Standing outside Mr. McKay's room, my heart hammered against my ribcage. The Royal Infirmary Nursing School in Edinburgh hadn’t prepared me for this. I was twenty-two years old and had never looked after a dying person before.
I took a deep breath and knocked softly on the door. A stronger voice than I expected said, “Come in.”
The darkened room enveloped me as I stepped in, my eyes taking a few moments to adjust.
“Hello, you must be my nurse for tonight. Call me Jack will you? All this formality, not much use for it at this stage of my life,” Mr. McKay said. His baldness struck me, and the dark circles under his eyes.
“Good Evening, Jack,” I said, quietly. “I’m Nurse Brown."
The framed photograph by Jack’s bed caught my eye, and I leaned closer to see it in the dim light. A family shot, taken on a windy day somewhere on the coast. The woman’s dark hair was blown across most of her face; she had a joy about her. Two children, one a boy about eight years old, a cheeky face, a red-head, and a little girl, perhaps five, holding on to a soggy-looking cracker, a shy glance at the camera. I wondered who had taken the photo; a grandparent, a friend, or perhaps the camera’s timer.
“The summer holidays?” I asked, glad for the opener.
“Just this past summer, on Skye. Bitter wind, but we love it there, been going since Ben was a baby. Won’t be any more of those holidays now, at least not with all four of us,” Jack said.
“Mmm,” I said. My tears threatened, but don't cry now I thought.
“Shall I refill your iced water?” I asked.
“Yes, thanks. The painkillers make me unbelievably thirsty.”
I picked up the styrofoam cup, glad for the excuse to leave the room. As I stood at the ice machine, the clatter of the cubes dropping into the empty cup soothed me with its ordinariness.
Back in the room, I placed the cup down on the bedside table, close to Jack, the white bendy straw facing him. Then I soaked a facecloth in the warm water I had run into the stainless steel basin at the sink, and squeezed out the excess.
“Shall I wash your face for you, Jack?” I asked.
Jack gave a slight nod. I tucked a towel under his chin and slowly wiped his grey, softly-lined face. Our eyes met briefly, as I wiped the small beads of perspiration off his top lip. Air whispered in and out of his nostrils, his lungs beckoning each in-breath.
“Mmmm,” he murmured. “Lovely.”
I dabbed his face dry with the corner of the towel, then used it to slide some stray hairs off his forehead. “Would you like a back rub?” I asked. We always asked people in those days if they wanted a back rub on the night shift, not something nurses have much time for in hospitals nowadays.
“Yes, please, I’d like that. Sarah’s afraid to touch me these days. It’s hard not to feel the touch of my sweetheart anymore. You don’t plan these things. One day the touching just stops,” he said.
Jack maneuvered slowly on to his right side. Carefully rolling down the bedcovers to the edge of Jack’s pyjama bottoms, I was grateful for the lineage of my profession, offering such safe intimacy. Jack unbuttoned his pyjama top to make it easier for me to slip it over his left shoulder.
I turned my attention to the lotion now warm in the palms of my hands. Ever so gently, I moved my hands over skin that seemed loose over his bones. The fingers of my right hand brushed over the protruding vertebrae of Jack’s spine, and my left hand gently kneaded the muscles of his lower back. Hands that seemed to know what to do. Each stroke wanted to communicate something, to tell Jack that even though his body was dying, he was still a whole person. The identities of husband, father, cancer patient, and the feelings of being useful or not useful, touchable or untouchable, all dissolved into the space between us. I wanted to say through my touch that at the end of a life we still matter.
Jack spoke then. “How do you say goodbye to your children before they’re old enough to take the bus to school? Will they even remember me?” He paused for several fast, shallow breaths before more words tumbled out. “Will they be messed up forever, not having a Dad? I’m sure they must know I’m dying, though we haven’t told them directly. I’m not sure if we should, though they do have a right to know."
Unanswerable questions finding a soft place to land. The quiet in the room swallowed up any reply I could have mustered, as a sense of reverence seemed to open up inside me. I felt inexplicably calm in the presence of a man grappling with an unfathomable situation.
Jack closed his eyes. He had spoken all the words he was going to that night. I continued to massage along the edges of his shoulder blades, lightly pressing and releasing, mirroring his slowing breath, as sleep carried him away.
The light coming through the hospital window was fading fast, although off in the distance I could see the bright lights of the helicopter pad announcing its location for emergency arrivals, from the north. I pulled up Jack’s top sheet and the pale pink cotton blanket, and tucked them in around his neck. I wished hospitals had duvets, and soft feather pillows, and a vase of wildflowers in the corner. Placing the call bell within Jack’s reach, I switched off his light, and thought better of planting a soft kiss on his forehead.