Many years ago I visited a friend in her hospital room. She was dying from ovarian cancer, and she was dying too soon. Her devastated family waited anxiously outside for what was to be my brief stay at her bedside to end. But my visit went on longer than anyone expected, least of all me. When she asked me to light a cigarette for her I hesitated. I doubt if her family knew she had one, but Claire was a smoker, a chain one, and she wasn’t going to deprive herself of that comfort now. I saw the sense in it, even then, but I hadn’t had a fag in my mouth for some 20 years and I admit that I was a little afraid that even one puff might kick off my habit again. I took the cigarette, put it to my lips, struck the match and inhaled, and handed it over. And stayed with her until she had finished it.
I’m not proud that I took up so much of the family’s precious time with Claire. But I’m proud of that cigarette, and haven’t had another one since.
When she died, too young, Claire Burton was a well-known feminist sociologist. The family set up a scholarship in her name, if only to make sense of her death. To make her live on, to wrest some meaning from her tragedy. It’s what we do, often. We flounder, we rail. We try to honour the dead.
Twenty-plus years down the line I visit my partner’s bedside. He is much improved since experiencing what we must call a medically induced stroke, though I give thanks it was a relatively mild one and came about for the best of reasons, to shrink the tumours that had spread from his prostate, although they didn’t know then of the one lurking deep in his brain. They hadn’t looked at his brain. The belief has been that prostate cancer can’t spread there. The truth is that we don’t know enough about prostate cancer. Even the doctors are learning.
Since they figured out what had gone wrong, my partner has been put on a drug called dexamethazone, the aim of which is to reduce the swelling around the tumours without triggering more bleeding, as happened on the androgen inhibitor. A side effect of dexamethazone is a ravenous hunger, which is good in a way since he’s lost so much weight. He has been craving sugar. Can’t get enough of it. Four paper packets in his coffee (‘Black as night, hot as hell, sweet as sin’, he says, quoting Balzac), endless cookies (also in packets, two at a time), and chocolates. I bring the chocolates. He goes through a box of Cadbury miniatures in less than two days. It took many days to persuade the hospital staff to let him have those four sugars in his coffee – ‘Sugar is bad for you,’ they say. This doesn’t wash with him. He is a former scientist, the body turns everything to sugar in the end, he says. They are confused by this. Informed as we are nowadays, we still resist science, and are bundled up endlessly in tangles of myth.
When I’m not visiting him I’m making adjustments in preparation for his homecoming. The occupational therapists are amazingly ingenious, and they agree that this is the place he should be. In a beautiful old building, the flat has high ceilings and plenty of light. Though this is not the easiest accommodation, not what might be prescribed for a patient whose mobility and stability are not what they should be. There are stairs. The flat is tiny, the floor uneven. Something of a challenge for a walking frame. We’ll be getting a small one, not the large one advised. The rehab doctor, a nice man but with a perpetually worried look on his face, is confounded. There are concerns for his safety, of course.
But life is not safe, entirely. If it was, it wouldn’t be life.
There are books about this. One, by Atul Gawande, is recommended. So much is now being written on the subject. We are waking up, waking up to dying. This isn’t an altogether pleasant awakening, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have lived in societies where the fact of death has tended to be ignored until, forced to confront it, we relentlessly combatted it. For what a trick had been played on us! To give us this wealth of experience, this miracle of consciousness, only in the end to have it snuffed out.
I have no answers for this. None of us do, really.
All I know is I’m eating a lot of chocolate. And sharing it with him.