How do you tell someone that you’re dying? Do you just come out and say it; mumble your way through? That’s the dilemma facing me every day; as I purchase my groceries, drop my children off at school and even as I sit here nursing my drink. Strange really, why we call it nursing a drink? When in fact it’s me that needs nursing, a live in nurse, twenty four hour support; that’s the seriousness of my diagnosis.
I can’t expect my wife to look after me, after all, I’m the man of the house. I have
responsibilities, the hunter gatherer gene is strong in me; whilst I also have a hefty portion of pride. I won’t become a strain on our already fractured status quo.
The bar’s littered with serious drinkers, bums down on their luck, loners with nowhere better to be. They sit and eat salty peanuts. I read once that the amount of urine in bar peanuts is troublingly high, but they dig in nonetheless, slurp their bitters and scratch their bums.
I’ve taken the booth in the corner to avoid conversation or the pitying looks on people’s faces when the words spill from my mouth and I tell them I’m dying. People seem unable to hide their shock; there’s no escaping the troubled looks etched on their faces, every twitch or facial tic betraying their good intentions. Sitting in the corner means they won’t be able to see me crying. Blubbering away, thinking of what might have been if I’d gone to the doctors when I first found the fatty lump, when I first noticed my underwear soiled with
I long for a smoke; it had been months since I’d enjoyed the habit, my nicotine cuisine. I swig the remaining whisky, the smoothness washing down my gullet; sloshing in my stomach, full of pills and poison. Placing the tumbler down, I pick up the card handed to me by a Good Samaritan. A vulture perched outside the cancer clinic, either waiting to pick over my bones or hoping to make a convert of me, either way they lose, there is no saving me.
I’d been told to rely on a higher power, something to come and rescue me; since discovering that terminal truly means terminal, one final destination; Death. It’s something the cancer gang mentioned; a self-help group I was ordered to attend by my support worker. Each week I sat in a dimly lit room, surrounded by people like me, those living with a similar death sentence, some would be stayed the others would not. Posters of hope hung on the walls, but we all knew that this was where hope came to crawl and suckle at the teat of malignancy.
I originally went to make myself feel better, to see how well I had adjusted compared to others, but it became a competition, who was going to win the race to the grave. I’d always been competitive, even in cancer I wished mine was bigger, more aggressive and with the most peculiar name. It was shallow, but do I regret it? No. The group talk always ended with countless people crying over loved ones, the left behind as we grew to call them. The whole thing was depressing, like a car crash, you just couldn’t help but be sucked in, unable to turn away from the horror of it all; shit always rolls downhill, and we are at the foot of this mountain.
Death would come to us all. It was inevitable. It was how we chose to live now that mattered, Barbara the cancer nurse would say, sitting there smugly in her cancer-free body. Finding a higher power was something that stuck with me though, and my competitive nature took over. If it existed, I was going to find it before all these other shmucks.
The card read;
A Time For Everything
On the reverse was a list. I glanced up at the barman and ordered another whisky; he was of a rotund stature with a wisp of hair scraped over his balding dome. I returned to the list; apparently there was a time to sew. I looked down at my tatty, threadbare clothes, I’d really let myself go since the diagnosis. But with what time I have left is there really any purpose in repairing that which will burn along with my body?
This was followed by a time to seek and a time to lose; I knew these ones all too well. I originally set out to seek a cure for my sickness, only to find out there was none. The time for cures was over and it was now my time to lose. Which as you know, I hate.
The barman brought over my drink and I thanked him with a curt nod, not wanting him to see my red puffy eyes; for him to ask what’s the matter, me mumbling that I’m dying, then having to repeat it through gritted teeth as he failed to hear my muffled confession. He lingered, trying to make eye contact; before slowly picking up my empty glass and ambling back to the bums and drunks who lorded his attention. I returned to my list.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. I could relate to this; when I first found out I was sick, I told my wife and we embraced as we did following the first time we made love, sweaty and exhausted, we cleaved to one another, becoming one. After finding out there was no hope of a cure, I became elusive. Those who tried to get near me were merely endeavouring to catch the wind, I’d slip through their grasp, not wanting to share this pain or anger with anyone, I withdrew. I climbed into my hollowed shell of a body and nestled down with my cancer as a pillow, protecting myself like a tortoise. What I didn’t realise is that as I refrained from embracing my wife; I ended up causing a wedge between us that wouldn’t budge. She didn’t understand and I don’t think I even understood what was happening. I started chemotherapy and couldn’t bear to touch or be touched; the pain was excruciating, this affliction happened just at the time I wanted to hold her, to hold my dear children, before I could no longer. Now I wanted to I couldn’t, my body was breaking at even the slightest touch, let alone a warm embrace. I just didn’t want to pollute our family with this affliction. I became a modern day leper, keeping myself away from any interaction, finding solace in the shadows and empty pubs.
I sipped the whisky. Tears fell into the glass, salty infected tears, becoming one with my chosen poison; not the poison that’s been handed to me like candy. Injected into my body through drips that in the end were irrelevant, I am terminal so this act was just modern day torture. They would never cure me, they told me as much, and this fluid only served in making me sick and weak, so after the first few rounds I never went back, I may as well enjoy – enjoy is the wrong word – I may as well endure this final sprint to oblivion.
A time to weep and a time to laugh. I was doing this now, weeping like a child caught stealing from their mother’s purse. Laughter left me a long time ago. The last time I laughed was when the doctor told me I had cancer, it was more an affront, thinking it was one of those Doctor, Doctor jokes…his punchline needing some serious work. I laughed it off, until I noticed more blood in the toilet bowl. And with that, my jovial attitude and the fun I had with my wife and children, ceased to exist. Fun died when I gave into the fact I was the walking dead.
I take another swig; I notice the bearer of the card sitting in the next booth over. I lift up the card, giving him a nod, waving it in his direction. He holds up one apologetic hand in recognition and returns to something unseen at his table. I move onto the next item on the list.
A time to kill and a time to heal. When I first found out I had cancer, I wanted to put a bullet in the head of everyone who said it would get better and you’d be fine and you just need to stay positive. Bang. Bang. Bang. Did they not know what terminal meant? Did they expect me to say thank you for such off the cuff, ignorant and pitiful advice. If you have a positive attitude you will beat this. Death was on steroids and it was going to win the race no matter how hard I tried to keep ahead. So yes, I knew the feeling of wanting to kill someone. I never knew there was a time for it though. Otherwise things may have been different. I’d even thought about killing myself; then I realised I was slowly doing that anyway and apathy set in. I’d also forfeit on my life insurance and heaven knows the girls would need that once I was nothing more than a pile of ash. Insurance policies don’t shell out on suicide or euthanasia, trust me I’ve done my research.
A time to heal. Although I didn’t want to, I had to make things right with my family. I’d been an unbearable dick since my diagnosis. So, I bought them expensive gifts to make up for it, racking up debt that was solely in my name, so when I died, it would be wiped away, along with my remains. But despite these gifts, my girls only wanted things I could lavish freely, a hug here, a bedtime story there, and they loved me even though I had been a complete arsehole. My wife just wanted me to hold her again, hold her hand and talk about the good times, she even just held me as I cried; through the mess I guess we found our way back.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what had been planted. This one hit me like a knife to the temple. I downed the remaining whisky, let out a deep breath, and hunched over the table, head in hands. A time to be born. Isn’t it true that the moment you are born, you start the long drawn out process of dying? Comforting isn’t it. You breathe your first breath and start the stop clock, counting down the remainder of your life. Do we each have a predestined clock that ticks by until you punch your last ticket or draw your last breath? Who decides, who sets our clocks? I guess mine’s almost up, a few grains of sand left in the timer.
Tears drip from my hanging head, dapple the card under my face. I guess I had been planted, my father had seeded my mother and I grew, I became me, then I grew this cancer, nurtured it, fed it with cigarettes and inexpensive whisky. Now I’m grown, it’s my time to be plucked, by the gardener of life. Made redundant by the weed that grew inside me, corrupting the being I had become, ensnaring my life within its strangling creepers, snuffing out the usefulness of my organs within their tight embrace. Someone puts a drink on the table; slides into the empty seat opposite me. They push the whisky into my field of vision. I look up and see the guy who gave me the card, sitting there, he rests his bible on the table. I take a sip of his offering, lay it to rest on the table, tears freely streaming from my eyes. This guy just sits there, joins me in my darkness, then I realise that this is all I wanted, someone to sit with, a silent companion for my woe. My life’s ending one second at a time, one sip of whisky at a time, one silent companion at a time. Then he speaks.
“Can I pray with you?”
What’s the worst that can happen?
Ross Jeffery is a Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. He is an avid reader of an eclectic mix of fiction and is a lover of the short story form. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books Exit Earth (Daylight Breaks Through), Project 13 Dark (Bethesda) – his work has also appeared online at STORGY Magazine (Rapping at my Chamber Door), About Magazine TX (After He’s Gone), Schlock Magazine (Toilet Trauma) and Idle Ink (Judgements). Ross lives in south Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie).