“It’s not life and death!”
How often do we say that, euphemistically, to reduce whatever it is we are agonising over to its relevant size?
But sometimes it is. Life and death.
I knew my friend and neighbour was going to die and that it would be soon, but I did not think it would be that hour, when her husband had popped out for milk, and I had popped in to sit with her for a while.
It was a sunny but cold day, and my six year old daughter had made a card for the neighbour we loved, the neighbour who remembered her birthday, and took her on the merry-go-round every spring. I propped it up beside the bed and told my neighbour about it, that my little girl sent her love. That we all sent our love.
What do you say to someone who is dying? She was asleep, so I sat beside the bed, and after my first few words, told her I would just sit with her for a while.
It was peaceful in the hospice. Outside the winter sun was trying to break through the clouds, and to creep into the room, which was large, tidy and somehow calm. I looked around, taking in the neutral walls, the picture of a poppy field on the far wall, and the neat bed, my beloved friend tiny at one end of it.
I hoped she could sense my presence. I hoped she knew I was there, or that someone was there. She had had a busy few days, hospital to hospice, all the family coming down from other ends of the country, thinking this was the end, and then her rallying and even sitting up to eat something. The family had gone back to their homes and work, and my friend had been transferred here. What was imminent a few days ago was now still imminent, but less certain.
I noticed my breathing was slowing as I fell into rhythm with the room, and the peace that surrounded it. And then I noticed that my dear friend had not taken a breath and I found myself holding mine in suspense. When her breath came it was sharp, gasping and somehow unnatural. It was followed by another silence. I was counting the seconds when the door opened.
“Everything alright?” asked a nurse.
“Yes, I am her neighbour,” I explained. “Her husband has just popped out, or so your colleague said.” I felt an imposter. As though I should not really be here.
“That’s lovely,” the nurse replied. “It’s nice for her to have some company.”
As she was about to reverse out of the doorway, I plucked up the courage to add, “ Her breathing is a little odd. She is skipping breaths. Is that…..is it….I mean she wasn’t doing it when I first got here.”
She came into the room, and looked at my friend, took her pulse, then said, “I think this might be it.”
As she retreated to the edge of the room, I moved out of my chair and round the bed, and sat beside my friend on the bed. As my next door neighbour she had been my first port of call when I had had some upsetting news about my daughter, when I had needed an older woman’s wisdom and perspective. She had made me tea, listened to me and reassured me that all would be well and it was.
Now I took hold of her hand, noticing there had not been a breath for about twenty seconds. And as I did so, her eyelids flickered, and I started speaking. I told her how much she was loved, how wonderful her children and grandchildren were, how her legacy would live on in them, and we would always love her. I don’t know where these words came from, or why. I had never been in this situation before, and although the nurse was still in the room, I had forgotten about her.
The final breath came soon after that and then no more.
As the tears ran down my face, and I held the hand of my dear friend, the nurse came forward and touched my shoulder. “I think she has gone,” she said, and I nodded.
I had called in on my way to the supermarket, had not expected to find her so near to death, and had never imagined I would be with her when her time came. I still to this day do not know what prompted me to say what I said, except some instinct that she would not want to be alone. I have no idea of whether I did right or wrong, but having acted in the moment, from the heart, I hope it caused no more grief. It is many years ago since this sad day, but I still feel that I was given the utmost privilege of being there at the end with a dear friend.