There is a lot to be said for saying nothing. It is a secret that the sterile air in the hospital room knew all too well as it scratched against my eyelashes like a wind in tall grass, glossing over the previous occupants. The white sheets, crumpled and depressed, betraying the intended look of cleanliness.
‘Winnie. Winnie, wake up,’ the nurse said from behind the white-washed tunic as he guided a wheelchair through the door with a serviced tone, like his vocal chords had been dipped in honey and enrolled on a people-skills course before being installed. And yet quite impersonal, I thought.
‘We are just going to take you down to theatre, my love,’ he said, half looking at her, and half herding her like a commodity he was used to dealing with. ‘Let’s get you up,’ he continued, practically unfolding her from the mattress.
‘Ohhh,’ my grandmother groaned: frail as a leaf at the sight of autumn. ‘John, they’re hurting me, love, and I want to go home. Let’s just go home. Please.’ She was confused: my granddad had been dead more than a decade. And she was in pain judging by the random movements her 85-year-old hands made across her body. She paled in comparison to the strong woman I remembered beneath the ill-fitting gown that adorned her bony frame; her hair as ruffled as her thoughts. This, the woman who would once without hesitation assume her Bette Davis persona and rage against the slightest inconvenience.
I wanted to say something and offer reassurance as she was packaged into the wheelchair. I wanted to reach across the empty room and hold her porcelain hands, stained with the veins of age. I said nothing as they pushed her out, but watched intently. Sadness wound round me like a serpent.
Unsure of what to do while she was taken to theatre and feeling a little like an obstruction on a busy road, I asked how long she was likely to be. I believed that emotions allowed to wander too freely would weigh upon me like a wet coat, heavy and uncomfortable. So instead, I decided to make use of the sprawling layout of the hospital and remain occupied for the period she was away.
Shielding my eyes from the piercing lights embedded in the ceiling above me, I walked along the well-polished corridor, my feet pushing and pulling against the residue of disinfectant. Every few feet I would pass an open door and turning my head pendulum-like I would peer in, assessing the different scenes that were unfolding in the rooms.
In one of the rooms I saw an elderly man dressed in a smart blazer and tie but completely naked below the waist; with only a flimsy blanket half covering his torso, trying to protect his dignity. I related to that blanket and felt just as useless as it. I think he was waiting to be attended to. No one else was in the room with him and the fleeting impression I got was that even if they had been, loneliness would still have gripped him: he was somewhere far away, enjoying a long-past memory, perhaps. Escaping.
At the far end of the corridor beyond all of the rooms with the human commodities lay in various stages of distress and undress, there was a vending machine. I interacted with it autonomously and then walked along a further corridor, sipping my hot chocolate. It struck me that that was the first real feeling of warmth that I’d experienced since I’d arrived, and the sadness wound tighter.
‘I can’t wait,’ said a man clutching a balloon, a card and wearing a smile twice as big as his face as he came from nowhere and into my path. His cheerful cheeks lifted his eyes so the lights particularly complimented his happiness, framing the shine.
‘Oh?’ I asked with a hint of it being a question: half curiosity and half obligation.
‘I’m waiting for my granddaughter,’ he said, face beaming. ‘It’s my daughter’s first baby and my first grandchild.’ I’d wandered as far as the Maternity Unit, and I felt a little displaced. In competition with the steely atmosphere I’d witnessed so far, his mood was pervasive; he was genuinely happy in spite of the surroundings, and in spite of me.
‘Oh, that’s great,’ I said, offering my congratulations and forcing a smile as if string were attached to the corners of my mouth. My eyes, though, didn’t betray that they were elsewhere and fixed on other thoughts; out of synch with his happiness. He wasn’t put off.
‘I can’t believe how fast it all goes, you know. The years.’ He paused for a moment. ‘It only seems like yesterday she was putting on her little shoes ready for her first day in school. And now she’s got all that to come herself.’ He rubbed a determined tear away from the side of his face, still smiling. ‘And I get to see it again, God willing.’
As the door to the Unit opened, he disappeared into a crowd of familiarity; sharing his joy and expectation with those inside. I stood in the corridor for a minute or so, remembering his warmth and envying him it.
After wandering as much as I felt it was acceptable to, I made my way back to the room. Finding it empty, I sat in the chair beside the bed and looked out of the window at the sun, hanging low and determined in the sky above the neighbouring houses. It was encircled by clouds all pulling at its light and as the minutes wore on, they were succeeding. I related to it as the room grew darker and felt that my grandmother would have, too.
The room felt emptier than it actually was. As I’d walked round the hospital, I had heard noises from people in different states, and I had witnessed sights and smelled things which all felt quite clinical. As I looked at the bed though, a scene of disruption amid the sheets, I realised I couldn’t smell her. Recalling the memories of her perfume as she’d held me close as a child, feeling the comforting scratch of her wool jumper against my face and feeling her hands, I mouthed the words I love you. Holding onto that, other memories piled in and I could see her smile and hear her laugh echoing as I fell asleep.
Hours passed before the cold creak of the door opening woke me suddenly and gripped my attention. A doctor stood framed by a square of light from the corridor, his face long, wearing a textbook look of concern and courtesy.
‘I’m very sorry, -’ he managed to say. But I already knew. And it was then that I realised that I should have said more actually, because there is a lot to be said for saying something.
By Philip Naylor
The paperback version is now available for $10 US.
Purchase it here.
Or, you can buy the e-book for only $4.19 US here.