lot, of late.
When I was small, my grandmother often read to me Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. I think it was important to her, an anti-apartheid activist who had sacrificed so much, that I appreciated the allegory of love, kindness and of justice.
Several people enter the hospital as I do, through the revolving doors. We are trapped together in the slow mill of their turning.
Though I break into a run across the wide floor I miss the first lift, and enter the second, fretful of time. Some distance away an elderly woman is helping an even more elderly woman, from their likeness obviously her mother, walk towards the lift in aching steps, tapping out a faltering waltz time tempo of unbearable slowness.
‘Can you hold the lift please? She calls — still some minutes away.
‘Is it alright if I don’t’ I say apologetically, pressing the close doors button. I see the younger old woman’s face through the closing metal gap, and the older woman inching her way, still some way off. ‘I’m trying to get to somebody’s dying bedside’
I get to the ward, it is 6.20 in the morning, and press the buzzer. There is no sign of life. I am looking through the porthole of the doors at a lit but empty corridor.
I wait, fretful that time is slipping by. The shrill beeping of the door alarm ends. I press the button again, and it resumes. Then I see through the door’s slim window nurses appear at the far end of the corridor. One bearing a bag full of someone’s belongings. They discuss some matters that must be decided, and then they let me in.
The elderly person’s ward is quiet, everyone is asleep, all the moans and madnesses silenced by slumber.
A nurse approaches me. She knows already why am I here, who I am here to see. She takes me into a side room — a canteen room. She has a strong, worn look about her, Irish heritage I would guess. In her mid 40s.
In the little quiet room she tells me. That early this morning, about 30 minutes ago, my grandmother stopped breathing.
I could’ve, should’ve, held the lift, I think.
I’m sorry, she says.
It was expected, I say.
She went how we all would like to go, peacefully, in her sleep, the nurse says.
I think of two visits previously, when she was still conscious. She was incapable of articulating clearly, much, her breath was paining her. She was trying to say something. I held her hand, leaned close, I presumed it was the same pronouncement of love that we had managed to make the day before. Through the radio static of her pneumonia, clear sentences of true affection.
‘Yes, I love you too gran’, I said, but suddenly she said, clearly, ‘No….’, and then, ‘they are torturing me. How can you let them do this to me’.
I was shocked, not surprised. Then I tried to fathom if she was present, or if she had reverted to a memory of her time in South African prison. They had tried to break her. To make her testify against her friends. She had gone on hunger strike.
No, I thought then, she has been strong of mind all this time, only increasingly forgetful as time steals more and more of her, but still sharp, clever, herself. She must mean now.
She had stopped eating. She wanted to die. They had force fed her, essentially. This was the torture. I understood.
‘I’m sorry we can’t do more for you, Gran’. She was distressed and obviously in pain. She said ‘darling’ to me, then the noise took over, and, with much effort, she managed to articulate the word ‘ morphine’ and so I urgently dashed off and found a nurse to give her more morphine. My mother and brother reassuring her, tending her.
Then we discussed with the doctor morphine dosages. We managed to make things better. As much as they could be.
My brother and mother stood either side of her, my partner sat at the foot of the bed.
‘Don’t say I never take you anywhere’ I said to her, the tragedy was too much. My gran would have appreciated the joke. Maybe, even, she did. Though she could not register it. I could always bring a smile to her face, no matter how grievous the situation. She was smiling at a stupid joke about her breathing apparatus and scuba diving only what, five days ago? And now, she is struggling to communicate, tapping out the word ‘morphine’, an SOS in morse code on her broken voice.
That was two days ago, or three? I am so tired. Could not sleep last night for worry. I snap back to the sad little room with its three empty, padded armchairs, its kettle, table, dull magazines, and the sturdy, thin nurse, standing before me, to talk of death.
‘The doctor will come and talk to you and then you can see her, if you would like.’
Thank you, thank you for everything you’ve done to help. She leaves me in the little room.
I sit there, quietly. Thinking. Feeling a type of solidity, a type of fatigue and a type of relief. The diminishing has stopped. All has been taken. She is free of suffering and of indignity, at last.
The Doctor comes in, I stand to greet her, she is a short, delicate faced Asian lady in her late 20s. She introduces herself as Shazad.
She explains the situation, I tell her my mother is coming in but won’t be here for a couple of hours. She tells me about procedures. She is softly spoken and kind. I am grateful for her manner, however practiced it may be. She says I can see her when the nurses have prepared everything.
Would you like to see her?
I am so solid and proper, polite and reserved. But then suddenly tears well up in my eyes, I buckle a little at the thought that my gran, my dear gran, is dead and I must face this. The love in my heart like a bunch of flowers in my hands, as if I am waiting expectantly on a platform for a train that will rock up empty. I pinch the bridge of my nose. I nod and say yes, my composure returns.
I’m sorry that we have to meet in these circumstances, she says.
Absurdly, a joke to myself, I imagine asking her if she is coming on to me. It is the sort of joke my gran would have enjoyed. Irreverent, mischievous.
I appreciate everything you and everyone here has done, thank you so much, I say.
We walk onto the ward.
I’ve come here every of the six days she has been here, in the first couple of days speech was hard for her, but we were able to talk in a few pained sentences. Everything has been robbed of her, now, even speech. Yesterday I visited her, her eyes were closed, she was breathing. Asleep.
Just so you know, I am here, gran. I am here.
The shallowness and heaviness of her breath, when it changed, I had come to read as telling of her consciousness, whether she was asleep or not. Her breathing had become heavier, more pained, it seems she was awake, her eyelids were open a tiny fraction. I spoke to her, I said, again, I was sorry that we could not do more to help her, I spoke again of how everyone loved her. How much she meant to everyone. I spoke of how much I loved her, how much she meant to me. I thanked her for everything she had given to me, since I was a ragged little boy. I said simple, loving things.
And I cannot say that it was not just the mechanics of the body, the dumb subconscious and its housekeeping, but small tears appeared at the edges of both her eyes, and fanned out onto her thinned and sallow cheeks.
Today I stand before her curtained off bed. The nurses. Kind nurses, they want to give me things, a chair, tea, a cup of water.
Just like my gran when I visit her at her home, I think.
I go into the tent.
There she is, so thin, her mouth open, her eyes closed, she looks part peaceful, part pained. Her skin is a colour of light beige or yellow. She looks frail. But like a suit of armour out of which the vigorous knight has climbed. A statue from which all the jewels have been stolen. The bird at its heart, gone. She has gone.
There are little dots of blood on the sheets where the intravenous needle has been removed from her hand. Little full stops of blood.
I stroke the fine white hair, like ghostly grass. I touch her forehead.
I sit down on the blue plastic chair by her bedside.
The bag of belongings I saw the nurse carrying is on the cabinet behind me.
Self-consciously I start to speak, aloud. I want to do and say the right things, in part I am aware that I am doing it for myself. That I am filling the silence. I say something like:
I don’t know if there is a soul, gran, but the universe is big enough and strange enough that there could be and if there is I am glad that you are free now. I hope you are happy. You don’t have to stay in this hospital anymore. If there is a soul then I know you will be somewhere better than here.
I will miss you.
I sit in the chair beside the body.
The bag of belongings shifts and her shoes and bag fall onto the floor. Lifeless shoes with no feet in them. I carefully place them back into the bag, arrange it all securely. It is another little duty performed, I wait.
Then I rise and leave. I am at a loss to know what I should do. Should I wait for my mum to arrive, should I stay by my grandmother. Should I leave? I sit on a chair outside of the curtained off bed.
I accept a glass of cold water from another round-faced, friendly nurse and drink it sat on another chair outside the doctor’s office. I see her Union calendar, the same Union I belong to, see her phone charging on the chair, but she is elsewhere, busy. I wonder at the things she must do, the life and death constantly playing itself out before her.
To the first nurse, who broke to me the news, I explain that my mother is coming in, will be there in an hour or so.
I go back in to be by my gran’s bedside again.
I have not had more than 3 hours sleep — was lain awake with worry and thought all night before my mum rang at 6 in the morning to say the hospital had bad news.
As I look down at the frail body, I have for a moment a slight hallucination that the bed covers are lilting slightly up and down as if with breath. I am so tired.
Goodbye gran, I say. I say again the thing I have been saying to her for the past few days. Thank you for all your love. Thank you for everything you gave to me. You made my life so much better than it would have been without you, I am glad you are at peace. I say something like this.
Then I say thanks again to the nurses, who, death having been dealt with, are now trying to help an elderly living patient, Angie, who is struggling with them, and I leave.
On the 4th floor of the Whittington hospital I look out across London, it is early and the sky is filling with opalescent beauty as the sun comes up. Fine fiery filaments of orange to the left, wisps of white cloud ahead in a strengthening fragile clearwater blue, and below, the city is blocks of hazy shapes. Birds fly in little groups about the sky.
I look for poetry in the landscape, living beauty in the waking city. I see below people coming in to work at the hospital. I remember that my gran volunteered here, after her retirement, as a helper. She was always trying to find ways to be kind, to do good, to make a difference.
It is not in the little silver star, the fragile hopeful bird on the wall, or the spectacular beauty of the rising sun. It is in the kindness of these people, trying to help those they owe nothing to, have no kinship with but shared humanity. That is where the poetry is. That is where the soul is.