It was a Thursday night. I was in my bedroom, hanging out my towel and swimming costume to dry, making sure they hung flat between the radiator and the wall. Mum called.
‘Hi love,’ she said.
‘How is he?’ I said.
I had not turned the light on. I sat down beneath the window to listen, the wet things against my back. The orange streetlight shone in. Its glow touched my shoulders. I had made an extra book shelf on top of the dresser with planks of wood and food tins. Inside were potatoes, their pale bodies preserved. Remember the pickled calf-foetus in a jar at school? It’s soft face, like it could wake up anytime. I like your shelf, you had said when you saw it, provisions for the apocalypse.
‘He’s going to move to the hospice this weekend,’ Mum said.
Next door Solomon was watching an episode of The Simpsons. I felt not calm but slow. My heart was not racing. It was an episode I had seen before, so I could almost see the images as the voices came through the wall.
The next day, I went into your hospital room. We all knew you were moving to the hospice, but I did not say, Joe, I am so sorry that you are dying.
I said, it’s good to see you sitting in the chair.
The room was full of food you didn’t want. Treats. Trays of vegetarian sushi. Chocolates, rolls from the hospital friends shop, cut and filled with cheese and sliced cucumber by widows and widowers with papery hands. You said, thank you, to whatever was brought but waved it away. Maybe later, you said, but I am not sure you believed it. Three times a day a smiling Romanian woman came to ask if you wanted a meal. She remembered everybody’s names. Sometimes you accepted but rarely actually ate. Eventually Dad would take off the sweating plastic lid, pick up your cutlery and swallow the food down cold. He had learned in some previous pocket of life never to waste. All you wanted to do was drink. Dad mixed up orange squash in the kitchen we discovered in your third week on the ward. He brought it in to you.
‘Is it the right strength?’ he asked as you drank it through the straw.
Mum bought cartons of pineapple juice from the shop downstairs. Seeing you drink was wonderful, like watching our animals latch on to the metal spout of the bottle bound to their cage, the bubbles rising as they sucked the water out. Dad took a photograph of us in front of the window. You did not ask him not to. Perhaps, you wanted images, records of your being. Perhaps, after a life of being photographed – dad at the breakfast table asking you or I to hold up a glass, so the refractions of light fell in a certain way over the wood – it would have felt worse to not capture these moments. Would render your illness obscene. In the image my whole body is turned to you. Blue dress, my neat blunt haircut, a person from another world. You slender in your hospital gown. The muscles visible in your arms though they too have shrunk. Visible because there is so little flesh over your bones. Your face yellow, a tube in your nose. You look down at your hands and I look at you.
Mum came in with a clear plastic cup of milk.
‘What about this?’
A look between her and Dad, like this was something they had planned. Dad put a straw in it and placed it on the wheeled table in front of you. Careful. Hopeful. All their big hopes for you had become so small.
‘Maybe later,’ you replied.
He tipped it away.
Our parents’ clothes were crumpled. Their faces were crumpled. They had been there for weeks.
‘Go home,’ I told Mum and Dad, ‘I can stay with Joe.’
I went into the hall with them and we talked quickly in hushed voices. You see this all over hospitals, people having huddled conversations away from the sick, already leaving them out of things.
‘Are you sure you’ll be alright?’
‘We’ll be back first thing.’
‘I’ll be alright.’
‘You can call us. We’ll keep our phones on all night.’
They so wanted to be the grown-ups still. But I knew she would collapse onto him as they walked through the car park. That she would weep and weep and then gather herself and find a steely voice to say, I am still optimistic. I knew that he would tell himself that dealing with her was the difficult thing. Would use that to shield out the rest of it.
I told them I would be fine and watched them walk away.
Alone in the room full of machines we had our first proper chat in ages. Just the two of us. The place to ourselves. You had been given your own room because it wasn’t appropriate for Mum to sleep overnight on the men’s ward. There was a window onto the carpark and a pinboard opposite your bed with cards on it. Pins through the pictures – a heron, a mountain, a still life with a silver bowl of limes. I sat by your bed in the lamp-lit dark.
‘Emily?’ you said.
‘Do you want my violin?’ You asked so quietly that I climbed onto the bed to be close enough to hear.
‘Do you want it?’
I hesitated and said, ‘I’ll look after it for you.’
I said, ‘Of course I want it. Thank you Joe.’
Sound of a trolley down the hall. A nurse coming on shift, the chat between him and the one heading out. Coughing from the shared ward. A tap being turned on, then off. The subtle hum of the lights and the louder hum of the machines.
‘Joe,’ I hesitated, ‘do you, like, want me to learn to play it.’
You laughed. You touched your side because laughing was painful and said no.
You chuckled and said, ‘You’re too old.’
I laughed. You closed your eyes for a moment, opened them and asked for water. I filled a plastic cup from the jug on your nightstand. A cold sweat smell. Your hair had grown long, fluffy all over your head.
‘Just a second,’ you said and pulled yourself up a little in the bed.
Effort of that. The action of pressing into your wrists, shifting your bottom back, straightening your spine. I placed another pillow behind you. You breathed heavily. You brought your palm over the muzzle of your face and I understood you wanted the oxygen mask. I reached for it, passed it with the water cup still in my other hand. Clumsy. You held it over your face, breathing.
‘Better?’ I asked.
You nodded and pulled it off and I put it to the side. Then you asked again for the water and I passed it to you and you drank about a centimetre. Texture of the hospital sheet. How narrow you were under it. Puckering shape to your lips – should I have given you a straw? Elbows tucked in, holding the cup to your face with both hands. Your movements had narrowed too. You passed the cup back to me and I put it down. We sat silently for a while.
Then I said, ‘How are you feeling about going into the hospice tomorrow?’
It was the closest thing I could say to, I am sorry you are dying.
You nodded to yourself, agreeing with something internal.
‘I’m ready,’ you said.
You had been baptised. Just a few days ago when you had more voice, you called a friend who had become a priest (how did you know someone like that? Where had you found the confidence to make the call?) and he came down to London on the train, put the holy water in a cardboard hospital container usually used for vomit. Mum had told me on the phone and Dad had texted me a photo of the bowl.
I slept beside you on the fold-out sofa in the room, pushing it right up next to your bed so that I could hold your hand.
‘The beds are too close together!’ you suddenly cried, and I felt terrible.
Sometimes you mimed eating sandwiches or handing things to people. I giggled at you in the dark. Sometimes your voice was so quiet and far away that I couldn’t tell what you were saying.
‘We need a spare oxygen mask,’ you announced, ‘in case this one breaks.’
‘I can ask the nurse,’ I said.
‘They can bring the oxygen, I’ll bring the sheeting.’
‘To make the masks.’
You wanted to get out of bed and onto a chair, so I got you a chair, but you thought there was a trap door beneath it. You did not know where you wanted to be. In bed, on the chair, in the bathroom. You kept pulling at your hospital gown, so I got your pyjamas. You said that you hated pyjamas, so I put them back in the cupboard. You were in pain. I took you to the bathroom and stood outside with the door ajar. You crouched on the floor, your gown hanging off. Your spine and your naked back. I didn’t know whether to go in. The sound of your crying was terrible. I called the nurse and stood in the corridor waiting for someone to come. Then I was on the floor with the nurse standing over me. I must have fainted. The sick rushing feeling of my blood pressure trying to climb back up. I had let you down. I told the nurse to leave me and go in to you. I sat on the floor in the hall as he changed your gown and helped you to sit up again in the chair. I did not leave you alone in the bathroom again. I believe this was the most important night of my life.
You were moved to the hospice, sitting up in a wheelchair as they took you out to the ambulance. Mum travelled with you and I followed with Dad in the car. You are very lucky, we were told because a room for you was available with another room attached to it, with a fridge and kettle and sink, and sofas for the rest of us to sleep on. We could all stay. Dad parked and we sat together silently for a moment longer than needed before going in.
When we entered you were sitting on the sofa, calm. I think you were happy in fact. There was to be no more treatment. You were allowed to stop trying to live. Mum took out a punnet of blueberries and rinsed them and we passed them between us. I sat beside you and Mum and Dad sat on the other sofa. You ate some and how we all smiled. I think we were relieved too. We were allowed to stop pretending the world was any bigger than this.
For a few days you were graceful, between bouts of extreme distress; morphine hallucinations that made you whisper-shout, ‘Get back! Please! I am going to explode!’
You repeated it intermittently – explode, going to explode – until you calmed down.
Mostly you slept.
And then you received your last visitor. A nurse unhooked you from the wires and closed the cannulas. A button on the bed was pressed to hinge you up to sit. A hard breath and you moved your legs, pivoted so they hung over the side of the bed. You rested. Our father slid a dressing gown over your hospital gown. Everything hurt. He and I sat either side of you, your arms over our shoulders as we slid slippers onto your feet. Sharp ankles. You smelled different now.
We stood. We helped you across the room. One of your teachers had arrived and was sitting next door with our mum. We could hear the murmur of conversation and a sound that may have been a sob or a laugh. You were exhausted but rabbit-eyed alert. I thought of small creatures with soft throats. Everyone was pretending that taking half an hour to get up and meet a visitor was normal. We shuffled you to the door and left your sides, knowing it was important that you stood alone to go in. You put your hand on the handle, pulled it down, pushed the door and went through. When she saw you she lit up and crumpled. You walked very slowly to the sofa and sat down beside her. You spoke together about music and she leaned into you because your voice had become so small. You had once been so afraid of her and here she was, with soft orange hair, telling you that you had been her best-ever student. Was that true? It was true now.
After that your body shut down and the animals arrived. The hospice was a hoop with a concrete courtyard in the centre and a moat of garden around the edge. Through the window I watched fat squirrels and a rat. A volunteer went from room to room with a dog and we unquestioningly received the gift of its presence. It started to feel strange that in normal life such things were not offered. One night I saw a young man walking through the corridors with a budgie on his shoulder, graceful as a dream.
There are no signs to tell you something is the last time. A doctor came who was very different from the hospital doctors. Everything with her was slower and gentler. She could afford a different manner because she was not trying to fix you. She explained that to stem the pain they would begin to use stronger drugs. You would sleep more and more and then you’d die. But she didn’t say, he has already taken his last shower (Dad in there with you, you leaning onto him and his clothes getting wet as the water ran over your skin), he has already been to the toilet the for the final time (your urine a luminous, medicated orange in the bowl. Like nothing I had ever seen). I did not know that our final conversation was already past. There were brief episodes of consciousness, you swimming up to the place we were.
Once you opened your eyes and I spoke to you.
‘Hi Joe. I just wanted to say. Thank you. For the things you shared with me. I am proud that I was the one you told things to.’
I felt so grateful then for the paltry secrets we’d exchanged at our parents’ kitchen table in the dark.
Later, I wondered if you’d even heard me, but dad assured me, ‘He did.’
Mum said, ‘He definitely did.’
Sometimes you swam up but didn’t quite emerge. Little twitches of awareness. I think your final words may have been, ‘I have pissed the bed.’
Solomon arrived, bringing me a change of clothes. Jogging bottoms, a tee-shirt, a warm jumper and thick soft socks.
‘I thought you’d want to be comfortable,’ he said as he handed them over in the carpark.
I told him he had done a good job.
I gave him a tour. Reception with its plastic Christmas tree. I made him a tea in the shared sitting room. The corridors with doors onto small wards of ashen, dying people. The art room. The smoking room. The quiet room with candles burning and a maze drawn on the floor.
‘It’s very calm,’ he said.
‘Isn’t it perfect?’ I said. Like we were choosing a place to get married.
I showed him the family room, adjacent to your room, and said, ‘we’re very lucky to have this.’
When he came into your room he could not speak.
He had come to hospital just two weeks before and said, ‘he looked better than I expected,’ as we drove home.
That made me turn my body into the passenger seat and weep. I was so angry that he did not understand at all. Now, he looked at you on the bed, choked and went breathless. Tears all over his face. Then he asked me to tell you something. He couldn’t say it to you. He turned away and said, ‘Please tell Joe I am here and I am going to look after you your whole life.’
Late one night, I saw a woman dab a little hand-sanitiser on her tongue from the dispenser in the hall. She turned away ashamed when she saw me see her. The comic guilty freeze of a dog who has eaten the defrosting lasagne left on the side.
When I was alone with you I sang. Our songs from school. Me in the choir and you with your violin, bowing the swooping descants. I remembered how I had pencil-marked my breaths. The lord is my shepherd, breath, I shall not want, breath, he maketh me, breath, to lie down in green pastures, breath. Your breath was audible and your lips all cracked. You weren’t supposed to drink anymore but we were given a pink sponge on a stick and shown how to dip it into water and run it over your mouth for relief. Dad was very contained, except when he remembered that he had bought you a present but left it at home. A first edition of some printed chamber music. Not quite your thing but close enough. He burst into tears. It was the finality of forgetting it. There would be no opportunity to go back and pick it up until after you were dead.
All our various family came and went. Mum’s brother. Dad’s sisters – one of them a florist who slept in her van in the carpark. I wondered if her mattress smelled of leaves. Grandad. Even Dad’s parents. They sat in the family room and I tried to make tea. Couldn’t count out the cups. I think I made fifteen and no one wanted any of it. The cups sat all around in clusters going cold. An older cousin arrived in her car and for some reason I felt ferociously angry at her. Because she didn’t know you. All she had really seen was the little boy, too sensitive, obsessive, too difficult. And now this weak thing. I wanted to say to her That isn’t Joe, there is a whole person between those two points that you never ever knew. Wanted her to realise that. But you could no longer speak.
I imagined it. I asked Dad if it would be alright, when it happened, to climb up onto the bed and hold you. Yes, he said, he thought it was fine to do that. I couldn’t do it yet, there were too many vital tubes to knock out of place. Was the moment going to arrive gently, I wondered, or would it be a shock, a shot to the stomach, the taste of my blood rising up to meet my throat. Why did I think like that, bullets and blood? Our mother agreed to be still when it was time, not to scream. She sat beside me on the fold-out sofa in the special family room, nodding at me, little circles of amber on her earlobes. She promised. I rubbed on hand-sanitiser, imagined it and waited for the miracle.
So this was us. This small collection of people. The others sat with cooling cups and Mum and Dad and me going in and out of your room, drawn back around you. You a little fire. Your eyes like mine under the closed lids. I thought of the us that would be there instead if we had formed into a different constellation of accidents. The us with different noses and accents; one of them neat perhaps, slipping into the bathroom with a comb.
Random, the geneticist had said. The word ripped my imagination. What about the web of cause and effect it took to make us? I felt lives thundering through me. Random was so beautiful and so violent. I braced my body against the force of it. I lifted you, up out of bed, I breathed good air into your lungs, only air and no black fluid, and sealed up the holes in your body. I touched your tumour and it shrank back to nothing beneath my hand. Then I led you, backwards out of the room, down the blue corridors, out of the doors, into the car park and into the frosty world. I led you back, through our stories and into the stories before ours. A fist folded around a red ring. A boy hiding in grass. A woman pushing her face into the naked shoulder of a man, cattle moaning outside.
Some nurses came in and bathed you with cloths, section by section so that you were never lying naked. It was a rhythmic, beautiful thing. When your abdomen was exposed I saw the lump shining through you. Your tumour. Yellow like the whites of your eyes. Swollen. Later when they were gone I asked you if I could look at it again. You couldn’t reply. I pulled down your bedcovers and gently lifted your gown. So there it was. It was real after all. There was the wound. I told you about my plan, when it happened, to get onto the bed and hold you. Whispered, hoping you could hear.
But I still felt the miracle. The shiver of the miracle nearby.
Mum and I were almost sleeping on the sofas next door when dad came in and got us up. He knew that it was about to happen, though did not tell us how he knew and we did not ask. He just said, ‘I think you should come through.’
I put my hand in yours, but you had no grip left. Your breathing had changed. The sweet stale smells of breath and skin. A look on your face almost like concentration, like you were searching through yourself for the effort to do this final thing.
Dad said steadily, ‘Just let the beauty wash over you.’
He said that again and again.
And then you died.
I felt like we were supposed to get a nurse straight away because it felt important to tell them, so the time on the certificate was right. It was dark outside. I went into the room with candles and walked the maze drawn out on the floor. One foot. Next foot. Rolling them, heel, midfoot, toe. It was very quiet. Dad came in and stood in the doorway. Then I went back and did what I had told you, climbing onto your bed and wrapping you up. I slid my hands behind your shoulder blades. Dad took photographs, my cheek on yours, even though you were dead. It seemed wrong to miss the final opportunity. My hair finer and lighter than yours, hanging very flat over my scalp. Grey green eyes like your eyes. Thickness of your lashes. Your dead face loosening to reveal a slim stripe of eyeball.
This is an excerpt from Anna Beecher’s Here Comes the Miracle, out with Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2021.
Image © Earl