Last days

She was sure she had spent most of Tuesday dying, so she was surprised to find herself still there by evening. It wasn’t that she wanted to go. More a case of too many false starts and too many final moments proving not final. Harriet had begun to feel an inconvenience, the party guest who won’t go home. And was she going to tell Daniel while she still could?

People kept arriving at the house, some perching awkwardly on the little cane chair, a few kneeling like penitents beside her bed. Most seemed to want “closure”. Monica had been yesterday and had spent the first five minutes – it seemed an eternity – madly fussing with everything on the bedside table, the sound like a rat scrabbling. When she’d finally been forced to look at Harriet, the tears had come, along with a hiccupping shudder. Harriet found herself having to do the comforting, squeezing Monica’s hand with the little energy she had left. The day before, it had been Jackie Thomas, absent for a decade. They had never really liked each other. Jackie looked put out to find Harriet still breathing, as if now she’d have to make an effort she hadn’t planned on. Harriet pretended to be asleep but saw Jackie check her phone midway through a sentimental outpouring.

It seemed as if everyone felt Harriet ought to be able to cope with her departure better than they could be expected to. She remembered feeling that way herself. “It’s X I’m really worried about” or “Death is so much harder for those left behind”, she’d say. Now she’d be inclined to add: “unless you are the one dying”. It wasn’t just the pain or the abyss that bothered her. It was the loneliness of the journey. When her visitors asked if there was anything she’d like, anything they could do, she wanted to shout, “Yes, come with me, you bastards.” Instead, she’d ask for a little stewed apple or a bottle of cologne. She had become fearful of smelling rotten.

A flicker caught her eye and, heavy lidded, she gazed at the twilight shadows dancing on the bedroom wall like a portal to a more ethereal world. Time had become morphine-paced. Perhaps it would be best not to tell Daniel, she thought sleepily. But what if he came across some tiny piece of incriminating evidence and she wouldn’t be there to explain it?

Daniel must have been in while she dozed. The bedside lamp was on. He had been so loving these last months. Her mind floated, landed. Was honesty really the best policy?

She could hear the clock ticking. She wondered if her cells were still carrying on with their frenzied mad divide, or whether they’d switched to destroying themselves. Or was that the same thing? It was the sort of question she didn’t like to ask the doctor because she didn’t really want to know. Just as she had never asked “How long?”, because she knew Daniel didn’t want her to ask. Maybe he wouldn’t want to know about this other business either. It hadn’t meant anything, in the end. Lust, with a little love thrown in, passing, in the way of these foolish things. Feeling seen again.

The oncologist, with his clean hands and his polished shoes and a photo of his shiny, smiling family in ski gear on his desk, had told her she was being morbid when early on she’d asked how “it” would go. “Best not. It’s very easy for patients to form the wrong picture,” he said. “A negative picture.” A negative picture was unhelpful, he and everyone else had kept telling her. A positive picture hadn’t been helpful either. Here she was.

That was two years ago, almost to the day. Phrases came to her. The kiss of death. Deathly cold. Death be not proud. Live as if there’s no tomorrow (but how was one supposed to have lived? Too late now.). Because I could not stop for death.

Back in her age of blind wellness, she had taken everything written about death – poems, stories, philosophy – as some sort of truth from on high. After the diagnosis, it dawned on her, in a clammy realisation that made her want to scream for help, that it was all guesswork. Not a crumb of first-hand experience. Comforting stories to counter the terrifying nothingness. And, worse, would it even be nothingness?

Millions of people, some of them clever, believed in hell. That was worrying. But then millions of people, Harriet had told herself, believed in reincarnation. They couldn’t both be right, could they? And the administration! Anyway, who was to say atheists were wrong just because they weren’t “spiritual”?

The clock said 7.30pm. Her bones ached. Her skin hurt. Her heart continued to beat. She thought she saw her dead brother standing at the end of her bed.

Most of the visitors didn’t stay long. They’d get up with a sigh, lifting themselves off the little chair with vigour, saying they’d best be off, didn’t want to tire her. She pictured them passing through the rooms of the little house she and Daniel had worked on so hard (imagine worrying about paint colours!). The house she was now trapped in. It was like a ship about to sail, with everyone else gaily on deck – striped umbrellas, straw hats – and her stowed dumbly below.

Off they went, her friends, hurrying into a world of sky and sunlight and rustling leaves. How eager they would be to take a clean breath. She was too tired to be envious. The busy world of the living had become an unreal club to which her membership was about to lapse.

She must have dozed again. Now here was Daniel back, tucking her in and rearranging the bedclothes in a busy, proprietorial way. Her dearest. Her love. He had a way of disappearing when others visited and then reappearing, like salvation. Florence Nightingale in jeans and a T-shirt. He cradled her hand, his rough workman’s palms bringing her back.

She had heard him late last night in the other room, crying quietly. She pictured him stuffing a hand into his mouth to stifle the sobs. Tears had run down her sunken cheeks. It seemed cruel, wrong, to be doing this final thing without Daniel, when they had done everything together for so many years. Almost everything.

No, she would not tell him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Last days".

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