“I don’t want to linger. I want to go while someone still has something bad to say about me.” -ELAINE KIRSCH EDSALL.
On a hot Friday afternoon in July 1990, whilst I was working on the cottage where she lived, Elaine came home and as we talked announced that she wanted to go for a walk by some water.
I suggested a local spot alongside the river Stour close to my home and she agreed that it sounded just right.
We drove over in my old Mini, and no one took any notice of us as we set out together on what was effectively, our first ever date.
Neither of us could have known then where that initial adventure was going to lead to. But since our first meeting some weeks previously, we both knew that the spark that existed between us had flared into a fire which was growing brighter and stronger all the time.
As we walked Elaine ‘casually’ held out her hand, and I just as ‘casually’, grasped it.
We walked and chatted quite naturally along the riverbank almost into town, then turned and headed back in the heat of the afternoon sun, towards the car.
With two fields left to cross we again came to a huge Willow tree close on the riverbank where we both spontaneously stopped and turned to each other. I pulled her close and that was our first ever kiss.
All through our years since then, on or around the anniversary of that first walk, we have trod those fields once more, and stopped to re-kindle that kiss beside the Willow tree.
Nearly twenty years or so ago we found the tree had fallen and were saddened to see our friend and witness lying on its side, seemingly a lost cause.
But nature had other ideas. The Willow held on and re-grew. The fallen trunk sprouted new life and it is once again a dominant feature on the riverbank.
The Lodge is surrounded by trees, they too have become like friends over so many years. One, a thick trunked Cedar of Lebanon, woke us as it fell at 3am on the 19th December 2019.
As the early morning darkness cleared to light, we discovered this old warrior almost at 45 degrees, and assumed it was the end for certain, but it too had other ideas.
It is clinging to life, still being partly rooted in the earth.
When it fell Elaine would go over and talk to it, willing it to hold on and live.
Who would have thought then that it would out-live its encourager.
1st January 2021.
I’ve never been a New Year person. It always seems to me a sad time. More of a looking back to what you wanted that never happened, than a looking forward to what you to hope is going to be.
January, even before I lost Elaine, was never a happy or hopeful month for me, and I doubt it ever will be now.
After all the fireworks of last night, the quiet that descended over the hospice in the early hours seemed more pronounced and thought provoking than before. Elaine slept through it all.
I had a ‘bitsa’ night. ‘Bitsasleep’ ‘bitsawake’, but around 6.30 in the morning the hospice begins to stir into life and I bleakly think to myself for how much of this year is Elaine going to be able to, or want to, hold on for.
I’m not blind, or a fool. She is not eating and is hardly taking any moisture, and she is on some seriously strong painkillers. Regardless of the cancer no one can survive this way for long.
One of the nurses brings me coffee and toast and, as I sit and watch the staff going up and down the corridor I suddenly feel like screaming at them.
“LOOK she’s in here, why aren’t you doing something to make her better? Why don’t you treat her she’s your patient, your responsibility?”
I, of course, already know the answer. I just need to say it to myself.
“This is a hospice, not a hospital. There is no treatment left that can save her life. She’s here to be spared the pain and misery that her condition will bring if they do not intervene. The price is her silence, her unconsciousness, her deep slumber just as predicted, and a hastening of the inevitable”.
“Would you rather hear her screams if she were awake and aware?”
I feel foolish, chastised by my inner self and despite the coffee, the toast remains dry in my mouth.
As the morning progresses more visitors come and go for the other patients, and the voices of life beyond our room, steal in to remind me of an outside world. Nurses come to check on Elaine at regular intervals and Julie arrives in the afternoon giving me a chance of some exercise and welcome fresh air outside of the hospice environment.
The day ends much as it began, I’m left alone with my thoughts and my still sleeping wife.
Saturday 2nd January 2021.
Doctor Kevin and a companion visit in the morning. While Kevin and I talk the other doctor uses some of the small sponges on sticks which, when dipped in water are used to moisten the patient’s mouth and lips.
Her eyes are closed but at one point she playfully bites the sponge and refuses to let go. The game seems to amuse her and her smile tells that Elaine is still with us, despite the ever increasing drugs.
Taking me aside, Doctor Kevin confirms that she only has a short time left, days at most, and as he has been correct about everything else to date, I’ve no reason to doubt his predictions.
It is so very strange to stand and talk about her impending death while she lies, eyes closed and smiling, just a few feet from us. Mostly in her own world, but partially at least, still in ours.
The doctors leave and shortly after I am given lunch, and then I sit holding Elaine’s hand, talking to her and trying unsuccessfully to stifle my tears and imploring God to wake me from this hell.
There are fewer visitors today, and after a while the only sound is Bill’s TV from along the corridor.
Now Bill’s TV was always a bit too loud but it never seemed to bother Elaine and I soon got used to it, but this particular afternoon the volume started to creep up and up, until, quite frankly, it got to ‘Spinal Taps’ number 11 on the scale.
It was simply deafening. I never would have thought that a TV could get so loud. I quickly shut our door, but it makes little difference, and none of the staff are around. Being restricted to the room I can’t go and investigate and it occurs to me that maybe he’s died and fallen onto the TV remote. It doesn’t seem very likely, but surely no one could be conscious in a room with such a horrendous sound.
Looking out into the corridor there’s nobody about, the noise is awesome, so I retreat back and decide to ring for help. As I’ve got the bell push in my hand I hear a door slam and hurried footsteps outside.
“BILL, BILL TURN THE TELLY DOWN.”
Again; “BILL, TURN IT DOWN, oh for God’s sake!”
“TURN IT DOWN BILL.”
“TURN IT DOWN.”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU, MY HEARING AIDS AREN’T WORKING.”
“I REALISE THAT, WHERE’S THE CONTROL?”
In a few seconds came blessed silence.
“MY HEARING AIDS AREN’T WORKING.”
“It’s OK Bill don’t shout, I understand.”
It turned out that the batteries in both of his hearing aids had failed, and so he was near stone deaf.
The nurses had a meeting on at the other end of the hospice, and then they couldn’t work out just what the noise was for a few minutes.
As for Elaine, she slept through it all. If she had been awake and capable of writing, this would have been just the sort of bizarre incident to be included into her blog, she would have loved it. Another observation on the quirky side of life that she wrote about so well.
Sunday 3rd January 2021.
Elaine became quite restless during the night. I called for help when at one point she said the word “Pain”, and the night staff gave her some extra injections to counter this.
I haven’t really talked much about the hospice staff, but I do truly believe that all of the warm and generous atmosphere that prevails throughout the building is down to them.
Early on, it was apparent to me, that those working there wanted to be there.
Doctor Kevin, who comes from up-country, told me he had waited until a place was available at Forest Holme before he moved down, as this was where he wanted to work.
Talking to one of the nurses one night, it transpired she had jacked in a good job in the banking sector, to re-train as a nurse in later life, because she wanted to work at the hospice.
Let’s face it, they aren’t there for the money. They are there because they want to be there, to help, to make a difference and they certainly do succeed in that.
I simply cannot fault the care and attention they gave to Elaine. It was second to none. I can understand now why she felt she would be safe there.
I noticed when they came to check the med’s or change the bed and make Elaine more comfortable they constantly talked to her, even though, later on, she rarely replied or possibly could not even hear them.
They would talk as if she were part of the conversation and ‘include’ her at all times. Whether it was one nurse or more they always told her what they were doing and why, and talked her through it. She was never ignored.
For me to single out any one person here would be, to do all of them a disservice. But there is one incident that has stuck in my mind that I just must mention.
Late each afternoon the yellow bin-bag in the room would be changed and it was nearly always the same man who did it. He would come quietly into the room, hold up the replacement bag and nod towards the bin, which was close by Elaine’s bed. I don’t remember him ever speaking.
When the bag had been changed he would look over to me, on the other side of the bed, smile and without a backward look leave.
As I got more used to him appearing I started to just say” Thank you” as he left and this was acknowledged by a slight incline of his head.
He obviously knew why I was there, and Elaine too, and I’m pretty sure he witnessed my frequent tears.
God alone knows how many times he must have been a spectator to this type of scene.
The last time I saw him was, I believe, somewhat later than usual on this Sunday afternoon.
He came in as before, and nodded to me, but he hesitated as his gaze fell on Elaine. He seemed slightly embarrassed, like someone caught out by something totally unexpected chanced upon in familiar surroundings.
He changed the bag, then as he turned he again looked at Elaine on the bed, then he looked up directly over at me. Our eyes, almost in guilty fashion, caught each other’s and I instantly felt his sympathy.
There was between us, for a fleeting moment, a shared humanity, a solidarity if you like.
I felt in that glance that he had shouted ten thousand words of silent support across the room to me, then he was gone. I swear as long as I live I will never forget that man, or that moment.
Julie comes in today shortly after lunch and I take the opportunity to get out for a while.
As the car has not been moved lately I decide to take it for a drive around the local area. Later I ring Mike to find he’s at his house which isn’t far away, so I go over to see him and have real coffee.
Talking to Mike, I become aware that I am nervous and jittery. There is something inside that is trying to talk to me, but I don’t want to listen.
Mike confirms that all is OK back at home, it’s then that I remember the bloody credit card bill that’s got to be paid. I could have gone back and done it this afternoon, but I forgot. It’s too late now, perhaps in the morning?
Back at Forest Holme, Julie is about ready to leave when I return, she says she’ll be back on Tuesday. She has known Elaine for 30 years plus, and I know her feelings are on a level with my own.
After supper I sit and read and hold my wife’s hand frequently. I prepare for sleep around 11o’clock but before I settle I feel the need to sit close to Elaine, which I do and stroke her hair and face.
Her sleep seems deeper, in fact I know it is, then out of nowhere the words come to me, and I speak softly to her.
”We’ve got to get out of here, both of us my love. You’ve got to leave one way, me another, but we’ve both got to get out soon. There’s no need to hold on Elaine, I know it’s just your body that won’t give in, I know your spirit want’s to soar and make the break.
Go my sweetheart, because I can’t leave before you.”
She, of course, didn’t reply, and I’ll never know in this life if she heard me, but I still like to think, that she did.
To be continued…