By Emma Abdullah
There was nothing worse than being on call. It ruined the weekend, tampered with my sleeping pattern and had me surviving on high doses of caffeine for at least another two days. On the other hand, I had missed the family gathering. There was nothing worse than family gatherings: all those conversations of trivial importance, the petty arguments and endless discrete glances at the watch. On the bright side, I had missed that but my heart had sunk a bit upon hearing the disappointment in my father’s voice when I had to excuse myself from his birthday celebration. When he had asked if there was any chance I could be replaced for this one time – that I could get the weekend off just this once – I had lied and said no. The truth was, I preferred to spend the night alone in these dim hallways.
Perhaps I am a selfish man but I console myself with the thought that we are all greedy, that in the end it’s all down to us and getting through the day. I’ve learned never to get too attached, never to hang on too tightly because that is when you fall the hardest. But honestly, it is not without guilt that I sat, not without a bit of tightness in my chest that I sat on my neglected white chair, being the terrible selfish man that I was.
Hospital walls rock you into a lying, deceptive calm. They lie. They have a sickly color that sings you into oblivion, that tells you you’ll be alright when you have no chance. I always wondered why they were painted as they were; such a sterile, lying, manipulative white. It was of no solace to the patients. If I were in hospital, I’d want my walls painted bright explosive colors. I patrolled the corridors, stopping sometimes to read the number on a room although really, I knew them all by heart. How does it feel to be a number in a room? Just a number amongst the numbers, a bed amongst the beds, a patient, a disease? A disease amongst the diseases.
She stopped me mid-track, rushing over to me with her clipboard and countless papers, a panicked look on her face saying something about patient 102. Patient 102? I had never spent very much time with him. He was an elderly man of little words with rickety health. He was another number – a passing number, a temporary number, like all the others. Sooner or later, they would all leave and terrible as it was, terrible as it sounds, you got used to it once you’d been here a while.
His heart was beating slower, his breathing more difficult and it was only a matter of hours before they thought they would lose him. With all the composure I could gather, I walked across the corridor to room 102.
His skin was pale, his milky eyes devoid of light, his soul tired. He lay there, listening to the beeping and watching the little waves on the monitor go up, then down, then up, getting flatter every time. I don’t know if he noticed – maybe he didn’t really realize what they meant.
“My son”, his voice came out as a hoarse whisper, “Tell him”, he begged.
“I’m sorry sir, I don’t…”
“Tell him I’m here”. His eyes were watery. “Please, tell him I’m here.”
“Sir, your son knows you are in hospital.”
“But call him”, he pleaded. “Tell him to come, that I’ll be leaving. I know I’ll be leaving. I have to speak to him.”
I wonder what it feels like when you know it’s the end of the road, when you know that fighting is futile because sometimes you have to give in to life – It’s only fair. I wonder what it feels like when you know. When you know it’s time to give in.
I walked to the sterile white phone and punched in the numbers. I felt a nagging constriction in my chest, one I could not really account for. Being the bearer of bad news is a terrible thing; sometimes you don’t know if you’ll have the words, the delicacy, the strength. You think of the person on the other side; how you’re about to bring their world crashing down with a single phone call and deep inside them they’ll hate you because their sorrow will just be searching for someone to blame. Then what do you say? That you’re sorry? Sorry for what? They’ll hate you even more because they‘ll know you’re not sorry like they are. They’ll know you haven’t been destroyed like them.
Beeep. Beeep. Maybe he wouldn’t pick up then I wouldn’t have to speak to him. But what would I tell his father? The father with the crying eyes who knows it’s time to give in to life. The one who just wanted a few last words, who wanted to say goodbye, who-
“Good morning Sir, Dr. Brown from Lancashire hospital speaking. I am calling regarding your father.”
There was silence at the other end. I wondered what he had been doing. Had I called at the wrong moment? Was he already beginning to hate me? I thought he would never reply but he did – his voice appearing quite confident; I suspected he was holding back the tears.
“What about my father?” he said calmly.
“Your father is seriously ill,” I took a deep breath. “He has asked to see you. He only has a few more hours.”
Again, there was silence and this time I knew it had completely destroyed him. I empathized with his hatred towards me, despised myself and wished myself all the worst things in life because I knew he was thinking it too. After a long pause, the same calm voice surprised me. He was stronger than I was.
“Do you have a pen?” he said. Well, of course, I had a pen but why? I wasn’t sure he understood.
“Yes, Sir, but I don’t think you quite get me,” I answered.
“Write down this number,” he said softly, dictating me a number that sounded quite familiar. I knew I had heard it somewhere before.
“I’ve taken care of everything,” he continued. “It’s all been paid for; everything’s been dealt with – took a while but I’ve done it. You won’t have to worry about anything.”
He didn’t understand. I didn’t understand. Who did he want me to call? A relative?
“It’s the funeral service,” he said before I could ask. “They’ll take care of things. The coffin is ready – not just any coffin, mind you, it’s a mahogany .That’s the most expensive one.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“But your father… he asked to see you…he’s not well. Your father is dying, Sir,”
“I’m a busy man,” he replied. “I have to catch a plane to Tokyo in an hour. I’d like to come but I can’t afford to miss that flight. Get him some flowers. Take the big bouquet.”
I put the phone down with a trembling hand. Flowers? Would flowers be a good enough compensation? Flowers in a mahogany coffin. Perhaps we all die poor in the end. Maybe that’s what we’re worth – a coffin. I opened the door slowly hoping he was asleep and would never know. He heard the door creak and turned his head, giving the biggest smile I had ever seen, extending from ear to ear. There was light in his eyes, the kind of admiration in a father’s eyes when he sees his son. What was I to tell him? That I was sorry? That his son had refused to come but sent him flowers and his regards? He didn’t speak. I went up to his bed and kneeled down next to him, his smile still not fading. I tried to think of the right words. I tried to find the strength.
Do you have a pen? Do you have a pen? He would have the best coffin, the mahogany coffin, the one that had already been paid for. Who would come to the funeral? He would be alone with his flowers and his mahogany. Luxury without love.
Do you have a pen? The waves seemed to tire. They moved slower, becoming flatter and flatter but still he smiled.
Beeep. He had been younger before, he had watched people leave, he had been there but there was nobody there for him. Beeeep.
“My son,” his voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “Are you here?” He held out a trembling hand to me. Nobody to take his hand.
“Son,” he whispered again.
I grabbed the shaking hand and squeezed it tightly. Words no longer had any importance.
“Yes Dad,” I said softly. “I’m here.”