My father died on the 8th of December of 2005 in Germany. He died of primary hepatocellular carcinoma. I managed to get back to Germany just in time to see him alive and say good bye. I have always been fascinated by the emotions that death evokes in people and felt the best way to recall my own experience with my father was to take a step back and create a fictional piece.
Behind The Door
A long narrow corridor stretches in front of me. Occasionally, when a door opens, gleams of sunlight play on the dark walls.
I feel my throat close. It is a hospice. The smells of disinfectant and disease are faint. The smell of Christmas herbs lingers. I can discern baking and coffee and suddenly feel hungry. That is not what I should feel. I know.
The architraves are decorated with pine branches and holly, Christmas stars and silver bells. At the end of the corridor looms a tree, hung heavily with lights and shining ornaments. I find it hard to tear my gaze away. I miss Christmas and hate it at the same time.
I walk towards Room 11 and open the door.
The bed sits like a throne; at the centre of the stage where the play will unfold. The blankets wrap themselves around a form, a form that once belonged to a healthy man.
A head shines yellow against the starched white linen. Its eyes are shut. I can’t find the person I know so well. He is hidden somewhere.
I look to the window, where a candle glows, filling the room with the scent of pine. The room is sparse: a bed with a body, a table with tissues, a seat for the relative who watches, a place for the voyeur.
The face intrigues me. The skin is folded like terraced fields, paper thin and parched. A pool of liquid has collected in each canthus. Tears?
Dried mucus covers the mouth. With every breath the mucus blows bubbles. Small ones, larger ones. All of them burst.
He looks calm in his sleep, full of good-will, carefree somehow.
Again I try and find the familiar and fail. Tentatively, my hand works its way onto his forehead. A tender touch. The head balances lightly on the pillow, it seems to have no weight. My dry hand strokes warm, moist skin.
Without warning the eyes fly open. My hand withdraws and I feel caught. The dry mouth shapes into a smile. There is warmth in the old and haggard face. I can feel it running through me even though I shudder.
His bony hand looks for mine.
“Are you tired?” I ask.
“No, I’m not. I don’t want to sleep,” he says. “I’m just resting.”
The pressure around my hand increases.
“I’m afraid,” he says quietly.
I fight the impulse to pull my hand away, to pull myself away as if I would hold up the inevitable by leaving.
“I’ll stay,” I say.
“Thank you.” He closes his eyes again, resting.
I sit in the chair next to the bed and listen to the regular breathing of the old man. The rhythm makes me feel sleepy and I begin to drift off.
Suddenly, a change. He is coughing, rasping.
“What can I do?” I ask him. My hands feel sweaty and there is a tremor in my voice.
“Nothing. Just be here. Stay with me.” His voice is weak now.
I fold my arms around the fragile body and feel a monumental tiredness descend on me. When the coughing has stopped and the regular flow of breath resumes we both rest.
My head lies next to his on the pillow, so I can follow every raspy breath with mine. The face has a different colour now. Greyer, I think, carved. The rasping changes its melody. It is sporadic; sometimes deep and harsh like falling water, sometimes delicate like the crackle of silken paper.
At 10.32pm the rattling noise stops. The eyes will not open again. It is all silence, a silence that trumps all other noise.
The Christmas candle still flickers. The tears flow freely now. My father is gone.
– Anja Werno, MD PhD FRCPA
These days I work in microbiology and have very limited patient contact. During my medical school years I attended an elective in oncology that led me to working nurse aid shifts in palliative care. The experiences I shared with some of the palliative patients have shaped my medical identity and are with me always.