Please enjoy the following excerpt from The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough, available December 5th from Jo Fletcher Books.
Tonight is a special, terrible night.
A woman sits at her father’s bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life.
Her brothers and sisters—all broken, their bonds fragile—have been there for the past week, but now she is alone.
And that’s always when it comes.
The clock ticks, the darkness beckons.
If it comes at all.
There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses’ skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They’ve taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowly creating an unwilling meaning.
New phrases to clog up my mind. I wonder if I’ll lose them after. Whether they’ll fade and be lost in that place on the tip of my tongue. I don’t think so. There are too many association games to play with them.
I’m sitting by the window and from here I can see the small television table at the end of your bed with the video monitor on it. Downstairs, your sleeping image is showing to an empty room—only me here now and I’m here with you. Not that the camera’s needed anymore. The terminal agitations have stopped. Only terminal trembling remains. And although I know that this means you are closer to the end, I’m glad that part is over. I can spit that phrase out.
Spit, spit, spit. I have become too aware of my own saliva in recent weeks. I can feel it always flooding my tongue, too liquid against my lips. I try to ignore it. Swallow it. I know what it is. Just your disease reaching out and touching me, playing with my head, creating the embryo of a new phobia because it can’t quite kill me too.
The clock ticks. I listen to the pauses between your breaths and, although I know that they will get much longer before the everlasting pause takes over, I still find my heart hitching slightly in the gaps. Cheyne–Stoking. Ugly as the name is, it can’t compete with the meaning. The agitations are ending. The Cheyne–Stoking is beginning. And under all of this is Daddy. At least, I think you’re still there. I am exhausted and you are nearly invisible. What a pair we are.
My eyes ache behind their lids as I glance at my watch. Still two hours before the Macmillan nurse arrives for the night shift. For the life of me I can’t remember her name. I don’t suppose it matters and I don’t think I want to remember it. Penny will probably call before the nurse gets here. To see if there’s any change. Any change. From life to unlife. She knows it’s not likely otherwise she’d be here with me, with us, rather than escaping back to her life for the evening. She’s finding this difficult, but even she can’t hide from the fact that life will cling on, regardless of whether it’s wanted.
I look at the cup of water and small sponge next to your spit jar by the bed. I think I should dampen your mouth a little, but you seem peaceful and I don’t want to disturb you. The disturbances are nearly done for you, I think. I look at the spit jar, the recycled pickle jar once filled with onions and vinegar, and then your body’s bitter outpourings and now with blue Listerine mouthwash. Clinically clean. I know that I will never use Listerine again, neither peppermint, nor spearmint, or any other mint.
My anger fights with my grief and threatens to strangle me. I turn away from the sight of you. I can still hear the steady sound of the morphine syringe driver pumping gently under your pillow, keeping you somewhere between this world and me and the nothingness beyond. Or so you would want me to believe; that there is nothing. Your afterlife decision of the past decade. I almost smile, but the tears are too close so I stare out of the window.
It’s black outside in the nothing on the other side of the glass, but I still squint and search the fields below. Scanning. Seeking. Hunting. I haven’t looked out of this window for a long time. Not in this way. Not really looking. I wonder whether he will come tonight. It’s been so long I sometimes wonder if I’ve ever seen him—it—at all. I wonder whether it was just brief bouts of madness. God knows how the wildness of lunacy runs in our blood—no one would be surprised if we all turned out to be fey in some way or another. Maybe the occasional brief bout of madness is all my special gift ever was.
But I still look. Forty next birthday and I’m looking out of the window for something that may be imaginary, that I haven’t seen in fifteen years, if ever I saw it at all.
But it’s one of those nights, isn’t it, Dad? A special, terrible night. A full night. And that’s always when it comes.
If it comes at all.
Penny is the first of the arrivals. She comes the day after you take to your bed. She comes after my shaky phone call late at night finally convinces her that this is really happening; that this really has been happening for six months, no matter how much she tried to smile and laugh and ignore the facts.
When the doorbell goes at just after two p.m.—Penny never could get her shit together before nine or ten—then I know that it’s begun. The beginning of the putting-back-together before we fall apart.
I take a deep breath of the air that has been just mine and yours for months. It’s been two days since you last smoked a cigarette, but I imagine the lingering tobacco scent filling me up and it gives me the confidence to face the outside. How Penny came to be part of the outside, I’m not quite sure. Maybe we’re all on the outside in the end.
The February air is cold as I open the door. She looks wonderful and, even at four years my senior, her skin still glows. She’s glowed since we were teenagers, from the inside out, which makes me wonder why she would pump her lips with collagen and make all that natural shine look false. I wonder who she’s hiding from.
She steps into the hallway, putting her small suitcase down before reaching up to hug me. ‘Hello, darling.’
‘Hello, Pen.’ I have to lean down a little and, as I breathe in her blend of perfume and expensive foundation, my familiar physical awkwardness returns. She makes me feel too big and clumsy and then that is forgotten and I realise that she’s clinging to me too tightly and I squeeze her back until her tears stop. She straightens up and wipes her eyes delicately, but her mascara still smudges slightly. I smile at her from the heart. Sometimes her vanity is endearing.
‘Cup of tea? I’ve got the kettle on.’
‘Please.’ She follows me down the creaking corridor. ‘How’s Dad?’
‘He’s upstairs. I think he’s dozing. Do you want to go up? The district nurse will be here in half an hour to see how he’s doing. He’ll be pleased to see you.’
Her eyes flicker upwards. ‘In a bit. I need to get myself together first.’ She takes off her jacket and hangs it over the back of one of the breakfast bar stools. ‘God, I can’t believe he’s gone downhill so fast.’ Her eyes are still full of water and she shrugs helplessly, pulling the Silk Cut from her Gucci bag. ‘When I came last month he seemed to be doing so well, didn’t he? He was laughing and we were all joking around, weren’t we?’
I wonder why she’s asking me questions. She doesn’t want my answers. I remember that last visit of hers and wonder at our different perspectives. It would have been easy for her to pretend that you were doing well. Just as it was hard for me to see how much effort you were putting into the performance.
I wish I had Penny’s capacity for finding the easiness in things. Penny breezes through life regardless of the storm. For me, life has always been the storm. The storm and watching from the window for the thing that could stop it—even if my watching was only with my mind’s eye locked on the window of my imagination.
I shrug, put two steaming mugs of tea on the table and take a cigarette from the packet for myself. There is something rebellious in the action and we smile at each other as we embrace the vice that is so meticulously stripping you of your life. We are becoming children again, if just for a while. Sisters. Identical. Opposites. Somewhere in-between.
‘I have to warn you. He’s lost a lot of weight.’
‘Yes, he looked so thin last time I came.’ She pulls on the cigarette and I see small lines tugging at her plumped lips. ‘Poor Father.’
‘He must have dropped at least another stone in the past two or three weeks. But you’ll see for yourself. I just don’t want you to be too shocked.’ How can I explain that you haven’t even been able to keep down the food-replacement drinks? That the six-foot-three oak tree of a man we knew is now bent and hollow, too much skin hanging from your brittle bones. How can I explain that those awful, hacking, choking sessions that used to wake me in the night have now become almost constant? The hangover after any attempt to consume anything thicker than tea. Blessed tea. Kill or cure, it keeps us all going.
Penny puts off seeing you by talking. She talks about everything and nothing, laughing occasionally at strange intervals. I answer when required, but mainly just enjoy her talk. People talk a lot when someone is dying. They talk as if the person is already dead. Maybe it’s the first step of the healing process for those inevitably left behind. And maybe you have already started the process by pulling a few steps away from us. The frail used-tobe man in the bed upstairs is not our father. You were so much more than that.
‘Have you spoken to the boys yet?’ Penny is smoking her third cigarette, normally her total for the day, and the packet of chocolate biscuits we opened is now threequarters gone. I can feel the gritty remnants in my mouth. I’m very aware of food these days, but I don’t remember eating more than the first one.
‘No. I thought I’d wait until we know exactly what’s going on.’ She doesn’t mean Paul. She means the twins. The twins are always the boys even though they’re now thirty-five. And if we were all honest with each other then we’d admit to thinking that Simon wouldn’t outlast you by more than five years. Not really a boy anymore.
‘God, how are they going to deal with this, sweetie? How are they going to cope without Dad?’
‘I don’t know, Pen. I really don’t know. Simon will go one of two ways, but Davey?’ I pause, realise how quickly I’ve become unused to the silence and immediately fill it. ‘Still, we’ll see how he is when we call him.’ The twins. Davey the paranoid schizophrenic and Simon the junkie, but just the boys to us. When I hear other people say they have unusual families, I smile. Our family has so much colour that the brightness is damaging.
We talk for a while about all the other relatives that we may have to call: your ex-wife—not our mother, she is long gone in so many ways—the fabulous aunts in London, friends from your time in Australia and Nepal, cousins in Spain and a half-sister in Brighton; all people we claim to love but rarely see. We don’t talk about us, though, because neither of us really knows what to say, so we laugh and smoke and eat more biscuits and pretend the years haven’t divided us. Eventually, she has to talk about you. Everything else has run dry for now.
‘Do you think he’s scared?’ Penny’s voice is small, as if her words will run along the corridor, dance up the stairs and seek out your ears. ‘He must be, mustn’t he? He must have been scared all this time.’
‘Maybe, Penny. Maybe a little bit. Sometimes.’ I smile at her and hope it’s comforting. ‘But he’s a very unusual man, isn’t he, Pen? He says he’s not afraid. And I think I believe him. I think I do.’
I search inside myself and double-check the words against the facts. Yes, I do believe it. Penny won’t though because Penny won’t see beyond her own fear. That’s why Penny, for all her glow, will never see anything through the window but the fields. Still, I try my best to explain.
‘This disease he’s got is nasty. I think maybe worse than most other cancers. He can’t eat. He can barely drink. But Dad has just got on with it. I can’t explain, but if he’d been terrified it would have been so much more awful. It’s made it…’ and looking at my sister and her glow I almost laugh at the irony of my next words, ‘…easier for me.’
We are saved from continuing by the doorbell, and I let Barbara, the district nurse, in and introduce her to Penny. Penny’s voice becomes more clipped, her accent more refined as she slips into her Gucci persona. If I didn’t love her I would tell her that it does her no favours. She is better being just Penny—Lady Penelope, as you used to call her way back when.
Barbara’s voice is beautiful, though, even when she introduces me to words and phrases that I don’t like, that I don’t want to learn. She has a soft voice, like honey on a raw throat, the lilt of a West Country accent echoing inside it. And she is kind. Her kindness radiates from her thick-waisted, no-nonsense body as she squeezes my hand.
‘I’ll just pop up and check he’s comfortable. The morphine driver should be taking care of any pain and the night duty team will refill that when they come later.’ Her ruddy face stretches into a smile and I wonder how a person’s mind must work to make them do a job like hers.
‘I’ve still got all his liquid stuff. What should I do with it?’ I say. ‘Can you take it?’
‘No, love. You’ll have to drop it into a chemist. They can take it from you. I’ll get the home carers to call in later too. See if he wants a wash.’ She rustles up the stairs.
Penny looks at me and I know what she’s thinking. What should we do with the morphine when the boys come?
Eventually Barbara comes down and whispers quietly that you are weaker than yesterday, but why don’t we poke our heads round the door while you’re still awake? There can be no more excuses and I head up the stairs, Penny following me. It is a little surreal, this turnaround. My big sister—always the one who went first, always the bravest—following me up the stairs, her head down. For the first time in a long time I know that Penny needs me. She needs my strength. She needs me to take the hard for her and make it easy.
The corridor seems longer than it has for years. Penny’s feet follow mine along the uneven floorboards until we arrive at the door. Penny’s nose wrinkles slightly as we step through the doorway and I kick myself. I’d forgotten the smell. There is a scented candle burning on the window ledge and flowers on your desk, but they can’t hide the smell of the cancer, a bloated fart hanging in the air. The smell of rotting that escapes with every acidic burp emitted from your poor insides. I look at Penny and squeeze her hand. I wish I hadn’t chosen a Christmas candle to burn.
You are propped up on your pillows, your arms out over the duvet and it seems that even since yesterday, even since I’m not so good today, sweetheart. I’ve called the doctor. I think I’ll go back to bed for a while, weight has escaped from you, evaporating into the smell that is getting heavier. Your teeth fill your face, your cheeks eat into themselves. Still, you smile a little and raise a hand.
‘Hello, darling.’ Your voice is thinning. I watch you as you hold her hand and I smile sadly as she cries, awkward and uncomfortable. I realise how far along this journey we’ve come, me and you. On our own. It’s an unintentionally secret thing we’ve done. These last few months can’t be put into words for someone else to take away with them. And maybe that’s why Penny is crying. Because sometimes easy isn’t best.
The Language of Dying © Sarah Pinborough, 2013