They’d been over it many times. He’d read her passages from a wide array of Holy Scripture – all of them spoke of Divine intervention effecting a complete cure. He even had a placard tied to the railing of her surgical cot which declared – rather feebly, she thought – “It’s Never Too Late for a Miracle”.
He was reading her a book titled “Choose Life over Cancer” and got flustered when she said, “But I did. In fact, I didn’t choose cancer at all. It chose me.” He sighed and it seemed to her that he had grown thinner and greyer in a week than he had done in all the ten years they had been together and thought the world of each other.
“Now, you’re not going to start that again. In fact, I’m sure that you’re ripe for a miracle.”
She whispered, since talking at normal volume was getting just too difficult – “But I need my lungs. The trouble is – cancer needs them even more.”
He winced. She knew he hated it when she made any reference to the tumour that was colonizing her lungs, preferring to call it “her illness” or “the Big ‘C’”.
One evening he talked incessantly about his company’s acquisition of its third consumer goods firm in the last financial quarter.
Then she remarked, “But why another merger? That’s the ideology of the cancer cell – growth for its own sake. And, well, you know what that does….”
He got up and decided to take a walk along the corridor where sea breeze managed to sneak in through chinks in windows and made the drapes puff out in starchy, green paunches.
The next day, her chief physician oncologist told her that it was the end of the road and asked whether she would prefer to go home or to the ‘Peace without Pain Centre’?
The ‘Peace without Pain Centre’ was a hospice where options were offered to patients either to let the disease “take its course” or “take matters into their own hands and fix the date when the ‘condition’ would cease to bother them”.
“I’ll take Option Two: the ‘Peace without Pain Centre’. And I’d also like to er…take matters into my own hands…I mean, I’ll choose the suicide pack.” Her breath came in rusty dribs and drabs.
The oncologist bent over her, his jaw set, “It’s NOT SUICIDE. It’s called assisted dying, euthanasia. There’s a huge difference.”
“Ah well”, she looked at him with a lazy, defiant eye, “a suicide by any other name is quite as painless. There was a song, “Suicide is Painless”. Heard of it, doc? Some guys in a group called mash potato, no not mash potato…something…else…mash….”
The night dose of sleeping meds took effect.
When she told him her decision, he looked at her then at the wall and said, “A bluebottle! Now how did a bluebottle get in here? I’ve got to squat the fellow. You’ve always got to swat anything that’s troubling you.”
She pointed to the white roses in a bouquet by her bedside table, “It came in for those. You know, nectar.”
The doctors had allowed him to bring the flowers now that her lungs were beyond further damage.
The duty doctor had said, “Pollen and fragrance don’t matter anymore, now. She’s safe – in a way.”
“Like when you’re on the way to the gallows, you’re safe from air crashes and road traffic accidents”, he’d replied.
As he wandered aimlessly around now searching for something to swot the whirring-purple blowfly with, she watched him and wondered what he would do without her. Didn’t someone say that love was a function of man’s loneliness? What would he do with his loneliness? A few months ago she had tried to fan into a flame the tiniest spark of interest that she thought she had seen fly between him and one of the nurses. But it lost its brief incandescence.
It was precisely a month to the day she had been moved to her own little room at one end of a quiet corridor in the ‘Peace without Pain Centre’. A month – just as the doctors had said it would be. Her very last night was as normal as one might expect on ‘death row’. The night nurse, a practising Catholic, checked on her several times, hoping she would slip away on her own, ‘go Home to God’. The nurse’s hopes were belied.
She was still breathing the next morning. All night he had knelt by her side, alternately holding her hand or holding the whole of her.
She had chosen exactly nine seconds and nine minutes after nine o’clock as the time when the injection should be administered. She said that that was the time they had first met in an ice cream parlour.
A cold blueness came over her, slow and sweet, from toes upwards. She turned her head, or tried to, to look at him – one, last lingering time. But her head was too heavy. And then it was too light. And then she was gone.
And she was free.
She slipped out from under the prim white sheet on the stretcher. She could breathe easy at last. It felt so good that she found it hard to stop gulping in mouthfuls of clean air even though it smelt faintly of ether and disinfectant the way hospital air always does.
She skimmed over linoleum, looking in at rooms where patients breathed canned oxygen and ventilators went whoosh-in and whoosh-out and doctors with down-curling chins read x-ray photographs of cloudy lungs and shook their heads.
Suddenly there was a muffled explosion and nurses like fluffy gaggles of geese emerged from everywhere and scattered all over the ward. She heard someone calling out – someone far away, “Here, in the basement! He’s here! What a silly thing to do! What a silly, terrible thing to do!”
She paused at a window and wondered what the silly, terrible thing was. But she wasn’t a bit surprised when he emerged from a storeroom in the basement, gave her a rose white as gauze and linked his arm up with hers.
They sailed out together.
She looked at him. He was clear as a lens. And right through him she could see, in dim and then dimmer outline, the ‘Peace without Pain Centre’ looking as it always did – a fat block of vanilla ice cream that refused to melt in the sun.
They continued floating upwards, white against a white sky.