A doctor tells me one morning that my prognosis is not good. “About eighty twenty chance of pulling through,” he muses, while flicking through papers with a finger-tip moistened with saliva. His verdict seems very positive to me; much better than expected. Today, the balance of survival seems stacked in my favour. Relieved at this announcement, I allow myself to smile. The last time I felt this upbeat about an eighty twenty ratio was in a carpet shop. The doctor frowns at my grin and then realises his mistake. “Sorry,” he says, “I meant that the other way around. Have you spoken to your family?”
The same doctor speaks different words to patients on the ward that day. I am still the lucky one. The outlook for some is much worse than mine; they are definitely terminal. Maybe six weeks, no more than six months. His priority now is to get each of us home. That’s where we’ll be most comfortable, because there’s a waiting list at the hospice. At the moment, they are only taking very poorly patients, but there’s always a chance some beds might be released, sooner rather than later. A man with a six-week sentence asks just how ill you have to be nowadays to get a bed to die in. The doctor assures him that services will be provided to help with care at home, though it wouldn’t harm to keep reminding Primrose House that he’s waiting. “And what if I can’t wait?” snaps the man, but there is nothing left to say; apparently. Instead, the doctor picks up another dossier off his mobile filing cabinet and busies himself assessing the odds of a patient lying on his back in black pyjamas.
The chances for recovery turn out to be as gloomy as the patient’s choice of nightwear. Sitting by the bedside, his wife screws her eyes up tight, as if against the sun, though it is watching tears run down his face that pains her. “This isn’t like him at all doctor,” she proclaims and warns that his tears will set hers off; and that won’t do. “Come on,” she gasps, “men don’t cry. Let’s get you comfy.” Pillows are re-arranged and the newspaper opened for news on horses that ran and those that didn’t. She thinks a drink of tropical juice may help; but it doesn’t. Decanting coins from her purse, a cup of tea is deemed to be a better option. “But we’ll have some proper sugar in it today,” she tells him. They may as well break the habit of a lifetime, though he mustn’t get used to it because neither of them want to end up looking like the back end of a bus. And besides, that canteen is daylight robbery.
It is not long before his tears are scrutinised by a nurse. She offers to find medication to bring calm, though forgets, and it never arrives. When visiting is over and night comes, the same nurse asks him to hush a little; crying will keep everyone awake. What everyone needs is a good sleep; the morning will bring a much better view of things. “It will for some folk,” announces a man trying to pee into a bottle and read a text on his phone at the same time. “Can you believe this? My mother-in-law won this mini break to Portugal. So she cancels her hip replacement for Monday and says she’s not turning down the chance of some good sun.” Holding up his phone, he shows everyone a picture of an elderly woman waving her passport whilst boarding a plane. “Surgeon reckons it’ll be December now before he can do it. So I said to the wife, no point in that. She’ll call it off again to go Christmas shopping.”
Suddenly, there are chuckles to be heard and grins of delight. This ambidextrous wit laughs so hard at his own tale that he weeps with glee. And it’s contagious, because soon we are all on our beds wiping our eyes, though the nurse is much less worried now. She thinks all these tears are made from laughter, because given half the chance, men can be very, very silly sometimes.
But the man with only six weeks left to live does not smile. Instead, he curls up on the bed until his knees are almost under his chin. Trying to hug his own body, he winces as a cannula pulls a vein in his arm. These arms have once loved Linda and maybe still do. It is written on his skin in curly script. He turns to face me and says this can’t be happening. It really, really can’t be happening. Is there absolutely nothing anyone can do? I point at his tattoo and suggest that what he needs right now is Linda. “No chance,” he mutters, “long gone,” and I wonder if he means life, love or both.