I pick up my phone and dial one of my favourites. Work. Work. Work. The stress, the pressure, the sense of being enclosed unable to escape. My voice has a tinge of desperation. This needs to be paid. That needs to be finished. No I don’t have time to do them. I need you to do them. Are you coming into the office today? We need you here.
No he isn’t. He’s at the hospital. The Doctors have just been to see them. They’ve given her hours.
Yeah, hours. Maybe a day.
I say nothing for a few moments. I notice a sombre strain in the voice on the other end. I realise that he isn’t on site with the sounds of metal and steel and engines that usually drown out his instructions and questions.
I express my sincere sorry. I hang the phone up and look out my office window. Work, real life, was now about to disappear into a corner, hide below a shadow and give me space. An undue respect still afforded to the mourning and the sick.
It was happening, it was really happening.
Two hours later I was standing a bare metre away from somebody who not 5 days earlier was her usual self. Her body is warm. Her torso rising heavily with each inhalation, then releasing through barely open lips. She snores softly but persistently. I’m told she can still hear us. Ears apparently are usually the last to go. Everything else unfortunately is being eaten up, devoured by that most egalitarian of illnesses. Her face is still full of colour. Her hair freshly quaffed and her nails painted.
I arrive to a Rosary, soft whimpers and runny noses. There are at least 30 people by her side, slowly filtering out in the hallway of the ward, much to the displeasure of the nurses who need to walk through. More of us downstairs in the foyer. Even more outside in the courtyard. There had been no point in moving her into palliative care, the doctors proclaimed, so the stroke ward where she had been since the previous week would have to suffice.
One of 9 she was. Ditto her husband. 5 children. 15 grandchildren. Two on the way. Legacies from the feet of Mount Lebanon, with assistance from the hills of West Ireland and the mountains of Tuscany. The nurses would have to put up with it. There was no holding us back.
The Rosary finishes and we say a further prayer. I walk to her side and feel a blur. I remember crying. I remember kissing her arm. I remember pained conversations in the downstairs foyer. Should we go home and come back later? Rest for a few hours and return when the southern cross would be at its most visible? She still seems strong. We tell each other. Her pulse has not slowed.
I agree to go home for a few hours and return to be by my Aunty’s bedside.
I arrive home at 6 and sleep the night. I wake at 1 am only to find my father had left without me. I call him and he reassures me that she seems to have improved slightly and that I should sleep some more.
I’m back at the hospital by 7.30. I sit in her room while another Rosary is prayed. Her breathing is now heavier. The inhalations sharper. More biting.
The palliative care nurse makes a visit.
I’m struck by how matter of fact her explanations are. My aunty has deteriorated since yesterday, she explains. As we can see the body is now working overtime just to keep her breathing.
So much for slight improvement, I think.
She recommends we purchase a fan to circulate some air in the overcrowded and heated room. She continually remarks on how my aunty was progressing as expected. My aunty’s 39-degree temperature. All part of the progression. The heavy breathing. Progression. As if she were simply ticking off the boxes of a chart. One by one. Inch by Inch.
The presence of the nurse is a comfort nonetheless. She speaks with warmth and sympathy, having seen it all before. One of 13 apparently.
My uncle wets a few hand towels and begins wiping them around my aunty’s face, neck and arms. He cries as he does it and repeats a Lebanese expression difficult to translate into English. Hope this makes you better, he says. The image of my 67-year-old uncle leaned over his dying wife, cooling her down with a tea-towel as tears leave his eyes is an image I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
The purchase of the fan proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Fans are seasonal we are reminded by store after store. Eventually David Jones comes to the rescue.
The rest of the day passes in short trips from her room, to the foyer downstairs, to the outside courtyard, and then back again. The harsh morning cold gives way to a welcome but uncomfortable late autumn sun. Cousins come and go. People I know. Others I don’t. We try to keep our minds off the reality at hand. We talk about football. About work. About my Aunty and the person she was. Already the past tense is being used. Already she has been grouped not with the living but the dead. We still smile. We still laugh.
Around 5 o’clock we’re told she’s now within the hour. The news turns my stomach on itself and an anxiety I’ve only ever fleetingly known begins to take control of me. An anxiety that wasn’t for me or about me. An anxiety for others. For my Aunty’s life. My Uncle’s agony. Her children’s sadness. The crowd of people begins to disperse and soon there are about 25 of us left at the hospital. My father who had been awake since 12.30 is asleep in his car.
The hospital’s calculations are slightly off. Within the hour was 5 hours ago. It is now 10 o’clock and we’re all in the foyer area clicking our fingers, making pointless conversation.
A phone call comes from her room with instructions for her husband and her brother to make their way upstairs. The end was near. There was foam around her mouth now.
Barely two minutes pass before the phone rings again. A look of resignation on the face of the receiver. She had passed. The end was no longer near. It was now. It was then.
Soon we’re all in the lift going up.
I can feel my body shaking. The tension in my stomach slowly being released to my arms, legs and chest. While everybody cries, I shake nervously.
We wait for her eldest son to arrive. His hand pulls around the door frame, his body turned away as he struggles to bring himself to bare the sight.
One final Rosary is started. All her children and their spouses, standing hand in hand around her bed. She lies on her back, just as she had for the previous week, only now there is no soft snoring, no moving torso. Her skin has become more yellow. Her neck breached forward, exposing the folds of her chin.
My uncle leads the entire Rosary, his voice never wavering, our responses filling the quiet, synthetic air, as the clock passes 12.
When the final amen is said my uncle decides to go around to every person in the room. Hugging them and recounting a specific memory between my Aunty and that person. Here the real tears start.
For years I had dropped the Aunty from her title. She was now just Maria. How’s it going Maria? I’d say in a true-blue accent. I’m good. How you going? She’d reply in the same way.
My Uncle remembered that and hugged me. I’m not afraid to admit I left quite a few drops of tears on his jacket. RIP Maria. We’ll miss you dearly.