The blue, the bed, the depth of it all, thick hospital drapes wrapped about us letting light under and over, fathoms deep, all breathless trepidation. A rising tide is at my throat, the blankets pinched beneath my twitching calves, pinched in. Who can I cling to? I cast around the blue space; the surgeon, the nurse, my Dad and Stace are tucked up in the shadows, my mother has absented herself, too raw and brittle from the past two weeks and believing herself bad luck. I’ve forgotten where my brother is.
The surgeon: ‘There’s nothing to be done, I’m sorry’, and I do think he’s sorry but also embarrassed; his eyes are as dead as Mars and the cadence of his words flat-calm, but he radiates a twitchy discomfort, avoiding eye contact, probably longing for the familiarity of the operating theatre; the nurse is obviously here to provide some humanity which just pours from her enormous, unanimous blue eyes that, even in this fabric-dusk, shine like a lake in summer.
I’m grateful when she shifts her attention to Stace, who sits just down to my right, poised, face frozen in what I’ve termed in the past ‘dust-bowl-farmer-wife-face’ on account of it’s open, wounded countenance, only now it is laced with horror, something new that I don’t recognise and which sickens my stomach. Tears are threatening her lower eyelids.
I’ve heard the surgeons words but have retreated before truly comprehending them; so aware and present yet so, so far away, telescoped back through my selves and into a new room that feels yellow and strung with tinnitus; and from all the way back there I see my Dad at the foot of the bed – angry, ‘For fucks sake!’, helpless, rubbing his forehead with uncontained anguish, his eyes absent and confused – and I can’t begin to imagine what he is feeling and that sadness is the most real and compounds Stacey’s horror and the nurses piercing eyes with their practiced empathy and the surgeon’s awkwardness and the words themselves, and all this choking, welling reality forces me out of the yellow room like a mollusk from a shell and I find myself uttering the single bravest thing I’ve ever said:
‘How long have I got?’
And even as the words limp from my mouth, I know they will exacerbate the pain, more for Stace and my Dad than for myself, but I have to ask it because to not would mean carrying that unknown and I don’t think I can bear even a second more of it, so I ask, selfishly, to relieve my own weight and feel Stace buckle but feel myself engage with this new reality for the first time, feel it shift like a train on rails and watch my other, previous life drift over there out of sight, the question setting me on a new path, making this new, dreadful story almost a real thing, as if by some magic, as if by not engaging it could’ve remained unformed, abstract, “other” even – although the words felt strangely rehearsed and heavy – and even as the surgeon shifts uncomfortably, face still kabuki, answering my own worn out question with another – ‘How long is a piece of string? Difficult to tell…’ – I feel the before-and-after-ness of this moment, a knot at the centre of my life from which all things stagger, past and future gathered and dispersed; the knot in my stomach that has drawn me like the rack and sent its caustic spores to my lungs as pollen, and all of this is phasing in and out in snatches that stutter the surgeons response still further and I find myself listening to the ward outside, so jealous of the continuum of the other patients -beeping wheezing, coughing, pained flirting with nurses – and I become aware of Stan in the bed to my left outside the blue cube who is throwing another of his fits, mean old bastard, railing at the nurses throughout the orange nights, not giving a fuck about the other sleepers, the fuckless, unabashed mien of the aged, something else to envy; I hear him bellowing ‘Don’t touch my testicles!’ (presumably the nurses are making another futile attempt at giving Stan a bed-bath) and for a brief moment I picture Stan’s distended, pendulous, thigh worn scrotum and right now, at the bottom of all of this, it seems wonderfully absurd, just for a second, and for the same second I expect to see smirks on the gathered shady faces, spectral blues, everything in danger of collapse. But the shock holds sway.
And throughout all of this my mother’s absence grows heavier; no doubt she is pacing and fretting somewhere along the corridor, going through all kinds of scenarios – I inherited her anxiety, we are twinned by it so I know…the routine she’s going through, a little dance, a little ritual to keep the bad at bay, I know all of this, how it spirals and encircles – and yet the reality is so much worse than she is imagining and the fact we know and someone has to tell her, God, this spectre is hanging over us. I probably feel how the surgeon felt coming here bearing life-shattering news, knowing it will drown expectant faces, my mother’s face pulled and pale, but I know I won’t have to deliver this news, my Dad will; these are her last moments of not knowing when she can entertain any outcome.
At some point when there is nothing left to ask when the empathy has been exhausted, the surgeon and nurse leave us and I thank him because he seemed so out of place and awkward. I was ready for them to leave as soon as the surgeon had uttered “sorry”.
Not long after, Dad leaves to find Mum and the window with Stace feels strikingly calm; seminal and irrevocable, something has happened, carved up the world and moved on leaving us suspended, a peace like smoke lingering after the last firework has dissolved upon itself, its retort still pressed upon our ears.
‘Life is wild’ she says, our first words in this new reality.
We talk in quotes with hard edges, not really a conversation but an attempt to share truths quickly. Panic truths.
‘I am so pleased you’re here with me’, I mean this, adding ‘wherever I’m going, we’re all going, we’ll be together like space-ghosts’.
‘I will make sure our girls grow up unafraid’ –“I” singular causes a lurching, temporal vertigo that sends me chasing my tail again: please don’t plan ahead, don’t past tense me, don’t be used to this, I’m not ready to be used to this, to be as was, don’t believe it because if you believe it I have to believe it and I can’t believe it, don’t make me other and expel me from us, step back, come back, I’ll talk you back into the sanctuary of disbelief; all this hurtles across my head but the girls, Christ, through some primal cognitive dance I’ve managed to keep them out just to try to survive this moment, but now they suddenly loom, super–vivid and laughing – Dali of the clouds and Bay all muddy and of the earth – and I’m nauseous to my bones.
‘What have I done?’
The cube is lighter, the quotidian rhythms of the ward exacerbating the apprehension of facing my mother, which is taking far longer than anticipated – truly a waiting room – but she is coming with all the thunder of sleepless childhood nights, the school gates, the mud of football mornings, licking cake mix from the whisks, I’ve remembered where my brother is, here it comes, closing in, she enters the cube, I dissolve into her arms, her words “My boy, my boy,” my words, “My girls, my girls.”