The Last Thing to Go
Hearing is the last thing to go. So they say.
James – never Jim – had spent some of the afternoon sitting on the end of the bed listening to the breathing of his three year old boy who napped on the bed across from him in the front bedroom of the bungalow. Despite the coming of spring, the central heating was on and James always felt sleepy in the house. The bed he sat upon was a guest bed, one that could fold up into its headboard to become a table of sorts and the worn mattress was comfortable and conducive to sleep. But he couldn’t sleep.
Activity in the house revolved around meal times – the preparation, the eating, the clearing-up. Lunch had been had and others busied themselves with the clearing-up and there was nothing else to do but listen to his boy breathe.
Then the hospital had telephoned.
As his wife didn’t drive (she could but didn’t) and his older brother didn’t drive (he couldn’t and never would), it fell to James to take his grandmother. James kissed his wife and then kissed his boy just as gently so as not to wake him. He drove the two minutes through the winding streets of matching houses, passed the High School and onto the main road that led a couple of hundred yards to the hospital. No words were spoken. The cloud cover of morning had broken apart, sunlight shone generously over the fields and the yellow of the rapeseed crops burned through the haze that lingered between the hills and the hospital. All things considered, it was hard to deny the beauty of the day.
It was a small hospital, referred to as the Cottage Hospital. Visiting times were 2:30-4:30 and 6:30-8, even on Sundays. It was not visiting time. James, young enough to still have a grandfather, parked his grandfather’s car in the disabled parking space. He had done this for what was now getting on for five months or more; sometimes here, sometimes at larger hospitals in larger towns and cities. The car was only four years old and had been signed over to James the previous December, a gift that happened to coincide with his 38th birthday; a generous gift that resulted in James having to renew his car insurance every subsequent birthday for years to come. Nevertheless, he considered the car his grandfather’s and referred to it as such whenever the need arose and for as long as he would have it.
In this particular town James was a young man. The town, often confused as a village, was a town for retirement and little else. There was a town square with a war memorial, as with all towns, and there were small shops that survived despite themselves. Any alteration to the town was opposed in vain. There were two supermarkets that had been opposed and there were several churches. Graveyards acted as boundaries to the town and in the summer the berry pickers would more-often-than-not be waiting by the graveyards for a ride back to the farms. The town had little of what was wanted but had all of what was needed and it was a town where patients knew their doctor by name. It was a community. James had long since moved away from the town but returned often. More so in recent weeks.
He parked in one of two vacant spaces directly beside the entrance of the hospital, the car reflecting in the window of the reception. From the pocket of the sun visor he retrieved the laminated disabled parking card and placed it on the dash. Partway out the door he muttered to his grandmother that he’d be back in a moment and left her all alone. She would normally have responded with a simple, ‘Okay, dear.’ Not today.
The automatic outer doors of the low building – wooden frames, shatter-proof glass – opened like welcoming arms to a rekindled acquaintance who, ignoring the gesture, walked between them without hesitation. The interior doors then opened likewise, exposing the dark, vacant waiting room and the unmanned reception. But James did not enter. Not yet. Instead, he took hold of the large, industrial strength wheelchair that sat idle between the two sets of doors, waiting just for him as it always had. He dragged the chair – for such chairs are to be dragged – dragging it back to the car where he performed the ritual of guiding the swollen legs and heavy, fragile frame of his grandmother. No words were spoken. James dragged her through the doorways that welcomed him once again. This was a familiar routine made unfamiliar by the expectation that this was it, this was, as they say, the end.
James pulled his grandmother around the L-shaped arrangement of empty plastic chairs and up the ramp to another pair of automatic doors that opened onto the wards. James ignored the dispenser of hand sanitiser by the door and went right on through. His grandmother sat in silence as the corridors receded, turning her gaze instead to her own clasped hands that didn’t know what to do with themselves, just as her mouth didn’t know what to say, nor her mind what to think.
She just sat.
The clunk of the door mechanism gave way to murmurs of unwatched televisions and hushed undertones, to chemical odours masking organic odours, to the rustle of disposable aprons. Unlike the other hospitals, James felt this was an oasis of contained compassion. Life was heard but not seen, most signs of life emanating from the nurses station at the far end of the corridor. James dragged his grandmother passed the room that she would die in that following September, and then they came to rest at the second room on the left, which had been his grandfather’s room since February. Through habit, James glanced at the nameplates located low beside the door frame. Only the one nameplate held a name, a handwritten name in blue ink. James turned his attention to the back of his grandmother’s head as she just sat.
It had been something like twenty-five years ago – Christ, a quarter of a century – when his grandfather had his first heart attack. A deep-sea fishing trip off the east coast on a charter boat with some men of his grandfather’s generation. James didn’t remember much but remembered that his grandfather spoke differently with the men than he was used to hearing. A few hours into the fishing the sea had turned on them and it was at the height of all concern that his grandfather had to sit down and the boat turn about. The boat took a time that seemed longer than it actually was to reach the harbour and yet even more time was spent sitting in the car by the cleats before his grandfather felt ready to drive. They’d eaten their ham and crisp sandwiches and enjoyed the warm tea of the thermos. It was only later that he knew it had been a mild heart attack when he overheard his mother losing her temper with her own mother. The second heart attack some years later put him in hospital and led to a defiant addiction to salt with every meal. Later came the cancer with the Alzheimers for company.
‘Are you staying,’ the old man had asked in January.
‘It’s a hospital, dear,’ she had said, trying to smile through it all. ‘Not a hotel.’
To everyone’s surprise, it was the broken leg that put the old man into hospital, and it was the various infections he acquired from the various hospitals that kept him there. And then in March the old man had said, ‘I’m scared,’ while crying dry tears. Nobody then present in that room had anything to say to that. What’s to say to the fear of life making good on its threat and the hollowing out of the man? Had he not lived resoundingly? Unanswered questions.
James let go from the wheelchair and from any pretence of courage before putting his head around the open doorway. At the far end were three large windows through which the afternoon’s sunlight overwhelmed the room. The light found its way through the branches of a Cherry Blossom that had seen better days, the Blossom seeming to wither and fade almost as soon as having blossomed. The sunlight did little to warm the world outside but the room itself was warm. It was always warm. It could accommodate four beds when required. However, James’s attention was reluctantly drawn to the solitary bed facing the blank wall. He had been warned of what to expect. And as he looked upon what remained of his grandfather, he realised that no words of warning could have prepared him, as there are things that can never be overstated. The husk – yes, a husk – barely evident beneath the woollen blanket that covered it, lay with eyes closed, mouth wide open, imperceptible exhalations making their escape. Attention was drawn to the brightly coloured box of an Easter egg and a crowded cluster of cards nestled within cards on the bedside cabinet. Some of the cards were for Easter – yellow chicks, yellow flowers – some simply wishing well – flourishing fonts – reassurances from friends and subdued reminders of God’s love – light. Within the shelf there rested a large print hardback, a bookmark peeking out from under the weight of pages once read with only a few pages remaining. Spectacles sat redundant with arms folded upon it.
James looked back at the bed and then looked away to the back of his grandmother’s head, grabbing the wheelchair as much for his own support while enquiring softly, ‘Are you ready?’
‘Yes,’ she said, in a tone that implied that she never could be.
James rested a hand on her shoulder and she raised her own to it and squeezed with what was left of her strength. It didn’t hurt.
It took the usual degree of effort to position the wheelchair at the far end of the bed away from the monitor and the stray overbed table, close enough for the woman to disturb the blanket covering her husband. She could not yet reach his hand and without hesitation she spoke her husband’s name in a ghost of a voice, less in hope of a response, more a reproach, a futile plea for he who mattered most. James glanced over at the leaning tower of moulded plastic chairs stacked by the toilet door yet he stood rooted, feeling somewhat like a spare part and not knowing which racing thought to restrain.
‘Get me closer,’ said his grandmother, straining forward.
The wheelchair moved the little way required until the bed frame pressed into her swollen legs. She slid a shaking hand under the blanket to take ahold of the hand of her husband for a final time. James looked away from the intimacy and noticed the clock above the door that ticked away as if time itself was not winding down but leaving only a sense of itself.
‘Hello, Mrs McConnell.’
The nurse followed her own words into the room with a look of concern as she tried to smile. She looked somewhat older than James to his eyes but he always thought those his own age seemed somewhat older. She was a little overweight but it suited her features that had perhaps at one time been tender and she had a healthy colour to her skin that suggested she had been abroad.
‘Hello, Kathy,’ said the grandmother, always polite, always accommodating, not taking her eyes from the bed.
Nurse Kathy approached the far side of the bed. Her whole being was one of calm consideration with a countenance of understanding. She adjusted the blanket as a gesture. Perhaps, thought James, she had been the one who had phoned to tell them that they had best visit as soon as possible. Nurse Kathy checked the monitor with a cursory glance and then considered the old man as one considers someone that matters.
‘He’s very comfortable,’ she said, and the tender tone of her words reassured like the break of day. ‘Don’t you worry, Mrs McConnell. Yes, he’s very comfortable now. More than he has been for a good long while.’
‘How long do you think he has?’ James said.
Nurse Kathy raised a finger to her mouth and said softly, ‘Hearing is the last thing to go.’ James wondered if she knew his grandfather was as good as deaf and thought to mention this until thinking better of himself. ‘But we are looking at hours,’ she said. ‘Can I get you anything, Mrs McConnell?’
‘No. No thank you.’
‘Aye, he’s a grand old fella. Always asking after you.’
The grandmother exhaled and James knew she had succumbed. ‘He’s been my greatest love,’ she said. ‘Always there. I’ve been truly blessed.’ She spoke as if to herself.
‘And he’s quite the flirt,’ said the nurse.
‘Oh yes,’ said the grandmother with pride. ‘Never too old for that. Never thought of himself as too old for anything. You know, he would often see his reflection and wonder who that old man looking back at him was. Daft old beggar.’
Nurse Kathy produced a tissue from the box on the overbed trolley, which James had neglected to do, and passed it across the bed. James took it and handed it down to his grandmother’s free hand and Nurse Kathy poured water from a jug with a hinged green lid into a plastic cup, passing it to James for him to pass on. The difference between them hung heavy in the air as the sunlight neglected the room.
‘Well, I’ll leave you to it,’ said the nurse to James. She whispered her words. ‘Just buzz if you need anything.’
‘Thank you,’ said James, rather than, ‘Please don’t go.’ Nurse Kathy pressed the light switch as she left. Fluorescence flickered and a little rain streaked the windows.
James listened to the faltering breaths of both grandparents. What it is to have no further thoughts of a future, he wondered, replacing the plastic cup to the table. He assumed the memories playing out in his grandmother’s mind. Memories of courtship (stepping-out, as they had often referred to it), those brief weeks in a world where time was of the essence for a generation of survivors. How the old man had stood upon her doorstep, a parcel of fish & chips behind his back as his other hand reached out to her for the first time. A desire for a date at the dance hall became a desire for a lifetime only a few weeks later, followed by a voice of reason from a father, a year of impatient waiting, a marriage. Then a daughter they would outlive.
James’s thoughts drifted to those of his own wife, his own child and the child on the way who would never get to meet the old man or, as would transpire, the old woman. He pondered what kind of room he himself would die in, what family would look down at him and how aware he would be of them. Did the old man know they were there? Had his hand responded to the hand of his wife? Sunlight and shadow returned to the room and James stepped out into the corridor so that what was left of the old man could exist only for the eyes of his wife.
The corridor too was a contrast of shadows and light of open doorways, of silhouettes of staff at the far end. Walking the length of it, James glanced in each room as he passed by and caught glimpses of those waiting for family or friends or perhaps just waiting. Some in chairs but most in beds. One old lady faced the window of her private room and James did not know if she was asleep or awake. The silhouettes became nursing staff and some smiled and some didn’t and one asked where his boy was. The boy had always made the visits bearable and had helped the conversations flow and the boy would never see his great-grandfather again. James turned about and walked back through the sunlight and shadows.
With difficulty, the old woman raised herself from the chair and slowly bent over her husband to kiss him on the forehead.
‘Goodbye, my darling.’
She fell as much as sat back in the chair.
‘Take me home.’
James pulled the wheelchair away from the bed to make room and, without words, kissed the old man just as she had just done. He lay a hand on top of the blanket so as to feel the hand beneath. The old man had lived with strong hands, hands of a man who worked and fought and never let go. James enclosed the hand beneath and it felt small and did not respond. The eyes remained closed, the mouth remained open. James pulled his grandmother out of the room and looked away while he still could. He left on the understanding that he would return later to sit, to hold his grandfather’s hand until it was just a hand. He dragged the wheelchair along the corridor and all the doors opened for them.
The boy had napped for over three hours that afternoon and was still wide awake by the time the dinner was ready. James plated the roast chicken and vegetables in the kitchen and then the plates were taken through to the dining room table. His grandmother added the boiling water to the gravy stock in the measuring jug and poured what was needed into a jug more suited to the table. The telephone was in the kitchen by the door and it rang. James set down the two plates on the counter and picked up the receiver. His wife and brother appeared in the doorway and he listened to familiar tender tones as he watched his grandmother stare out through the kitchen window. He looked to his wife and brother as he laid the receiver down and they understood his look and the three of them held the old woman for some time.
‘We should eat,’ she said. ‘We should eat.’ Her words were muffled within them.
Nobody was hungry when they sat at the table and James sat across from the empty chair. The gravy had a skin on it and he poured a little onto his grandmother’s plate.
‘It’s cooling quickly,’ somebody said.
James took hold of his grandmother’s hand as she collected her thoughts. It was the hand he held under the blanket that September, in the first room on the left. He was to be alone then and had been able to speak to her in the knowledge that her hearing would be the last thing to go.
As a boy, Ian Murphy (he/him/his) dreamed of becoming a writer. More specifically, he dreamed of becoming a novelist. Even more specifically, he dreamed of becoming a knovelist with a silent ‘k’. Nevertheless, Ian continues to pursue his dream, writing novels for both adults and children, and has performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on two occasions so far. He was published alongside Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Shashi Tharoor in the anthology Tales On Tweet, with his flash and short fiction featuring in a variety of print and online publications. Edinburgh is home