When I tell my grandmother I’ve been drinking the gin she keeps in her pantry, she squeezes my hand. That’s how I know she’s still in there, behind the ramparts of that twisted body. We both know death is coming. It’s why I’m here.
She sleeps most of the time, but her dark eyes open as the nurse tips her gently to ease the soiled pad from between her legs.
“Hello, Annie, my lovely. Don’t you fret. We’ll have you looking like a picture in a jiffy.”
Bridie in the corner bed died yesterday. Her daughter came out from behind the curtains, a ratty Kleenex pressed to her nose. Her husband nodded at me as they left the ward, “It’s a struggle, int it?”
They are birthing their own endings, these women, in this shabby, beige room, riding waves of pain, confusion, denial. When Ethel needs to pee, she calls high like a bird, “Queek, queek!” From behind the curtain, I hear a nurse say, “Ethel, what’s your hand doing down there?” From the next bed, Clarissa calls out, “I’ve got me boots on. Someone take me boots off.” All day long she drapes her extra blanket over her Zimmer frame, then pulls it off again, over and over.
Doris in the bed beside us broke her hip when she blacked out in her home. Her husband shuffles in every afternoon, the stains of his lunch visible on his tie. He asks her, “Did nurse do your ears for you today?”
“I said, did she do your ears for you today?”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Oh never mind.”
A moment of silence.
“She did my ears for me today.”
“You daft beggar, I just asked you that.”
Doris takes a friendly interest in me. She asks where I’ve come from – “Ooh, that’s a long way” – and asks about a husband and children I cannot come up with. She nods towards the bed where my grandmother lies, her toothless mouth open on the pillow. “They get like that, don’t they? They let themselves go.”
If you call two strokes and a long, hard life letting go. A chilblained, gas-masked, penny-pinching struggle of a life. Ninety years, give or take.
Nurses bring me tea in cups that smell of disinfectant. They touch my shoulder as they pass. Under the fluorescent lights, time is transparent. The hands of the clock take forever to move from one black digit to the next, yet hours are swallowed whole in the long pauses between each of my grandmother’s noisy breaths. She is the flesh of my flesh, the bones of my bones. As darkness fills up the long windows, the ladies shift and mumble in their sleep, dreaming of flying, while I sit on a hard plastic chair, keeping vigil for the fallen.