Outside the Window
The hospital bed held prime position in the room. Steel bars and bends snaked the perimeter, surrounding the inhabitant. She lay small and crooked at the hips. Outside the window, the sun limped behind grey clouds. She stared at the grey view, grey sky, grey buildings and grey street. She stared at the clock perched near the ceiling, the blank walls and the bedside table. She heard muted noise, hushed conversation and beeps.
The door of the room opened and a doctor walked in. He wore a navy blue suit and white shirt open at the neck. He stood at the foot of the bed.
“Mrs. Louden, do you know why you’re here?”
“Ms.” She said.
“Ms. Louden, your disease is in its final stages. I’m sorry.” He looked down at the clipboard in his hand.
“Where are my things?” She reached for the bedside table.
“Ms. Louden, there’s nothing more that can be done.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m going home. Thank you for your time, Dr. ________?”
“Yes, thank you for your time, Dr. Davidson. I’ve a visitor coming and I must get ready.” She folded her hands in her lap.
“I’ll get the nurse.” He turned and left the room. His shoes squeaked on the linoleum.
Barbara fidgeted in bed. Each bony finger rasping against its neighbour in her palms. Her skin hung off her limbs and her body creaked as she lifted her chest. She looked like Mother when Mother died. All bags and flaps that wobbled as she flung her arms about in bed. Barbara had left the ward as soon as she could. When she got home, she called the woman who cleaned their house and asked her to come straight away to pack up Mother’s things.
Barbara’s right arm shook as she attempted to direct it to the side table. It refused to obey and fell heavy against the sheet. She took a breath and tried again, this time managing to dump her arm over the rails onto the top of the table where she fumbled. Her handbag tumbled onto the floor, spilling its contents and her arm dropped. “Sweet Jesus, what a fool.” She mumbled.
Outside the window, the sun spilled behind dark clouds. A nurse opened the door, stuck her head through and entered the room. A compact older woman in scrubs and running shoes, she smiled at Barbara. The patient’s grey eyes peeped out under pink naked eyelids.
“Oh good, you’re awake. Thought you might’ve dropped off.”
“I need help. My bag fell and I need something from it.”
“Has the doctor been in love?”
“Thomas is visiting soon.”
“I’m Maxine. I’m here to look after you. If there’s anything you need. I’ll get you some water.”
“My lipstick, it’s in my bag.” Barbara’s voice trembled.
The nurse took a sippy cup from a shelf above the sink in the corner of the room and filled it. She held the straw to Barbara’s lips. With effort, Barbara sucked. Maxine carried the cup to the far side of the bed and placed it on the table.
The nurse bent and gathered the purse, comb, loose papers and pens sprinkled on the floor into the handbag. She picked it up and felt inside. “There’s no lippie here, love.”
“Jesus is going to save me, you know. He hasn’t brought me this far to drop me now.” Stern as she looked the nurse up and down.
“We’re here to make you comfortable, love. You just let me know if you have any pain.”
“Thomas is coming and I’ll be leaving. I need to make myself presentable.”
The nurse nodded and smiled, straightened the blanket on the bed and left the room.
Barbara ran a hand through her silver hair as best she could. She looked younger than 72, everyone at her school always said so. Her fingers brushed her lips and she felt Thomas’ fine fingers lifting her chin to kiss her. Bubbles burst against the inside of her belly and a grin tiptoed out.
Outside the window, twilight settled in. The doctor came and stood at the foot of the bed. He stared through Barbara and held a clipboard in both hands. Hard lips evicted the smile on her face. She crossed her arms in front of her body.
“Ms. Louden, it’s important you understand. Your system is shutting down and your body is dying. I’m sorry.”
“I taught boys like you for nearly forty years. You don’t know everything you know. I’ll be going home shortly.”
“I’m sorry, Ms Louden but I really don’t think that’s a possibility. Your disease has spread catastrophically.”
“My Lord is going to save me.” She glared at the doctor and her eyes bulged. She raised her head as high as it would go, “When Thomas gets here, he’ll sort this out and take me home.”
The doctor left the room.
Barbara’s eyes bounced around. Wall. clock. Panelled ceiling. Fluorescent lights. White sheet. Tissues. Faucet. Shelf. Linoleum. Door. Door handle to the outside. She must get out! Why isn’t Thomas here? Her eyes stumbled over surfaces. She shifted and tried to roll her weight onto her side. Her hand reached for the bars around the bed, attempting to pull and push her torso upright. Arms shuddering as they sought a hold, she succeeded only in twisting her body further into itself. She cried out. Tears and sweat shined her face. With a thump, Barbara fell back on the pillow as breath pooled and pulsed in her chest. She closed her eyes and the room spun away.
She met him at the Tim Horton’s in Leaside in 1982. Waiting in line she dropped her purse and the gentlemen behind her picked it up with a twinkle in his smile. Dark-haired, mid forties, he taught English at a nearby private school and asked if she would consider joining him for coffee. An hour later, her cheeks flushed from free-flowing conversation and that smile she agreed to meet him the following Saturday at the cinema on Queen St. He’d be here any minute. She opened her eyes and saw the nurse.
Outside the window, pink charmed the edges of the sky. “I heard you call, love. Are you in pain? I can get something for you. Goodness, you’re all tied up in those sheets.” The nurse bent over Barbara and embraced her torso. With strong arms she lifted her up the bed and carefully plucked covers from under Barbara’s body, untwisting them as she went. Maxine felt sweat on Barbara’s back and heat radiated through the hospital gown she wore.
“Oh it hurts! He’s coming to get me and I have to be ready. I need my lipstick!” Barbara turned her face away from the nurse and tears squeezed her voice tight. She hugged her arms and tried to drag her knees to her chest. She groaned and kept her face pointed at the corner.
“I’ll be back in a moment, love.” The nurse returned with a tray bearing a sealed needle kit and a syringe of morphine. Maxine pulled gloves from the wall and put them on. She prepared the cannula and syringe and wheeled the tray closer to the bed. “This will have you feeling more
comfortable in no time.” The nurse helped Barbara lie flat and drew down the front of her gown. She swabbed the catheter and emptied the syringe into the line. “Won’t be long now love.” Maxine took off the gloves, threw them in the bin on the cart and wheeled it out.
Barbara drifted sideways. The room receded and she found herself with Mother in Rome in the back pew of Santa Maria Maggiore. The sound of the Latin gospel wrapping her in warmth. The soaring ceiling speaking of eternal life and the mosaic of the Virgin sparkling. She turns to Mother and they smile at the same time. She reaches out to take her hand and a dark haired man standing to the left of the aisle smiles her way. He’s leaning against a pillar. She remembers falling in love with him. The conversation, the anticipation, he left his wife for her and touched her where she’d never been touched. Then came Sarah and there she wriggled in the row ahead swinging her feet! Her blonde head bobbing in time with her legs.
Outside the window, night draped the city. Maxine came in carrying a new gown and some wipes.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Barbara asked in a small voice.
Maxine lowered the side rails and placed a hand on her arm, “You’re dying, Barbara. You won’t want to eat or drink. You may feel hot or cold and weak and tired.” She put her arms around Barbara’s shoulders and leant her forward, untying the wet gown and taking it off. She took a wipe from the packet and cleaned Barbara’s neck and chest. “You may feel restless or confused and find it hard to breathe. Some patients see dead people.” One at a time, she picked up Barbara’s arms and fed them through the clean gown. She tied it at the back, fluffed the pillow and lay her back down. “Eventually, things will just stop.”
Barbara looked into the nurse’s eyes, “I’ll meet Jesus.”
“Would you like to speak with a chaplain, love?” Maxine picked up the sippy cup and held the straw out for Barbara.
“No, thank you.” Barbara pointed to her heart. “He’s here. I think I’ll rest now.” She floated.
Outside the window, blue coloured the sky and footsteps passed. She heard several people talking at once. A wail came from down the hall. A wail forced itself over her dry tongue through clenched teeth. She sank onto the bathroom floor when she got home and clamped her mouth between both hands. Hot tears flooded. Mother shouldn’t hear. Her fists formed clubs and pummelled her thighs and belly hard enough to bruise. Spine straight, she had waited for him in the foyer cafe. Orange pekoe growing cold. Watching friends waving. Watching boys standing up to meet girls. Watching corn pop and soda gush. Watching her hands shake and the minute hand march on. She waited and the ticket booth closed. She waited and saw smiling couples on first dates and gangs of teenagers come out of the movie. She waited and the boy with the vacuum passed. She waited and the lights dimmed.
Outside the window, the light of dawn grew. A moan fell from Barbara’s lips. She licked them but her mouth housed a sandpaper tongue behind cheeks the shape of her skull. Dark trapped her behind eyelids. She moaned again, a high-pitched, thin sound that echoed in the bones of her head. She arched her back to get away from the pain.
The nurse came in with a syringe in a gloved hand and a cup in the other. She put down the cup and opened the front of Barbara’s gown. She injected the syringe in the catheter and placed the needle in the sharps container on the wall. She took a wet sponge-tipped stick from the cup and ran it around the inside of Barbara’s mouth, squeezing a small amount of water out as she circled her gums. Barbara’s throat worked as she swallowed. Again the nurse dipped the sponge and wet the inside of her mouth. Barbara swallowed water and the sun dwindled, swallowed up by black. Strong arms grabbing her wrist pulling and then she’s spluttering and spitting vomit on the ice. Later, Mother screaming How could you do this? You’re a bad girl! Grandmother dragging Mother away from her children and shoving her out of the room. When the shivering had gone, after the warm food and warm fire and warm blanket, rage stung.
Barbara opened her eyes and cried out. Her neck dragged the weight of her head from one ear to the other. Her body shook and goosebumps armoured her skin. She looked at the wall, clock, panelled ceiling, fluorescent light, sheet, tissues, tap, shelf, linoleum, door, door handle. One hand grabbed the railing of the bed and pulled, shook, strangled and hit it. The mattress rocked and sheets held her down. She cried out, eyes wide. Stones lived in her chest.
Outside the window, rain fell in streaks of grey. Maxine came in and touched Barbara’s forearm. “It’s okay, love. You’re safe here.” From her pocket she pulled out a syringe. Haloperidol and morphine for pain, confusion and agitation. Maxine straightened her gown and adjusted the sheets. She got a wipe and cleaned Barbara’s face and hands. She got the comb from Barbara’s handbag and brushed her hair. Skin flaked and fell. She touched Barbara with a warm hand on cold skin. Cold hand on warm skin. Cold skin on warm hand. Mother grabs her cold hand with cold hands, lips straining, her forehead gripped by lines as she flings her head back and forth in the living room and at Barbara’s suitcase on the carpet. Mother grips Barbara’s hand, fingernails piercing smooth skin, Promise you’ll never leave me. I’ll die if you leave me. Barbara looks anywhere but into Mother’s eyes. Scalding tears spill down her cheeks. She looks through the glass above the window seat. Fallen maple leaves cover the lawn.
Outside the window, clouds scudded over a black horizon. Barbara tried to breathe. The air resisted and a rubber band circled her throat. She reached up to her neck but her hands made it only halfway. They began a jerking dance of their own, picking at the air. Her knees twitched. Words were falling from Barbara’s mouth in streams. Entire books and sentences. Lectures on Greek mythology. Slurred wine conversation and commentary on Loreal Tropical Peach 444 and blue eyeshadow and Mother Medusa figuring sums owing in her black book and arguments over 5 stars or 4 at the Park Royal in Chicago. Barbara’s voice rode waves of chit chat and bellowed at elephants in corners and cheered for Blue Jays and booed Yankees and espoused opinions on working, saving, paying and the Lord’s Prayer said out loud, slurping all those Michelin meals, a woman alone placed at fancy tables outside swinging doors to kitchens.
The vision through Barbara’s half open eyes blurred and tripped over white sheets, tissues, tap, linoleum. A gurgling sound simmered in her throat. The air in her lungs shrank and tightened. Mother’s voice in her ear You were always my favourite. A flash of that smile and the smell of cinnamon and black coffee. Her inhalation and exhalation chugged and slowed. A breath travelled over chapped lips and a yawn cracked her face in two. A grimace stuck itself to her teeth and limbs thrust in repeated lift and drop. Panting, her chest rose. Pressure pushed down. One more breath extended out for an age. The clock ticked.
Outside the window, grey hugged the buildings, streets and sky. Inside, grey skin hung on bones arranged in human form. Grey lips and hair sank into the sheets losing colour. Grey eyes stared at the clock perched near the ceiling. Empty walls and a bedside table. Stillness gathered.
- Mira Chorik. 2018.