Elaine had been on a new chemo’ regime for a while now. It involved a hospital visit every three weeks and four main tablets to take twice a day in between, plus a few others as well.
She was struggling with the tablets and seemed depressed with this treatment in general, also she was developing some serious physical side effects. On top of this she had stopped eating properly and was losing weight that she could not afford to.
I had become worried, as she was listless, vague and unlike her real self.
Things came to a head one Tuesday morning when she rang me at work to say that she had spoken to the oncology team at the Harbour Hospital and they wanted her there NOW!
I rushed home and took her straight down.
When we got there she was taken immediately to a private room and within minutes was in bed and hooked up to monitors and drips.
I will always remember her looking at me and whispering; “Is this it Mark?”
“I don’t think so,” was my truthful reply, but it was plain to anyone that she was very ill, and things didn’t look too good.
They feared sepsis, so pumped her full of powerful antibiotics which wiped out everything, and she was there for a week.
When she came out she looked as though she’d just walked from a refugee camp, she had lost so much weight and muscle tone. She was incredibly weak.
The chemo’ had all been stopped, but the side effects continued for a time, and they were horrendous.
I had to coax her back to eating with tiny bowls of porridge and meals of half a small veggie burger with a couple of florets of broccoli and a spoonful of gravy, which was laced with some vitamin powder that I had gotten hold of, and she didn’t know about.
She told me that in hospital she had felt so ill that she prepared herself to die, and had not expected to wake when she fell asleep.
Recovery was slow, and it was during this time that the decision was made to arrange and pay for her funeral.
This was because Elaine knew I would have enough to handle just dealing with her death, let alone trying to organise her send off.
Elaine was not keen on a traditional Jewish burial, or any of the local cemeteries either, nor did she wish to be cremated. But we have a local Woodland Burial Ground which she quite liked the idea of and, would I like to be buried there too, as she wanted us to be together.
I didn’t mind as long as I was dead before ‘moving-in,’ so we made an appointment to go for a viewing.
The man we met with was very nice, and decisions were made on type of coffin, service, wake and so on. Then as Elaine was too weak to walk far he took us in a buggy to see two plots that were available together.
One was end of row, the other next to it. Elaine wanted me to have the end one as I would have more legroom so the inner one was marked down as hers.
We agreed to pay for everything there and then, and now we owned two plots of real estate Elaine asked if we could plant some beans and potatoes on them until they were needed for us.
Our guide wasn’t sure if she was joking, neither was I, as he had never been asked about vegetables before. But apparently others had asked if they could grow flowers in readiness for when they were buried, and he had to explain that they would all be lost when the grave was dug for the new tenant.
Though I had been back there on occasions since, it was Elaine’s only visit- until the last.
30th December 2020, late pm.
I’ve been back at the hospice a few hours now. Elaine is led down in bed but even from earlier on there is a change.
She seems not so much in a deep sleep but more just unable to wake up. She is also more restless, like someone living out a very vivid dream.
I have had some food, though it does feel strange, eating while she is led so near to me, but there is little choice.
I read magazines and books from home, and I’ve got a few beers and some whisky also, to see me through.
As evening has turned to night so the ‘voice’ of the hospice has hushed, and I’m left pretty much to my own thoughts.
How long will I be here?
What happens after I leave?
How the hell am I going to face life after Elaine has gone?
I know the only way to get through this is to plan for one step at a time, but quite honestly I could just run and run and keep running.
All that holds me here is Elaine, and she is everything.
The reclining chair turns out to be surprisingly comfortable, though the motors are fierce and it squeaks like hell. I do sleep OK but not for very long spells at a time.
I wake and check on my wife fairly frequently. I have been told to call for help if in any doubt whatsoever, and the staff are watching constantly.
It’s an uneventful night and morning brings coffee and toast for me to start off New Year’s Eve.
Elaine remains asleep but restless, and mid-morning the nurses come in to sort out the bed and it’s patient so I take myself off and walk the few minutes into Poole, and the shops. I want a newspaper and need to revive the alcohol stocks.
It doesn’t take long to do this and I’m soon on my way back, but I take a slightly longer route
as it’s so refreshing to walk in the crisp cold air.
My car is parked in front of the hospice, still covered in frost. It seems a good place to leave some cans of beer to keep cool, and as a makeshift fridge it works very well over the coming days.
Back in her room and Elaine still seems asleep, but she obviously hears me come in and says my name so I go to the bedside and greet her with a kiss.
She then surprises me by saying; “I want a cuddle.”
It takes me several minutes to work out how to drop the rail on the side of the bed.
When I’ve mastered this metal guardian I squeeze myself onto the bed beside my wife and for a few precious, and as it turned out final, minutes we cuddled together, sharing the moment with two syringe drivers who were sworn to silence.
One of the doctors comes in just before lunchtime. I’ve not met her before and cannot now remember her name.
She checks Elaine over, who remains mostly asleep, and then says to me; “I’ve been reading Elaine’s notes, is that right, she’s been fighting cancer for thirty years?”
“Yes, it’s all true, since 1991.
Then she said the strangest thing; “But she’s so small.”
“Yep doc, that’s my wife, petite, but with a big fighting spirit.”
“She truly must have, what a battle, what strength.”
The doctor leaves as lunch arrives for me.
After lunch I sit and read and hold Elaine’s hand as she is now sitting up in bed, eyes closed.
Later she wakes and has a few sips of tea, but the hiccups return and she stops drinking.
Her last ever food was around this time. It was three thin slices of a kiwi fruit which I cut for her from one which Julie had brought in for Elaine previously.
A fitting ‘Last Supper’ as she always did love fruit.
When Julie comes to visit Elaine it is usually early to mid-afternoon and I use these opportunities to stretch my legs and get some fresh air by walking around and around the block.
I try to plan my day, develop my own routine, if you like, to try and avoid being entirely ‘adopted’ by that of the hospice.
A hospice is like any other institution in many ways. I realised quickly, that once you are captive within its walls you soon, albeit unconsciously, go with the general flow of life there.
You are no longer part of the outside world. It is still there, but you are shut off from it, almost in a monastic sense.
Hospice is like a cog within a wheel, part of the whole, yet turning to its own decree and hurrying for no one.
I sense the need to counter this somehow, but do not want to push too hard against the walls which, to be fair, are not there to punish but to sustain.
I must be honest and say that before Elaine went into Forest Holme I had always thought of a hospice as a house of death, a place where the Grim Reaper stalked the dimly lit corridors at night, searching out the next passenger for the ferry.
I could not have been more wrong.
If any ‘spirit’ stalks there it is more akin to the Christmas one than the hooded shadow.
There was no sense of dread or misery or suffering. Instead I felt it had humour, laughter and fun with an uplifting feeling of optimism which, strangely enough, did not seem out of place.
Despite all this, I don’t belong here.
I’m not a member of staff and I’m not a patient.
I’m not really a visitor either as I am actually staying here now, briefly, but still indefinitely.
I have no real place here at all, and feel a bit like the Cuckoo in a nest, accepted, welcomed even, but still not truly belonging to the environment in which it is living.
The afternoon drifts into evening and eventually the cloak of night spreads across the last hours of the year.
Elaine became quite restless earlier on and complained of pain. The nurses are quick to counter this with injections to back up the syringe drivers and now my darling is much more settled and sleeping peacefully.
A coldness creeps through my own veins as I think how these drugs are now taking over not just her life, but her death as well.
I have a notepad with me and it’s now that I start to pen words that might be those that end up being read at her funeral.
It occurs to me just what a privilege it is to be with another human being, especially one whom you love so deeply, as their life slowly flickers out, not everybody gets such a chance.
Many die away from their loves, victims of accident or sudden fate, with no opportunity on either side for goodbyes.
It is my lot in life to be here now, and even as the early fireworks begin to announce a new year, a new start, a new hope, I know that for me what’s coming is a storm, a hell, the like of which I have never lived before.
But I would not be anywhere else but right here, right now, even if it were to cost me my life to do so.
To be continued…..