"A Long Day Talking", by Mary Rose McCarthy
Keep talking about nothing, anything. Rambling from one topic to another with barely pause for breath. Let not a gap occur because in the gap may be said things we do not want to hear. The pretence that all is normal and nothing unusual is happening must be maintained. Neither of us can face what we know the doctor wants to tell us. If we don’t let him release the words the sentence cannot be passed. We know. We know without words. But we don’t want to hear.
My wife and I are in the hospital. We have been coming here for the last four months waiting to find out what is wrong. Yet, now the wait is over, wanting to go on waiting for ever. We have no idea how to deal with a diagnosis of death. That is what awaits us if we would just draw breath and let them tell us. They will never use the word death of course. It will be life limiting. Palliation rather than cure. Quality not quantity. Clichés to ease the blow. Gently let us down. Bring us to accept this journey is at an end long before the biblical three score years and ten.
Since the junior doctor told us we have not stopped talking. He has said the consultant will be along to discuss all in more detail. Who is he kidding? What is left to discuss. So we ramble on about insignificant trivia. Petrol has gone up again. Should we transfer money to the current account as the credit card bill will be due any day? How much of this hospital stay is covered by insurance, we cut off abruptly. Insurance is health. We are not health we are death.
As if we are lepers. People avoid us. Lower eyes in corridors, voices in rooms. Sympathy is perhaps best whispered. Silence tolls. Ask not for whom.
There is much we do need to say. This is the parting of a lifetime. A lifetime over to be parted finally. There is no manual. No guide book of speeches. There is a book of speeches if you are best man. But none if you are dying. Not everybody will be best man. Everyone will…
Enough don’t want to finish that train of thought. It is another cliché. We all die. We all die alone. None have come back to tell us what to expect.
So prattle on about the world cup. Is it soccer or rugby? Does it matter? It will be the last. All a bit ridiculous, those men chasing a ball around a field for ninety minutes. When there are so many more profound and worthwhile things they could be doing. If they knew they were dying that is.
And what is it to die. Miriam is tall, proud, stiff lipped. It is courage. Dry-eyed, steel-willed, facing the unpalatable without crumbling. Ability to sustain endless, irrelevant, topics of nothing, to fend off the endless, dayless, talkless, evenings of finality.
That is what death is. Final. Over. Not coming back. And I am not ready for it now, and will not be ready next month, or next year.
Feel like screaming at Miriam. “Stop the endless, nonsense, idiotic prattle”. But can’t scream. It’s not fair. Not fair to her. She needs to stall the inevitable. After all it is I who am the cheat now. Leaving without her. Without planning it. Not having had the retirement we dreamed of. It will be alright for me when I’m gone. I will be someplace else. She will be left alone. How could I be so selfish?
She says none of this, exactly, in any coherent sentences that have a logical sense. But I know Miriam. This is what she means. And she is not going to allow for silence in case I start to say something.
I might bring up the ‘subject’. Might apologise. You see, yes I did smoke, but it is a long time ago now and we don’t know for sure what caused the cancer. Ok, with lung cancer it is more than likely linked. But still, we don’t know, for sure. And anyway we can’t go back now and unsmoke so to speak.
I might want to say I am afraid. That I don’t know where I’m going and it would be so nice if she could hold my hand. My withered, yellowed, weak-as-water hand. I might ask her to look in my eyes and see my soul. A soul blackened with the sins of omission. The neglect of wife and duty down the years. Not wilful or wanton just ordinary, cruel, thoughtless neglect. Thirty years of insignificant slights. I might want to say, sorry, please forgive me.
But Miriam is terrified of apology, truth and reconciliation. You see if I start it, she may have to reciprocate, own up as well. And Miriam doesn’t like admitting mistakes or wrong doings. Not that sins are mistakes exactly. Not even wrongdoings. Sins are grievous offences. To admit to them means not blaming anything or anyone else. And Miriam won’t be able to do that. Because for Miriam there must always be a reason.
And the reason is usually me.
The affair, you see, was my fault. The thick, lazy, selfish, so and so that I am. And here, now, I have the cheek to go off and get, not just cancer; but incurable cancer.
As if being married to me was not bad enough, me who turned out not to transform into the storybook husband of her dreams, she now has to bear the burden of outliving me. Of burying me. Disposing of the remains. And then what remains. The memories. The wishful thinking, the long, lonely evenings.
But if she keeps talking, and I nod occasionally then we need never come to the time when she ‘had a bit of a fling’. It is the language we used at that time. Another kind of not talking language to say what we did not want to face. The same as now but different as then.
It was at art classes. Miriam was always good at looking for ways to improve herself and art seemed such an improving thing to do. It also spoke of leisure, creativity, imagination, probably most of what she found lacking in me. So art on Mondays, just after the first episode of Coronation Street, which was as near to opera and culture as I was ever likely to get. Always home by eleven to ask if homework and lunches for the morning were done and to share the last, before bed, cuppa.
As parents we know every detail of our children’s lives while they’re small. Next as the now grown-ups, it is they who have the intimate details of our lives. We no longer keep track of them or know where they go or with whom they’re sleeping. Roles are reversed and they are privy to so much information about us, the mature adults who were once their parents.
They become our voices, intervene, for us and on our behalf, when we stumble with bureaucracy or can’t face bad news. They assume we can’t face it without checking if this is the case. Before you know it, there they are talking to ‘the men in white coats’. Phrase such as “I’m his son can you tell me the prognosis”. When did our small Jonathon, who failed every spelling test at school, all of a sudden learn big words like prognosis?
And what of prognosis or for that matter diagnosis. Up until four months ago we were an ordinary family, who passed our lives, in common with so many others, anticipating the future. “Won’t be long now to Christmas” “the shortest day of the year soon, after that the evenings will get bright again” “not long now to the bank holiday”. The trite, mundane way of marking time, when it seems like time is an endless commodity. The longed for event, in reality, never quite fulfilling the promise imagined.
Now we know time is finite, we cannot pass this agony of knowing by tripping these truisms off the tongue. And so Miriam blathers on and on and on. I cannot interrupt or interject because that might force a pause and in the pause may be the vacuum in which the affair will fester and grow and stifle what is left of this life. My life. The ordinary life.
They said the hospice nurse will be around shortly. Hospice, such a nice name. Connotations of hospitality— almost. Like the VIP lounge in the airports. A nice place to pass the time— before departure. Not so different from hospice. Apart, that is, from the return ticket. Around here they call her the death nurse. Not to her face of course. But with the grim humour men, and possibly women, deal with the unpalatable, the truth that cannot be faced.
I’m too worn out to bother about much anymore. Miriam had the affair, we got over it, and there is no need to go back over any of that old ground. My own transgressions, or sins depending on your point of view, also need not be revisited. What we need now is to end this long day of talking. To savour a moment or two of silence. To reclaim our adulthood, ban the children from the room, from our lives for just some few minutes. They do not need to have this intimacy of a decaying and decrepit adult body discussed with, or in front of, them.
I do not want the death nurse or the palliative care team. Again more meaningless, empty words. Palliative. Which means what exactly? That the end is nigh. Repent. As those missionaries of old once hollered from Sunday pulpits.
What we need is to be left alone.
We need silent togetherness. Perhaps to hold hands, or not. Away from the prying eyes. Of the family. Of the team. Of the specialist nurse. If we could we would go home. There is never the need to talk endlessly in one’s own home. At home it is possible to be tired, cranky, fed up, a slob, without it being interpreted as a symptom. Now we are at this crucial terminal phase symptoms are vital. Symptoms can be controlled. When they can neither control nor cure the disease they still talk of controlling something. Who is most consoled with this ability to manage the messiness of the last good bye?
This long day of endless talking will give way to night. Hopefully medicines to sleep and Miriam to home. Then to begin tomorrow another long day of talking. In which I will remain, as usual, silent apart from guttural grunts which may be interpreted as agreement with Miriam, or pain, depending which specialist is in the room at the time.
They think because your eyes are closed and there is a sound of deep breathing that you can’t hear and understand what is going on around you. So the other patients talk about you as if you are already gone. Frightened that the same fate awaits them, joking as a way to ignore.
For Miriam though, ignorance is never allowed. She has read enough to know that the almost dead, dying, can regain consciousness at any moment. And this she dreads. Talks to escape from the death bed reconciliation. Which is not inevitable,
never happens, except in a Hollywood tear jerker on late night TV. Third rate movies he, who waits up for his unfaithful wife, watches to kill time. This dying is a long time coming. Is not accompanied by choirs of heavenly angels.
What I want most is to be left alone with Miriam. No family meetings, no discussions, no talking. Alone together. Silent unconscious consciousness. The last goodbye.
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About the author
Having gone around in circles, living in London, Sierra Leone and Dublin, Mary Rose McCarthy ended up back where she started in her native West Cork Ireland. She writes to try and make sense of the world.