The woman in the bed next to my dad has stomach cancer. She has been through the mill – operation after operation, sepsis, double pneumonia and a violent allergic reaction to her chemotherapy. Her son tells me this at the washbasin as we disinfect our hands. He has brought his baby – adopted just a few months ago, with him to visiting hours. The child isn’t permitted into ICU so my new friend’s mother won’t see the baby – but he believes just knowing the little life is there will pep her up.
The man in the bed on the other side went in for a routine gall stone removal, his lungs collapsed, the surgeon nicked his liver with a scalpel and now he is hovering somewhere between life and Allah. His extended clan hold faithful vigil outside the ICU throughout the day: respectfully asking our permission to commandeer the family room to complete their prayers. The women wear matching black robes bejewelled in vibrant flower and butterflies.
We swop our stories in the dark waiting area. Forging alliances and nodding acquaintanceships as we make our promises and deals with whatever god we call on in times of trouble: “please oh please don’t let the worst come to pass”. When it does; nurses draw the curtains around each bed and the porters solemnly wheel in a covered gurney – the tented structure unmistakable in its purpose. I overheard the lawyer briefing Mother and Daughter over a living will and withdrawal of care and last rites. Nothing is completely private here. They disappeared into that same family room – filled with the prayers of others, and came out in tears – paper signed. Later we were asked to leave the hallway, the lift was called and moments later their guy was gone.
For a while none of us could look at the others.
My mother and I walked in two evenings ago to find Dad screaming in fear as five nurses fought to tie him to his bed. One was sitting on his hips – bearing down on Dad’s shoulders. My father is 78, a slight fellow – and they couldn’t hold him down. I sent them away and mom and I calmed him, talking quietly as we removed the sheepskin restraints from his wrists and ankles and untied the six sheet corners that had him pinned to the bed. My brother arrived and sat where my father could see him, holding eye contact, promising him it would never happen again: “We are here daddy, we are here.” My dad was sweating and sobbing. All he wanted was to go home. Please, please let’s go home. That day we made a Contract of Care with the staff: they were to call immediately if he had an episode like that again. He did. They didn’t.
So today all the good work is undone and we are starting again. It’s a process everyone tells us. What they don’t mention is how exhausting this process is. We eat quick meals at the end of each day and fall into bed. Dreaming of machines that stutter out morse code. Of nurses that speak in tongues when they tend to terrified patients. Of tented gurneys that play “God Save The Queen”.
But we laugh too: sibling nonsense that makes my mother roll her eyes. We tease her, she tells us to bugger off. But we know our Glennie loves it.