I came to visit you in the cancer ward. How I thought my short visit would make up for thirty years of irregular, half-hearted contact, I don’t know. I suppose it was all about guilt. So many things are.
You were sitting in a high-backed chair by the bed, fragile hands folded in your lap like still butterflies. As soon as I saw you, I knew your eyes were wrong. They were bulging out and not quite straight on, as though something were behind them, pushing and competing for room. You had a swelling in front of your left ear, like a hamster’s pouch. You leaned to one side when I sat in front of you on the visitor chair and you explained that otherwise you could see two of me because of your blurred vision. I cracked some weak joke about how I had always been twice your size anyway and you laughed, but only, I thought, to please me, not because it was funny. I felt crass. You’d always been small, but now you were so tiny you could have sat on my lap like a china doll. Suddenly, I wanted to do just that: lift you up and sit you on my legs so we could be close, for the first time ever.
I'd bought you a newspaper – I wasn’t sure if it was the one you usually read - but that was my fault for never finding out. Now, I knew there was a possibility that the last newspaper you ever read was one with which you were unfamiliar. You’d have struggled to find the crossword, the TV listings, the editorials. I’d have made it harder for you, not easier: not exactly a parting gift, then.
I’d also brought a bag of Maltesers. You took the packet from me and thanked me and then you played with it for a few minutes, turning it over and over in your hands. I didn’t know whether to offer help with opening the bag. Your fingers were bent into stiff shapes, like the legs of large spiders when they’re dead in corners. Eventually, you put the Maltesers on your bed. The bright packet looked trivial and incongruous on the beige, illness-coloured blanket.
We talked about your disease and you were being pretty frank about everything, so I didn’t think that my saying the word ‘tumour’ would upset you, but you flinched. I guess it was one of those things where, if someone says, ‘Oh, I wish I didn’t look fat in this dress’ it’s okay, but if you agree with them, it’s a taboo thing, a line crossed.
I tried to apologise, but you brushed me off and went on to tell me that you wished you’d had more time to explore all the things in your loft: the school reports, the photograph albums, the order of service from your wedding. ‘It’s all memories,’ you said, your voice quiet. Were you thinking then what I was thinking: that memories were all very well when you had the luxury of time to remember them?
A nurse came to attach a steroid drip to the cannula inserted in your hand. She checked your name and details and you ran through your date of birth and hospital number, trotting them out like times tables learned by rote. The nurse said the cannula needed re-inserting, but after struggling to find a vein, she had to fetch a doctor. You laughed through all of this inconvenience and, I was sure, discomfort. You said your veins were elusive these days, plotting against you, and I noticed the blue lines on your hands, as thin as string. When the doctor got the cannula in first time, it was a small victory, time for a celebration, so you sipped at a cold cup of tea that was on your locker. I almost suggested opening the Maltesers; I wish I had.
There were cannulas in both hands now and you held them out for inspection, as though showing me rings or bracelets. ‘A matching pair,’ you quipped, but the blue and white plastic looked hard against the fragility of your skin, like litter on a perfect lawn. Beside you, I felt not only big, but strong and solid. But this was only a physical thing; the mental strength you were exhibiting made me humble and ashamed.
When it was time for me to go, I knew it would be the last time I saw you. You seemed to know this too, and you were upset about it, which was gracious of you in the light of my neglect. You struggled up from the chair and grasped a walking frame, insisting on wheeling along the corridors with me towards the exit. Every corner we turned, you said you could go a little further, even though we met some nurses who were surprised to see you so far from the ward. They looked at me suspiciously and I felt like an abductor.
At the exit, we stopped and I bent to hug you. I felt like a giant, stooping down to your hunched body and wrapping my heavy arms around your shoulders. You were sure you could make your own way back to the ward and because I didn’t want to offend you, I had to agree. I watched you as you shuffled back, your legs as stiff as wood. Before you turned the corner, you stopped, steadied yourself and waved, and I did wave back, but had no idea whether you could see one of me, two of me, or none of me. Shouting ‘bye’ down a quiet hospital corridor seemed inappropriate, so I didn’t. Then you disappeared.
|Though the writing itself was serious and thoughtful,|
the choice of picture showed that that Fran's
priorities were still well and truly hedonistic in nature