The last breath
‘I think you should come to the hospital and say goodbye. It might be your last chance.’
Charlotte looked at the red numbers on the clock by her bed. 2 AM. It was the third time this week that she’d had the call. Each time she’d gone to the hospital and kissed him goodbye. Each time she’d said her last words in the hope he might still be able to hear them. Each time she held his lifeless hand and waited by his side.
Every long moment was separated by single laboured breaths. She asked the nurses if there was anything they could do, wanting to beg but only asking of them what they could give. She pleaded for him to be transferred to the hospice, but the regretful response was always the same. There were no beds available. Too many people were dying. The nurses were kind but the living deserved more of their time. When his vitals changed they were obligated to step in, to lengthen the little time he had left, regardless of how frail his body was. The futility of keeping him alive was almost cruel.
She returned to his side, leaning on the crunchy green mattress to be closer to him. The hospice would have a private room without frightened prying eyes from the patients around n the other beds. The frail bearded man in the bed opposite had witnessed the change from the jovial man who entered the ward to the empty shell he had since become. He could no longer talk or move. He had been in pain, and if he still was he couldn’t say so.
She observed carefully from the blue plastic chair by his bedside, noting any flickers in his eyes or changes in his breathing that could signal fleeting consciousness, discomfort, or signs of finally passing over.
He’d lost consciousness five days ago, but his body kept going. The papery blue curtain did nothing to mute the sound of his hard, laboured breaths. The other three patients on the ward had hardly spoken since the change. Maybe they wanted him to hurry up, to stop reminding them of what lay ahead. The end will be a relief. Witnessing every stage of a slow death leaves you both hollow and humble. Everything else ceases to be important when compared to life itself.
She stayed for hours, some nights sleeping on the floor by the bed. The nurses overlooked the visiting times. She kept his mouth moist with a white sponge lollipop dipped in water and guiltily hoped his pain would stop soon.
The breaths became louder, further apart. They filled the whole room, holding it still. Each breath held the suffering of 1000 fallen soldiers.
‘Isn’t there anything you can do?’ She asked the nurses
’We’re doing everything we can. We just have to be patient.’
Never before had she been so tempted to take a life. This life was already gone. Nothing would be taken except suffering. But still, they waited.
Nurses came and went. Doctors came and went. The rasps continued. His mouth had become limp, his pupils white and his once chubby face now sallow and ragged.
The inhumanity of inaction bore down onto her, pressing on to her chest. She swallowed the injustice that shook her to the core bit her lips together in case they opened into a scream that wouldn’t stop. She cradled his puddled white fingers, channelling serenity.
‘How much longer?’ she asked them.
’It could be days or weeks,’ they said
’Weeks?’ The possibility was barbaric.
‘There’s a space at the hospice now, but he’s too to poorly to be moved.’
‘Do it anyway. Let him have peace,’ she pleaded.
‘We can’t. He’d die on the way there.’
‘Good! Anything is better than this!’ As soon as the words left her lips, she covered them with shameful fingers and looked away. You wouldn’t let animals suffer like this, she thought.
‘I know it’s hard, but he has to go in his own time. It wouldn’t be right to die in the back of an ambulance.’ She felt like all his choices had been taken away.
‘But he can’t speak. He could be in pain.’
‘He’s on maximum dose of morphine and if it looks like he needs more we can top him up as much as he needs.’
A hand gently touched her arm.
‘He shouldn’t have to die like this,’ she whispered to herself as the nurse’s gentle footsteps eased away.
That night she stayed again, hunched over in the chair by his bed. A change in the tempo of his rasps woke her. A rattle popped from inside his throat. The room felt different, something heavy lingered in the air. She counted the growing seconds between each breath until another breath simply didn’t follow the last. Life had been replaced by emptiness. She kissed him on the forehead and vowed to never let this happen again.