Is Death The End Or A Transition?
The End Of A Life
The geriatric ward where Mr Rivers lay, although meticulously clean to the eye, stank of a mixture of stale urine and a certain fustiness that can only be associated with old age. Visitors found the heat stifling although patients frequently complained of the cold. Staff refused to open the windows, making the stench overpowering.
Dull window sills and locker tops were bedecked with vases of flowers and get-well cards were positioned in every available space, giving an illusion of recuperation - a faint ray of hope perhaps - but there was only one certain cure for the patients here.
Apart from the cards and blooms, the only cheerful item was a spring landscape donated by a local artist. It held pride of place hanging on the far side of the ward but was by no means a beautiful painting: the colours were fading, the frame too clumsy and the perspective all wrong, but it helped add a touch of brightness to otherwise clinical surroundings.
Mr Rivers snored and grunted in his sleep, his body crumpled and emaciated beneath the blankets. Now and again he would give out an inaudible mumble.
"Do shut up!" cried an irate pink-shawled patient, trying to read a magazine in the adjacent bed.
"Turn your hearing aid down, dearie," advised the duty nurse, pointing to the woman's ear.
Mr Rivers slept on, dreaming peacefully; after all dreams were his only entertainment. Occasionally his eyelashes would flutter, as it some pleasant reminiscence from distant youth had re-surfaced in his unconscious mind. A day's fishing with his father on a remote Scottish loch perhaps or an outing to some quaint seaside town?
There were a lifetime of memories in that tired, old head - if only he could take them with him! Would his mind go on to some other realm, separating at that final moment from his brain? Or would all that accumulation of knowledge be snuffed out like a candle that had flickered for a few brief moments in the darkness of forever?
With infinite patience, a frail female patient tried to heave herself out of bed to go to the toilet. Reaching for her Zimmer frame, she misjudged the distance and needed to press her buzzer for help. Frustrated at her lack of mobility and too late for the toilet she let out an anguished wail.
"I'm all wet!"
"I think we'd better use the bed pan in future, hadn't we?" the nurse suggested, dealing with the situation as tactfully as possible.
The patient nodded, docile again as she shuffled over to have her sodden clothing removed. No dignity here, save the swish of a floral curtain.
No longer snoring with any regularity, Mr Rivers, so feeble and wizened with age that the mattress barely registered his weight, now made more sinister noises. His breathing became erratic, rasping and laboured. Kept alive only by drips that supplied him with sustenance and plastic tubes to drain away waste products, he waited for the inevitable. Unable to speak, hear or see clearly, pressing his buzzer for assistance and squeezing the nurse's hand was his only form of communication.
Conversation between patients was minimal even if they still had the ability. With every word an effort, they were best conserved for emergencies or visiting hours. What was there to say anyway? Everyone here had lived a life, at least there was that to be grateful for but those lives were nearly over - they all knew that, but somehow they still managed to carry on a pretence.
"He'll be right as rain in the morning, you mark my words," remarked the patient in the pink shawl as she noticed Mr River's difficulties.
Best perhaps to block out the pain of oblivion with cheerful thoughts and mind-altering medication so they can say in your obituary "Died peacefully in hospital." Nothing left to look forward to here but still time to make your peace with God if you believed in him. Too late to lament for things not done, words unsaid or places not visited. There was only one final one-way journey to embark upon.
The woman in the bed nearest the window although physically robust, suffered from advanced Alzheimer's and was attempting escape for the third time that day. Two nurses struggled with her hefty bulk trying to convince her to stay. Dying peacefully was clearly not her forte.
At visiting time the depressing atmosphere was diffused briefly by the uplifting sound of carefree footsteps and laughter. Visitors stayed long enough to hold hands, rearrange flowers and mount colourful drawings on the notice board. A few knowing looks were exchanged and then they were gone again back to the world of the fit and the young. "See you tomorrow." was too optimistic and "Goodbye” too final - but what else could they bring themselves to say?
Mr River's breathing became more irregular. Between painful wheezes, he began to stare blankly at the painting on the wall in front of him. His dim eyes saw fresh fields of golden daffodils, verdant rolling hills and a lush valley with a shimmering river meandering through it. There was a boat which appeared to be coming towards him and a familiar figure was rowing who waved to him as it drew nearer.
A student nurse noticed her patient's deteriorating condition and summoned her superior. The latter shook her head, bringing the notes at the end of the bed to her younger colleague's attention:
DO NOT RESUSCITATE
Extract From One Of My Poems
'Do not resuscitate,' stated the bold lettering on the first page.
"Better to let them slip away peacefully," she said, routinely.
With a genuine tear in her eye, the younger nurse moved rapidly to the old man's bedside and stood beside him gently holding his hand as his pulse weakened.
As Mr Rivers continued to gaze at the picture everything he saw began to sparkle, bathed in a soft, iridescent light which glowed welcoming before him. "Go towards the light," a gentle echoing voice seemed to whisper. It was so vivid. There was even a real angel standing there beside him, holding his hand to lead the way.
Medical equipment beeped in alarm but Mr Rivers could hear birdsong now and felt a fresh spring breeze blowing through his wispy, white hair. A warm shaft of sunlight was falling softly on his face, caressing his wrinkled skin. He stirred momentarily wanting to get his slippers on, to join the person in the boat but his legs were leaden. Instead, he reached out a shaking hand to the landscape on the wall which now appeared to obliterate everything else and as he did so, he drifted towards it along with his precious memories, almost melting into it.
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Questions & Answers
© 2015 Stella Kaye