Your mobile, next to you on the table, rings. Far too early. It is just after one PM and so the operation, which, the doctors had told you, should, all being well, take most of the day, is probably already over. You say ‘hello’ and give your name, and as you expected, the surgeon gives his. You know there is bad news. And there is. Not quite the worst. He, G, your partner of over thirty years, has not died in theatre. But he might well have done had they continued with the procedure. And so the cyst, which they were hoping to remove, is still in place. Too many arteries involved so that carrying on cutting would likely have led to a fatal bleed. It is, the surgeon adds, cancerous.
‘Will he die?’ you ask, your voice rising as panic and sadness overwhelm you.
‘He has months rather than years.’
The doorbell rings and phone in hand you answer it. It is the builder, working on a neighbour’s house, warning you that he needs to use his digger and that the driveway will be blocked from time to time. You assume this is what he wants to tell you, but you forestall him by saying that you’ve bad news and won’t be driving your car today. He looks shocked, says he’s sorry and turns away. You continue talking to the surgeon. You are becoming hysterical. You want to see G. The surgeon tells you it’s too soon, before you come to the hospital you should check to see if he is ready to be visited.
‘Does he know?’ you ask. Not yet, he is not fully conscious. ‘What should I tell him?’ The surgeon is non-committal. He says he will explain it to him the next morning, once the anaesthetic effects have diminished. ‘Eight o’clock,’ he tells you, and when you ask if you could be there, he says you may. Finally, the conversation is over. There was before, and now it is after. You can never go back to how it was.
You phone two friends. You tell them. One of them, who is also your son-in-law’s stepmother, offers to tell your daughter.
‘Yes, please,’ you say. ‘Ask her not to call me. I don’t want to talk.’
You can’t stop crying. You wonder how this can be and how you can bear it and how G can bear it and how he is feeling now. You want to be with him, but you do what the surgeon says and don’t rush to the hospital. Instead, you sensibly call the ward where he should be. He is not there, the nurse says. She goes away and comes back. Yes, he is expected later, shall she call when he arrives? she asks. You give her the landline and the mobile numbers. Your daughter calls, and you both cry. Did she ignore the request not to call or was it not passed on? No matter. No matter. No matter at all. Your son-in-law phones. He tells you not to be on your own, to get in a taxi and go to his stepmother’s house. Today she is moving from one apartment to another and is hard at work dealing with the removals and cleaning up, her husband, unwell and unable to help her. But your son-in-law insists. And suddenly you want to. You cannot be on your own anymore.
The taxi driver takes a more circuitous route than necessary. But you say nothing. He talks non-stop. Non-stop. About the stupidity of modern rules for health and safety. Or as he puts it what ‘Mr. PC’ tells you can no longer do. He thinks he’s being clever. You think he is a stupid smug right-wing bigot, and you want to stop his flow by telling him that G has terminal pancreatic cancer. But you don’t.
No sooner have you arrived at your friend’s flat, which is full of cartons and a morose-looking removal man wrapping china, than your mobile rings. It is the nurse from G’s ward. He wants to see you. You call another taxi – luckily, this time the driver is not a compulsive conversationalist.
You find G’s bed, and he is wide awake.
‘Have you spoken to the surgeon?’ he asks, anxious, not knocked out by anaesthetic, and you wish you had come straightaway, rather than waiting as the doctor advised you. G has a tube coming out of his nose, an oxygen attachment. He is connected to all sorts of monitoring devises. He wants to know. He is desperate to know.
‘Yes, I have spoken to him. Have you?’
‘Have you spoken to anyone?’
‘When I came round, a nurse said she was so sorry, so very sorry.’ G’s eyes are wide and searching as he stares at you.
‘They couldn’t get it out,’ you tell him.
‘I thought so,’ he says. G tells me that the doctor who had assisted at the operation and who you had met that morning – that hours-ago, long-ago, life-ago morning – came to see him in the recovery ward. Because of the nurse’s apology, he’d asked him how long he’d got. The doctor told him that it was not the time for such discussions.
G is uncomfortable, sucks on ice: he is not allowed to drink. You hold his hand. The rest of him is unavailable, stuck to tubes or drips or other pieces of medical equipment.
‘I will never be able to eat again.’ He is a man who loves food.
‘You will,’ you say. Earlier on the phone the surgeon had told you they’d put in a gastric bypass so that G’s digestive processes would be less affected by the tumour. ‘They’ve done a procedure that will let you eat,’ you tell G. He doesn’t seem to understand or maybe doesn’t want to. He talks about leaving this world. The nurse comes in to help him move. He clings onto her chunky arm and says how comforting it is to have such a solid person to look after him.
Your friend, who is moving apartments, calls to say she is nearly finished and will take you home. You accept. You need to let people help you now. You tell G you love him and he says that he loves you, too. It’s been a long time since you’ve done that. You cry in the car going home. You make your friend a cup of tea. You plan for her to stay the following night but the next day she calls to say she can’t, her husband is too incapacitated for her to leave him overnight. But that’s OK. You can be on your own in the evenings after a full day on the ward. Strangely, all the time G is in hospital, you sleep well, heavily, hardly moving, so when you get up in the mornings, the bed doesn’t need making.
Eventually, early on the first day of your new life, the surgeon shows up in G’s cubicle. It’s nearly nine. He has chiseled features, sits on G’s bed, his elbow on his knee, his chin resting on his hand.
He looks straight at G who laughs and says, ‘Interesting bedside manner.’ You think it’s as if the surgeon has read a manual on the subject and is putting the points it made into practice. You think the surgeon is a little ill at ease with people and not, as the French would say, happy in his skin.
‘That’s why he likes to get into other people’s,’ you say later to G. Who smiles.
G learns that he could have anything from seven months to five years. You learn nine months without chemo or radiation therapy. Perhaps fifteen with. The surgeon may have said both, who knows, or maybe both you and G are finding it hard to understand what is being said. Once the gastric bypass comes into operation and with good pain management, G will be able to live a nearly normal life, the surgeon continues. Both you and G hear that bit. When he goes, you ask G what he feels. Better, he says, because he thought he only had a few weeks.
You stay all day. G doesn’t want you to leave when you have to go but he says he’ll be all right. As time goes on, he will lose this vulnerability and you will behave with each other as you normally do at home. Together but doing different things. In G’s case this is often sleeping. You will even start to bicker in your usual way. G wants to manage what he can without what he calls your interference, what you call concern.
Finally, the palliative care doctor, called in as G’s pain and nausea are not abating, discovers that he has not been given the morphine dose he should have been. He has hardly slept for two nights. After an injection, he falls asleep and when the doctor comes to see how he is, he smiles and gives her two thumbs up.
The days pass. You’re there for the doctors’ ward rounds, you joke with the nurses, you take walks with G, a circuit that includes a bit of the outside and a short rest on a small roof terrace. You get used to seeing patients slowly walking about pushing trolleys from which dangle the bags from their drains and drips. You leave the ward at lunchtime. Visitors are not welcome between one and three PM. You go to a dear friend’s house and she feeds you asparagus rolls, her husband force-feeding you more and more. Another day she cycles to the hospital and you eat salads in a café.
Gradually the bits making it difficult for G to be mobile are removed – the monitoring equipment, the catheter, the wound drip, the gastric tube, freeing his nose for blowing. The saline drip disappears and finally the special morphine attachment goes as G, who has moved from ‘nil by mouth’ to ‘clear liquids only’ is on a normal diet (tiny, tiny portions only) and can take painkillers orally.
He is coming home. The last day you both wait; medical paperwork and prescriptions for all the drugs take time to sort out. It is afternoon and you are sitting in the day room, reading the paper. The surgeon breezes in, dressed as usual in suit and tie.
‘How are you?’ he asks G, who stands up to shake his hand. ‘Keeping well?’ You wonder what page from the bedside manual that question came.
Now you are both home, appointments with the district nurse, an oncologist and the surgeon made. You both know the next few months will be difficult. G is focusing on making sure he has a clean, pain-free death. You want the time left to be special for you both. You try to cook him tempting foods. You try not to be too sad. You are stunned by the fact of G’s terminal illness. You’ve learnt that bad things happen and don’t go away; you’ve learnt that you can deal with this; you’ve learnt that you can live with devastating sadness. Telling others was hard. You welcome those who speak to you or email without an overtone of mourning. One missive comes, overblown with sentiment and the sender’s own desperate grief. You delete it, not wanting to be smothered by emotion that is neither yours nor G’s. You want this not to have happened, you are developing ways in which to deal with it.
In G’s future is a big black door where before there was a vague meandering passage of unspecified time – after all, G is thirty years younger than his father was when he died. You don’t know how ready G is to pass through that door. You know you’re not ready for him to go. But no matter how much you want it, you can’t stop him dying. You can’t stop the door closing behind him.