What follows is a short story about a terminally ill woman. My mum died five years ago. She had cancer. The day before she died, Haley and I went to visit her in the hospice. Haley was only four. She danced for her grandma to make her feel better. It had made my mum smile.
She had welcomed the arrival of pain.
It had been a long time since she last felt it – a rare symptom of life. Then it grew. A steamroller compressed her chest, forcing out air, laying hot tar over her ribcage, grinding her ribs to powder. Her throat was knotted, her sluggish jaw incompetent to utter sounds. Panic screamed inside her head, blowing it to pieces. Kate fell unconscious.
It was a heart attack. A year ago she had been given the grace of feeling pain. Now a machine was pumping oxygen into her lungs: methodically, rhythmically, with the patient and unfailing reliability of a saint. Kate was at home, attached to a network of tubes, hanging on to life without straining a single muscle in her body.
How curious, she often thought, that she could only know her body through Adam’s reactions to it. When he tucked her in for the night, he would catch the sight of what she could only imagine as wasted arms and withered legs. His face would twist. There would be breathless pain in it, comparable perhaps to the agony of one’s lungs being drained of air. Adam could not bring himself to vocalise that pain even though he had lungs full of screams. But his torn and twisted face would say it all. It was easy to read it, like a letter from a terrible and sad place where Kate had never been before, a deserted town ravaged by war and disease, somewhere far, far away – a foreign place where no one wants to go. Her body.
Adam had tried to spare her the indignity of dwelling in such an ungodly place. He had shown her ballet photographs to the lawyer who represented her in court. “Can’t you see,” he had said, “Kate doesn’t want to live. Not like this,” he pointed to the inert lump of her body, the ultimate testimony to Kate’s plight. “Her life was about dance and movement. She created beauty with her body. She’s dead without it. We’re only prolonging her suffering.”
That was what she had told him. In the beginning her fingers would lose grip on a coffee mug, then her legs buckled under her. When her mouth slackened and saliva trickled out while she was fully awake, Kate demanded the truth. She had been told the shutdown of her neurological system would inevitably detach her body from her brain, making it foreign and unresponsive. She had told Adam she would rather be dead.
Her bed was facing the French window overlooking the garden. Early autumn in their garden was astounding. The movement of rusting colours in the fading sun captivated all her senses. In her mind, Kate was choreographing a dance to transplant that elusive pulse of nature onto the stage. In her mind it was possible. In her mind, the human body was able to vibrate like hues of autumn leaves. In her mind, she smiled as Rufus pounced on a finch amongst the wide-rimmed leaves of rhubarb. There was a scuffle and a commotion, the leaves flapped, the finch fluttered away and Rufus sneezed. He came back to the patio and looked at Kate through the window. His eyes were eager. Despite the huffing machinery of humidifiers and beeping heart monitors, despite her foreign body, she was his mum – the same mum she had always been. She used to be the one to walk him every morning, Adam’s work demanded an investment of time and dedication that left no room for Rufus. Neither Rufus nor Kate used to mind that. They would not trade their morning walks for anything in the world. They had secret places in the wilderness that no one knew about for no one had ever once disturbed the fat webs stretched across the tree branches.
Rufus was not allowed in the house anymore for fear of passing infections to Kate – her immune system was defunct along with her body. But they could still look at each other through the window, Rufus’s breath condensing on the glass, Kate’s breath humming with every puff of her life support machine. She would not dream of abandoning Rufus, leaving him all alone on the other side of the window.
She was relieved when three weeks ago Adam’s application for a court order to switch off her life support had been turned down. She’d had to let him try to do what he thought was right for her, but she desperately needed her saintly machine to keep her going, to let her compose her ballet pieces and watch over Rufus in the garden. Adam only knew what she had told him years ago, when she had been a different person. He couldn’t be blamed and she would never do that, but she wanted to live.
“Blink,” he had whispered before the hearing, “Try to blink to tell me you want me to do it, Kate.”
Tears do not need muscles to well up, and they had because she loved him and hated seeing him in such pain. In the blink of a stray tear Adam had smiled. He had done the right thing by his wife even though he had failed to secure the injunction. She was relieved. She could get on with her life. There was so much yet to be done.
Rufus pricked up his ears and ran several circles out on the patio. There was the soft sound of a door gliding through air behind her bed. Adam must be back from work. In her mind, Kate was running circles and jumping with excitement.
Adam sat by her bedside and leaned forward so that his eyes levelled with hers and all he could see was the joy in them. He was smiling. “I’ve got good news,” he said. “We’ve been granted the right to appeal. I promise you, Kate, I won’t give up. This won’t go on forever. You’ll be allowed to die on your own terms.”
A steamroller compressed her chest, forcing a soundless scream out of her heart.