This is a room of white. The early morning light is filtering in through two long drop white net curtains. A warm current of air is nudging through the opened sash. There are two beds in the room, both with white counterpanes, and the clinical curtain divider between them is white.
The bed on the left of this divider is occupied by an ancient man, a thoroughly dessicated figure propped up on a banana-shaped pillow, taking cursory tugs at a plastic beaker of tea. He drops the spout from his lips to give us a little smile as we walk in.
Our patient is in the bed by the window. He is also propped up on pillows, but his head is being supported by Ken, the ECP who was also assigned to this job and got here first.
‘Could you come and take Geoffrey’s head for me, please?’ he says. ‘He’s rather slumped over and we need to get him into a better position.’ I walk over to help. Geoffrey’s breath is coming quickly, in fluttering gasps. In the last throws of emaciation, the skin of Geoffrey’s chest pulses against the outline of his ribs.
‘Geoffrey has been refusing food for the last couple of weeks,’ says the home matron, who has come to stand at the foot of the bed, and is thumbing through his case notes.
‘Is there a DNAR for Geoffrey?’
‘Not as such. But he has said a number of times recently that he wanted to die and didn’t want any help’
I wipe away the meagre strands of hair sticking to Geoffrey’s forehead. His eyes have receded deep within his sockets. They are half opened, but red and dry and without recognition.
‘What about the relatives? What do they have to say?’
‘Oh, they’re absolutely in agreement’
‘And the GP?’
‘Hasn’t been in a day or so’
‘Well – I’ll make a call to the GP, if you wouldn’t mind getting in touch with the relatives and letting them know the situation. As you’re probably aware, Geoffrey is going to die very soon. I don’t think he would want us to resuscitate him, and I don’t think it would be appropriate. But we’d better start getting things in order. And we need the doctor here to make Geoffrey as comfortable as possible in his last moments’
Ken goes outside to call the GP whilst Ellie and I make Geoffrey comfortable.
Apart from the rise and fall of his chest, the only movement Geoffrey makes is a delicate rolling of the oxygen tubing between the shrivelled pads of his right thumb and index finger, the kind of exploratory movement you might make if you were blindfolded and asked to identify something. But the movement seems removed from him, an automatism rooted in some profound dream of absence.
I feel for his radial pulse, but his heart beat is only detectable now as a faint brachial twitch in his upper arm – the tail end of a rhythm set running when he was just a tiny embryo no bigger than his fingernail, easing away now ninety years later, here in this whitened room, in blue-striped cotton pyjammas, a clutch of photos propped up on pots of emollient creams and packets of wipes, the white net curtains ballooning inwards on the breeze, and a wood pigeon high up somewhere near, who-hoo-hooing, announcing itself to the world.