Saturday, October 22, 2011

what he'll say

Ellen is waiting for us in the bedroom, so ravaged by cancer, her body so cadaverous, you would think a thousand year old woman had risen from the tomb, put on a fluffy white towelling bathrobe, and sat herself down at the dressing table to reapply her make-up. The skin of her face is tight across her skull, jaundiced and papery, her dry lips drawn back from teeth which seem too big for her head. She sits serenely, blessed by Zomorph, smiling on her family - her husband in a wheelchair, her daughter sitting on the bed, her son-in-law in the hallway, letting us in. We step inside and introduce ourselves.
She’s ready to go, her medications, clothes and things in two bright green plastic bags and a small, black wheeled suitcase with a handle. The daughter wants to travel with her in the ambulance, but Ellen says no, she’d rather they all followed in the car. They watch as we carry her out and make her comfortable on the trolley, then turn back inside to get ready to follow.


‘I’m sorry the ambulance rocks about so much, Ellen.’
‘Oh don’t worry about that, darling. They don’t make them comfortable because they don’t want people to like riding in them. But I don’t mind. I don’t mind a bit. So long as I’ve got someone to talk to and a hand to hold, I’m all right.’
‘I liked that photo in your bedroom, the one with the dog.’
‘Barney? Oh I miss Barney. He was a lovely dog. Lovely.’
‘What was he? An English Bull terrier?’
‘No! He was just a scrap of a thing – a Jack Russell! He just pushed his nose up against the camera and ended up looking bigger than he was. But he always was like that. Getting into mischief. He was a lovely dog. He’d curl up in his basket and wait until the lights were out, then he’d sneak on the bed and cuddle up. And Bill’d say “Can’t we do something about that dog, Ellie?” And I’d say “Well what do you suggest?”. He was a lovely dog. If I’m talking too much, just say.’
‘No. It’s nice to chat.’
‘I think so. I like to chat.’
The morphine takes her away to another place for a while and we travel in silence. But then she moves her head and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.
‘Do you have children?’
‘Yep. Two girls. Six and ten.’
‘Two girls! How lovely.’
‘I’m outnumbered. The only other male is Buzz, our oldest dog, and even he’s been done.’
‘Even he’s been done! Lovely. Still. I expect you’re all right.’
‘Yeah. I’m all right.’
‘I lost my first child.’
‘Did you? I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘She was lovely, lovely. I had her, and then she was gone. You never get over something like that, you know. But I had her for a little while, and that was something.’
She rests her head back on the pillow as the ambulance tips and sways.
‘Can I get you some water, Ellen?’
‘No dear. No - I was just thinking. About a cousin I had once. A long time ago now. He was lovely. Lovely. All the girls loved him. And you know – after he loved them back ...’ She walks her fingers slowly across the blanket. Her fingers are so thin, it seems to perfectly animate the stroll of a man into the distance. ‘And then of course he was off for good. Australia. And we never saw hide nor hair of him again.’
She flattens her hand on the cover, smoothes out a crease there, pats the spot, and then holds her hand out to me. When I take it, she looks at me, and her eyes are dilute and indistinct.
‘Of course Bill will be there at the hospital’ she says. ‘And I know exactly what he’ll say when you open the doors.’
‘What’ll he say?’
She leans forward an inch, squeezes my hand and gives it a little shake.
‘He’ll say “How on earth did you put up with her? I’d have thrown her out at the traffic lights.”’


Anonymous said...

omg what a lovely lady, her hubby will so miss her despite his comment.
They don't make them like that any more .
Bless them both and you too for this.

Mark Spencer said...

Spence, this was one of your best stories. You managed to encapsulate her life in a few paragraphs.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Lollipop.
It was a privilege to do something to help such a lovely family. Dreadful to see the ravages of her illness, but inspiring at the same time, to see how positive and life affirming the human spirit can be in adversity.

Thanks v much Mark. I've said it before in the past - about how frustrating it must be to read these posts. Just snapshots, often without any resolution. But in a way that's a fair reflection of the job. You work your shift, time passes, you forget the little details. So the blog's really just a scrapbook of impressions. It feels good to have a record, though. Esp. people like Ellen.

Thanks for the comments! :)

Karen Martin Sampson said...

Once again a lovely vignette of someone's situation in a difficult moment, and so beautifully expressed. What a dear woman! I could make a friend of her in a minute.
I really think this blog needs to be made into a book...wonderful.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks KMS!
I will try to make the blog into a book - with some extra material to tie it all together. I'm just in the middle of writing something else, but it's the next project to do!
Thanks for the encouragement - very much appreciated.

jacksofbuxton said...

Once again Spence we find someone of Ellen's generation showing a simple stoicism and bravery in the face of such a finite end.

Another beautifully written piece.I'd buy the book Spence.

Autographed as well I'd hope....

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks JoB.

As far as the book goes, it won't be for a little while, but maybe early next year. Signed copy? Of course - and I'll stand you a pint at the bar...

Liz said...

what a lovely story....thanks I needed that...I too am going through cancer and its good to see happy people dispite this terrible disease.....and she seemed like she really was happy!

~BB~ said...

I read all your posts, but rarely do I comment. I loved this one. It made me tear up while laughing at the same time. You have such a way with only seems to take you a few to sum up something so beautiful and profound. I love it.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey JW!
I don't know, but it seemed to me that with Ellen it was a combination of the high levels of pain relief, and also reaching an advanced, threshold kind of stage in her illness. There was a shining quality to her, it seems to me in retrospect. She just seemed ready to go - tough as that feels to write. Of course, I hesitate to talk in these terms, as someone who hasn't experienced anything as remotely tough myself. I've lost three friends - and my Dad - to cancer, and the circumstances for each were dramatically different, as you might expect.
I hope you're feeling okay today, JW - and lots of love and luck, as always x

Thanks v much for that.
It's a strange job, working on the ambulance. You go from job to job, each one an individual riff on the same subject, really - how people live / what they do & the connections they make to get by. Luckily, most of the jobs are more straightforward and don't have such an emotional pull. But you can go from incredible extremes - I remember going to a person who'd thrown themself under a train, to a person who was complaining of a pain in their big toe. Quite disorienting, really!
Thanks for reading :)

PaperTigger1 said...

What a lovely couple and how lucky you are to have spent a bit of time with them! I am happy that Ellen had the pain relief she needed, yet it clearly didn't cloud her mind; it only took her to another place when she needed to go there.

I like your description of a "shining quality"; I know just what you mean. Sometimes illness strips away bits of life in such a way that you can accept it and focus on what remains. Ellen sounds like that type of situation. I wish her a peaceful passing.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey PT1
I'm a big fan of proper pain relief! It was certainly helping Ellen an enormous amount.

She seemed to be in a good place. I hope she was able to continue like that to the end - she certainly had plenty of love and support to help her.