*Fraser and Marion’s names have been changed.
The snow began falling faster, I increased the speed of the wipers as the white fluffy flakes began to settle on the windscreen. I felt my shoulders rise and my teeth clench in anxiety as it became harder to see and a blanket of white started to cover the road. That first day of fresh fallen snow is always so magical, but that soon becomes a treacherous inconvenience to us all. But today it felt treacherous even on the first magical day.
I had to get to Fraser. He needed me. And his knowing his wife as well as I have come to know Marion, she will also have her shoulders raised and her teeth gritted too, worrying about what time I will get there.
Fraser has now been virtually unconscious for three days. Momentarily responsive to voice but limited expressions on his face. He has terminal bowel cancer and it is his last wish to be cared for at the end of his life in his own home. With Marion. Fraser has a syringe driver which is continuously delivering medication to him to manage any of his symptoms and keep him calm and pain free as he now can’t swallow or talk or do anything for himself. Fraser is dying.
I flash my eyes at the dashboard clock – I’m having the crawl along in the snow, so everything is taking longer today. As it continues to fall I worry about getting back home. I have to replenish the medication in Fraser’s syringe driver before it runs out at a set time.
As I turn into a side street that then becomes what feels like a grid system of side roads, I see the snow is thicker and more settled here. Tree branches are covered, you can no longer distinguish pavement from road. Everything is coated and everything is equal.
Even over the sound of the car radio, blowing heater and the windscreen wipers I can hear the laughter and honestly feel the excitement in the air. Children appear from every gate with bobble hats, fur lined coats and coloured gloves. Each one pulling blue and red plastic sleds behind them proudly. Mums and dads dressed in ski gear and snow boots clutching flasks in one had and a dog on a lead in the other. A large red setter dog shakes the snow from his coat, his auburn ears flying in the air stand out even more against a backdrop of pure white. There are smiles on faces and there is laughter in the air. Couples hold each other tightly to keep warm and neighbours are reconnecting at a social distance.
As I crawl by in the car, I’m clearly the only car they have seen for a long while and collection of faces turn to look at me, a few rolling eyes from children who have had to remove their sled from the road to make way for me to pass. As I look back in the rear-view mirror, all the happiness and joy immediately commences in the white coated street.
I arrive at Frasers house – I wont risk driving up onto the driveway in case I can’t get out, so I park on the road which is now merged with the pavement. I grab my bag from the passenger seat and put my first foot outside the car door to create a deep footprint in the white sheet below my feet. As I slowly navigate my away up to the front of the house, I squint my eyes as cold snowflakes settle on my eyelashes but then I look up and see Marion on the doorstep. “Be careful” she shouts out to me with a concerned look on her face. As I approach she says “Gosh I was so worried you wouldn’t make it today with the snow” I flashed a smile at her that would soon be covered by a surgical mask. “Of course I’m here Marion” She smiled back at me and momentarily closed her eyes with relief.
Despite having visited many times, in the corner of my eye I always mistake the curled up imitation deer at the bottom of the stairs in the entrance hall for a little dog. As I pull the plastic apron over my head and move the mask across my face I look at the sweet face of the sleeping deer. Marion has small statues and ornaments of deer and owls all over the house. It’s clear these must be her favourite animals. I can imagine people have been gifting her owls and deer for as long as she can remember, and that each ornament holds a precious story.
Fraser remains mostly unresponsive. His mouth is open and I can hear every breath. I talk to him, ask him how he is feeling, if he is in pain, and apologise for having to wear a mask at his bedside. Fraser gives me no answers so I spend some time looking at his face for any indication of those answers. His face shows the probable answers of the questions with relaxed lines, no grimacing and stillness. Fraser seems settled.
I walk into the kitchen were Marion keeps all the medications and supplies. I lay out everything I need on the counter infront of a window facing the garden. Marion talks in the background, updating me on how things have been and talking about the snow and the weather. She offers me a cup of tea. As much as I’d love one, I politely decline. Marion then leaves me alone in the kitchen.
As I line up the glass ampoules, I glance out window. A family of five birds are almost dancing in the snowfall. There feathers flapping, their tiny webbed feet imprinting on every step. They enjoy drinking the icy cold water and hunt in the snowy blanket for any hidden food. Whilst you can’t see a smile on the beak of a bird it still looked as though they were smiling. These birds were feeling just as joyous about the snow day as the children in the street. Their complete innocence and joy made me smile behind my mask as I stood their alone, in a stranger’s kitchen.
A robin joined the congregation of excited birds. I caught a glimpse of his red breast as I held up the syringe to the window to draw the clear liquid from the ampoule. As I diluted the contents with water for injection, watching the liquid swirl I felt the stillness and silence of this room. The contrast between what was going on inside these walls and the wonder of those birds outside. I found myself hoping they wouldn’t get too cold out there tonight. I could still hear the distant laughter of the children in the snowy streets. I felt sad for Fraser that he was missing this moment and that he would never experience this moment or even a similar moment again.
One of the hardest things about death and grief is that feeling of life going on around you when someone so important has left this world. How can anyone be happy? and will the grief stricken ever feel pure joy again? I just thought about the innocence of those children and the birds. They enjoyed the beauty the world has to offer and they were oblivious to the fact that someone’s world was ending at the exact same time.
As I completed my task and locked the syringe driver box – Marion stood at the end of the bed. ‘How long do you think he has left?’ she asked. If you knew how many times I get asked this same question and it’s just not possible to answer. But every time it gives me a pang in my heart just as strong as the last time. Marion had now had days of the soulless body she once identified as the husband she loved asleep and unresponsive in the house that was once filled with the same laughter we could both hear outside.
I told Marion I would be back at the same time tomorrow. She wished me a safe journey and stood on the doorstep to watch me get to my car in case I slipped on the snow. She was the nurturing protective type, it oozed out of her. I glanced up at her as I lowered myself into the car and shook the snow off my boots. I set off back into the snowy streets to inconvenience the happy sledders in the road once more. Marion waved me off with the sleeping deer at her feet.
The next day the snow began to melt, and Fraser took his last breath.
The children and the birds remained blissfully unaware.
Image by Erich Wirz