“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light…”
The Jacarandas are silhouetted against the blood red sky, through the ward window. A Piet my Vrou heralds the evening in, as I finish The Pretoria News and sip my cold tea. I’d expected to be home by lunchtime. Dr Jones is hastening down the passage and I fold the paper. “Mr. O’Ryan.” His hand is stretched out, to be shaken.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
I roll up my pyjama sleeve, as the doctor taps the syringe and jabs my upper arm.
“We’ll keep you for the night, just to be on the safe side. I’ll check on you in the morning.”
I want to ask a few questions, but the man zips up his bag and is moving towards the door.
“Have a good night.”
I lie back on the pillows and turn the radio on.
“What poison have you been injected with, Irishman?”
The man in the bed alongside mine, rubs his salt and pepper moustache.
“Insulin. I’m going to be taking it from now on.”
I turn the volume up for the ball-by-ball commentary.
“Sorry to hear that. I’m Rademeyer by the way. Dirk Rademeyer. Diabetes is it?”
I shake his hand. “O’Ryan. Sandy O’Rayn. “
Then I pull the radio closer to my ear. Pollock is still batting. It could go either way. The announcer’s voice begins to sound distant, as wooziness creeps in.
“You okay?” Rademeyer is leaning towards me now.
“I’m fine… I think.”
It is probably my body adjusting. I roll onto my side, vaguely registering someone picking up my Rosary from the bedside table and putting it on my bed, but I feel too tired to respond. A disembodied voice drifts into my consciousness.
“Bit late in the day to give you an insulin shot, I’d’ve thought.”
There is an alarm going off far away. I can hear heels rat-tat-tatting on the linoleum. Someone is saying something. A woman’s whisper cuts him off. I try to turn my head when I feel my wrist being clutched. Her nails are digging into my skin. I try to tell her that she’s hurting me, but the words won’t come out straight and the nurse – I am aware of her white uniform and an officious bosom – ignores my strangulated murmur. When she releases it, my hand flops back onto the sheet. It feels as if I’m wrapped in a cocoon. The man in the next bed, what’s his name again? Van Rooyen? No – Rademeyer – is repeating the word “coma” as the nurse clip clops out of the room.
“I’ll be okay, as soon as I can shake off this wooziness.” But again the words don’t come out as I intend them, and I wonder whether Rademeyer can make any sense of them at all. He’s pressing the button. I feel as if I’m floating down, down. The cocoon is darkening. I want to fight my way out of it…
There’s an argument going on in the room now… Rademeyer and that nurse. Her hair tickles my neck as she bends over me. I want to scratch the itch it provokes, but my hands still won’t move.
“He’s fast asleep.” That must be the nurse. But she’s wrong. I’m not asleep at all. She pulls the blanket up to my itchy neck. Rademeyer’s saying something. He’s in a bloody something… A bloody what…?
“He’s in a bloody coma, sister,” he says again.
I feel myself slipping away. The alarm bell is sounding again, but far, far away, muffled by distance. Perhaps it’s in a glass jar. Now the nurse is back and Rademeyer’s shouting at her:
“For God’s sake call a doctor, woman. This man’s breathing is not normal.”
“You have no right to shout at me, Mr. Rademeyer. Go back to bed.”
I can hear the wheels of what must be a trolley rattling and echoing through the room, and distant voices. Someone is shaking my shoulder.
“Good morning Mr O’Ryan….Mr O’Ryan?” There’s alarm in her voice. She shakes me more roughly this time. Then I hear her footsteps as she runs away. The sun must be shining; I can feel its warmth on my chest. I can also smell the rich aroma of coffee wafting from somewhere in the ward.
“I told the night nurse. Ek het geweet. I, I…” That is Rademeyer, isn’t it?
I feel my eyelid being pulled back and then a piercing light penetrating. Dr Jones allows my eye to snap shut again. There’s a mighty shuffling of feet in my vicinity. Low voices whisper. I can’t hear what they say, but I have a sense that a great many medical terms are being bandied about. I can hear someone gasping… My God, it’s me. I have to break through this cocoon. I will myself to open my eyes, sit up. My body begins to shake.
“He’s trying to open his eyes.” A man’s voice…
The nurse is speaking. I catch the end of a sentence: “… Tracheotomy…” What does she mean tracheotomy? I can breathe, can’t I? And now someone else is saying “Oxygen mask”. Sounds like the doctor who’d been peering into my eye…
“… Sedate him.” Why would they want to sedate me? I’m trying to come back…I’m sure I can hear Lyn’s voice in the background. Now it breaks through the fog.
“My husband was fine last night. What’s gone wrong?”
Dr Jones is whispering. Rademeyer chips in. There is anger in his voice:
“The night nurse just wouldn’t listen… ”
Is Ella with her mum? I don’t want my girlie to worry. I need to tear through this tightness. Lyn’s asking something. If only I could make her understand … if I could open my eyes she’d…she’d know. A sting in my arm… Almost at once, darkness closes in around me. I feel as if I’m spinning round and round an open plug, about to spiral in… And then I do.
How extraordinary… I feel as if I am slipping out of my body… It feels like shucking off that old fashioned nightgown Lyn once gave me for Christmas. Just a shrug, and it falls to the floor. Now I am looking down on my bed and… My God, is that me? I look so old! A wave of pity overwhelms me. I can see a needle on a machine beside the bed flicking back and forth across a dial quite erratically. That can’t be good.
And there is Rademeyer talking to Lyn.
“I called the nurse three times. She wouldn’t listen… She told me to mind my own business.”
Lyn shakes her head.
“I’d take this hospital to court. I mean it. I’m prepared to testify.” Rademeyer again.
I watch Lyn’s hands, telling the beads on my Rosary.
“Sandy’s a staunch Catholic. I’m not sure he’d approve of… I mean this is a Catholic hospital. He wouldn’t want to …”
Watching the to-and-fro of Lyn’s conversation with Rademeyer, I feel like an eavesdropper. Now Rademeyer is working himself up to a fine froth. I wish he’d calm down. There’s no need for all this excitement. I feel fine.
A bright light distracts me… It seems to be emerging from… a sort of tunnel that opens up in the ward, and that stretches… infinitely far into… But then Rademeyer talks again.
“You may change your mind. Here’s my number if you do.”
Rademeyer presses a slip of paper into Lyn’s hand. I blink. The light is blinding. Ella… I have to see her before… One of the machines beside my bed starts emitting a piercing whistle. Two nurses enter in a rush and swish the curtain around me. The nurse with the impressive chest leans over me, pressing down rhythmically on my chest, again and again and again. A doctor enters the ward at a run and shunts her aside.
“No! Please God, no!” Lyn screams, as the light consumes me.
Lightning lights up the stained glass window in the hospital chapel. Lyn and Ella are kneeling in a pew and one of the Irish nuns present is whispering to them. I can see Lyn’s hands moving the Rosary beads feverishly. If only she could understand that I am very much with her. Death is nothing more than a thin veil, separating us from Earth.
“How will we cope without him?”
I watch Lyn’s face crumble and a nun take her into her arms.
“God will guide you, my dear.”
She’s no longer sure about God, I realise. How I wish I could reassure her. Ella has chosen to wear her turquoise jacket with the fur collar, today.
“Daddy likes this jacket,” she explains.
She turns away from her mother and looks up. Surely she can’t see me? I seem to be no more than a whirl of consciousness. There is nothing corporeal at all about me anymore. That part of my life… ha ha… my existence is over. But she is looking up and, by God, she seems to be looking right at me. And now she’s smiling. I yearn for a flickering instant to be able to reach down and touch her temple in the way I always have, smooth her hairline with the edge of my thumb… And then she lifts her hand, shyly, perhaps not wanting to be seen by her mother, and she’s fluttering her fingers and I feel something swell within me, it can’t be a heart, because that sort of thing is all behind me, but I feel myself swell, with love, with joy, with gratitude.