There is nothing more precious than life. Some say that the ending is a new beginning, and that the new beginning, wherever it might take us, is the most precious. But in the face of death I find such wisdom hard to believe.
I woke up with a headache. Nothing abnormal; the doctor’s been hearing my complaints for decades. I had a text message from mum, again, nothing unusual, as being so in awe of a new day, she often sends me a photo of a butterfly or a bumblebee larking about nature.
That day, the text was something quite different:
Grandad went into hospital yesterday afternoon with a weak heart. He sadly is not going to live on more than a couple of days.
Mum is not one for dramatics. She plays down the horrors of life. She casts an optimistic shadow over gloom.
I read my phone ten times. I let the feeling of shock sink in.
I showered first. Routine is so important to me that without it I wouldn’t know how to function. At my desk, sipping water and eating toast, dressed for the day, I called mum. I didn’t need to speak.
“The pacemaker might give him a couple more years to live,” she said. “But there’s no guarantee, and he could experience a lot more pain. He deserves to die a peaceful death. The lady at the hospital said if her dad was ninety-two years old she’d let him go peacefully. In many ways, Grandad has been fortunate to experience so little pain and live for so long.”
“Are you at the hospital?”
“No visitors before two o’clock. I’m going to be there with Matthew this afternoon, and hopefully, well, let’s see, we can but hope that Grandad isn’t in too much pain. Though I’m half expecting him to be as peaceful as ever.”
“Where do I meet you?”
“He’s on the coronary ward.”
I arrived at the hospital by foot, fifteen minutes before two o’clock, allowing myself the contingency to get lost, which I did, twice. The nurse in the cardio outpatients department asked me for Grandad’s surname and date of birth. She then told me I was at the wrong end of the hospital and said I needed to head for the coronary ward: 3rd floor, junction 5; cross reception on the ground floor and find the main course, corridor 2.
Trolleys rattled in all directions and people bustled to and fro as if on a London commute. The muggy air and claustrophobic hallways reminded me of the underground. Health, it seemed, rivalled the nastiness of getting to work on time.
The nurse on Ward 35 told me that critical care for the coronary unit was on Ward 33, on the other side of the stairwell, past the stack of discarded and overturned tables and chairs.
Passing between the swinging doors of Ward 33, a bespectacled male nurse behind the desk interrupted and said I needed to book, even in an emergency, but his voice was hollow and carried no meaning. The two nurses nearby just smiled, as if inviting me to ignore their fickle colleague and proceed. Indeed, one of the nurses pointed me towards the nearest sidebay, and in I went.
Grandad’s bright blue eyes pierced the dim room. He was awake, lying contorted to one side, as if pierced in the right-hand side, with his arms spread apart, trembling. But he was not in fear, showing no awareness of an impending death. He spoke as best he could, straining his brain to perform on a single heartbeat every two seconds.
I said a jolly hello, but then a cry echoed through the ward. A patient opposite us writhed, clutching his chest, his face turning plum. He tried to clutch hold of his knees but couldn’t reach them. The nurses shut the curtain around his bed. The wailing stopped, replaced by a distant wheezing, and the ever present harsh beep-beep-beep of the towering coronary electronics plugged in at every wall socket.
“I am praying for you, Grandad,” I said.
Grandad grappled with the electrodes at the edge of his bed, pulling at wires. Then he spoke, in his serious half-hushed tone, the same one as only I had ever known.
“Can you pass me my phone? I need to make an urgent call,” he said.
I glanced towards the nurses behind the desk. The man looked busy. The woman was on the phone. But would they confiscate a patient’s phone, when in dire need?
“Do you want a drink, Grandad?”
“I need to make a call.”
“I’ll call mum for you. She’s going to be here in five minutes. She’s coming with Matthew.”
“I need you to call Charlotte. She’s supposed to be coming to visit. I missed her call, and I can’t reach my phone. I spoke to Matthew, and he said Charlotte was coming.”
I never met Charlotte. But I know that she meant to Grandad more than what words can ever hope to convey. And as for a mobile phone, it’s doubtful he ever owned one.
Grandad squirmed in pain, it lasted a few seconds. Beep-beep-beep. Was this it? Heart rate dropping? Mum arriving to a dead father with her son shrinking in the corridor?
No, he reached out again, pushing aside the wires. He wheezed: Charlotte. Then he sat up and fixated on his breathing, before collapsing back onto his left-hand side.
The doctor entered the bay. He checked the vitals. He left.
I stood at Grandad’s shoulder.
“Grandad, can I touch your shoulder?”
He could no longer speak.
I reached out and hesitated. I put my hand back in my pocket.
I don’t know what prevented me from touching him at that moment. Life was too precious, and death was at once its ally and its enemy.
The doctor rushed back in with two nurses.
Mum didn’t arrive. She called. She was stuck in traffic outside the hospital; a long queue just to park the car. Nowhere else to park it, all the roads are double yellows for miles.
Grandad had been a religious man; a Catholic; a man of prayer. But that day in the hospital God had flown from his consciousness. God lived in the ether, or in the deeper layers of atomic structure forming the cells of life and death. God no longer required an intellect of God’s creation.
St. Paul, or one of the Apostles, promised freedom from fear, and therefore death having no sting. To believe in Christ is to be an enlightened being, who sheds their mortal shell for a heaven much greater than can be imagined by earthly beings as ourselves. Grandad believed in such a place, and Charlotte would be there to greet him, as would a welcoming family of strangers, of every faithful soul who ever stepped foot in the universe.
And in spite of Grandad’s decaying, suffering exterior, there was a faith at work, in his calm composure a subtle knowledge of his passing on to something else; indeed, a beginning.
When I was just a boy, Grandad had uttered: _When there is an ending, there is also a new beginning. _
Skittles had struggled to breathe and the vet put her down. I was five years old. But the two kittens she bore grew into healthy cats, and one of them lived out a record twenty two years.
In memory, a good life is not forgotten.