Harry is lying propped up on the bed with a ventilator stuck to his face. His skin is almost the same colour as the sheets. He is sleeping or unconscious, but I can see his eyes flicker under the lids. Cecilia, his nurse, is at the end of the bed, filling in his charts. There are a lot of charts. If I look at her, she will talk to me, so I don’t look. I look at the page on the wall.
Who I am
Name: Harry Dignan Age: 55. Occupation; Human Resource Manager
Likes: Music (classical and jazz), Hillwalking, Cinema.
Dislikes: Pop music, football talk.
People: wife Valerie, daughter Dawn, brother Vincent
I stopped writing at two dislikes, but I could have gone on. Audi drivers, Tories, our neighbours on either side, stewed tea, me talking during his favourite programmes, everything our daughter wears, people on the news who add ‘going forward’ to the end of their sentences. The likes section was harder and it’s ended up as bland as a personal ad in Saga magazine. I don’t know the last time he went hillwalking, it wasn’t this year or last. But he did used to love it, and maybe it kept him healthy. He’d leave home in the dark to get to some far Monro, knocking things over in bedroom getting dressed.
Who I am. Right now I’m not sure he knows who he is.
It should really be headed Who My Family Think I Am. The charge nurse who asked me to fill it in said, ‘We want everyone working with your husband to see beyond his illness to the person’.
You can hardly argue with that. I can’t argue with anything, I can hardly hold the thread of what they’re saying, even though I should know. All I can do is sit here. Talk to him, they say, he may be able to hear you. Everything I can think of to say feels useless before it even gets out of my mouth. I can’t even cry. Dawn doesn’t want to visit. I know it’s because she’s scared, not heartless.
Ever since they pinned up Who I Am, I think of Harry waking up, seeing it and taking issue with everything I wrote. I think of Harry waking up, but I don’t believe he will.
It’s like there’s a path that goes one way, towards funeral arrangements and a big blank afterwards, and there’s the path that goes to having him home, but not as he was before. I don’t want to go down either way, that’s the truth.
I was nurse myself. Gave it up when we had the baby. I don't know if I've the strength to be one again, even for Harry. I haven’t told anybody here that, though one or two of them have looked at me closely when I’ve used certain words. Nurses have a way of recognising each other – the steady eye, I think that’s what it is, or the slanted humour. I don’t want them to know I’m a nurse because I don’t want them to tell me too much.
When I can’t sit anymore, I go to the visitors’ room and make a cup of tea, look out the window at the car park. The consultant and Cecilia are suddenly standing there beside me, asking if they can have a word. It’s cold in the room. The consultant has yellow curly hair. She’s young, but as she’s talking to me, I’m looking at the crease between her eyes, thinking how deep it is.
She’s asking if I understand.
‘No,’ I say, and she starts over again.
‘We’re decreasing his sedation.’ she says, ‘Gradually.’
‘You’re letting him go?’
‘No!’ says Cecilia. ‘He’s coming off the ventilator. It’s good news.’
Good news. I feel like I’m going up in a fast lift. Cecilia has her arm around me. Steady. Sitting down now. The consultant gone. I realise that my hand is gripping the bare skin of Cecilia’s arm. Her skin is soft like a child’s. I almost tell her that. I want to babble about her skin, about baby oil versus moisturisers, but I can’t because nothing in me is joined up.
She lets go of me, and I press myself into the padded back of the sofa. My mouth opens and salt tears dribble into it. Cecilia turns away, then back. In her hands is a big white burst of tissues, lovely as a flower.