When she spoke, it was not deafness preventing me from replying. I heard the words, but they were garbled. Her last ever sentence. And I did not understand. Was it a cry for help, a basic need, like hunger or thirst, or was it something more complex? Something she was showing in her oh so communicative eyes.
I sat there beside her hospital bed (HSE provided: won’t hear a word against them) in the living room of our apartment. A bed with all the bells and whistles. Self-adjusting mattress, up-down, in and out, remote control, a real beaut. None of which helped me to understand those words. Well, I say words, but they weren’t words. They were grunts and mumbles, the sounds one might expect from a colony of apes in the Congo. Garbled.
But listen to me, starting in what most would consider the middle. Not me. Never was much of a one for all the scientific theories. Everything must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Bunkum, I say. The best of my life started in the middle, little beginnings, some life, then little endings; just a mix: no real beginning, no real ending; all mashed together like a kaleidoscope of images spinning at the press of a button, like I’m standing astride a time vortex, some weirdo Doctor Who.
It’s not hard to pinpoint when her progression to that bed, talking gobbledegook, started. That little beginning happened when she lost control of her bladder and couldn’t walk up the passage without holding on to the wall. I’d been away, working abroad, and thought at first, she was drinking, unable to cope without that vacuous crutch. Pee stains on the couch. All the food I bought before leaving for a three-day stint was still in the fridge when I got back. Slurred speech. All the signs of a closet dipso. But none of it rang true. There were no empty bottles hidden behind the couch, no inexplicable withdrawals from the bank account. No wine stains to keep the pee stains company. Nothing to say there’s a closet boozer in the house.
Something was wrong. I took her to the doc (she wouldn’t go unless I brought her, some strange fear of doctors), and he referred her to Vincent’s. We spent our last night together and went to A&E the following day. The diagnosis (initial) took all day but came back as possibly MS. We need to do some investigating, the head doctor said. On it went. This test, that test. The third degree for me. After weeks, the diagnosis was upgraded to primary, the type without a cure. Palliative care only, I’m afraid. Don’t blame yourself. There’s nothing you could have done.
Don’t blame yourself. How could I not?
I’m still plagued by guilt. Shrink reckons I have PTSD. Should have spotted it sooner, but the head specialist, the one who diagnosed her, said it wouldn’t have made a difference. The disease, the God awful Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, is inexorable. Untreatable. A killer. If a slow one.
She’ll have a curtailed life, said specialist explained. You’ll need to pull together. It won’t be easy. Of course, we’ll muck in, they said, but they never did. Left muggins to foot the bill. To carry the can; to nurture a three-month-old baby in the body of a fifty-year-old woman. Left me to watch the woman I loved die one day at a time, slowly, the creeping tide washing away the cliffs of her sanity. But not just her sanity: her every function. Her life and being eaten by something nobody understands.
Curtailed, for sure. She was wheelchair-bound. Reliant. Vulnerable. I was the hero, the man who provided for a stricken wife. Wheeled her about. Took her to the cinema. Bought her an ice cream. Fed her. Wiped her backside and put her to bed at the end of the day. She had no life outside of me, and I had no life outside of her. Not such a bad existence. We could cope. I felt sure. But I had no idea what was to come.
First to go, the gag reflex. What’s that? I asked. Her ability to prevent food from entering her lungs. We’ll stick a hole in her belly and feed her through a tube. But she loves food. She lives for eating. Sorry. Nothing can be done. No more food.
And then her hands turned into claws, like an early onset arthritic, hooks where fingers once were.
Next to go, her speech. It went slowly. At first, a few words were coming out a little wrong, mispronounced, or out of order. I could see it in her eyes: the frustration, which caused her to stop trying to speak. She was ever a proud woman, and rightly so. The image of a young Sofia Loren, like Peter Sarstedt, I used to know where that lovely went, but no longer, she was trapped inside a head with no release. And I was trapped outside watching. And only watching.
Life was in limbo. We were already dead together. She in that supersized hospital bed, all the whistles and flutes, and me in the dusty armchair beside her.
And if we were already dead, what use continuing with an existence, which was no existence? I sat in that armchair, one of those old rickety yokes that went back when you pulled the lever. Dusty. Smelly. Dog puke green in colour. Bad for a back already bad from lifting her in and out of bed. Helped by a mechanical sling, for sure, but back-breaking, nonetheless.
My mind wandered, and my eyes wandered and came to rest on the plastic measuring jug.
I sat there looking at that jug, all nonchalant on the tv table, beside the boxes of drugs: drugs for pain, drugs for spasms, drugs for God only knows what. And in the cupboard under them, a bottle of vodka. A mixer. The ingredients of a cocktail, a one-way ticket to the oblivion from the wrong side of our own personal Styx. A substitute for Charon’s ferry. Who pays the Ferryman? I do.
I mixed that cocktail and sat on that dusty armchair all night. A fifty-mill syringe full of her one-way ticket, ready for pumping down her gastric tube, a pint glass beside the chair holding my ticket.
I sat there, watching her through the night, the tickets keeping me company. I felt a tear run down my cheek, and as dawn broke and the birds began to sing, I said, ‘I’m sorry, my love.’
Sorry for what? I’m not sure. Sorry for failing her, perhaps. Sorry for not being strong enough to go on. Sorry that this little piece of our lives was going to have an ending. Sorry I was not strong enough to bring that ending about. Or just sorry. Whatever the reason, she heard me and opened her eyes, and they were full of love and pain and worry, and she uttered her last ever sentence. I smiled at her. I thought I saw the flicker of a smile in return before she closed her eyes, never to open them again.
And what were those final words? I like to think they were a plea for me to forgive myself. A heartfelt plea, even though a somewhat garbled plea.