They say as you age you grow down, revert to childhood. That was the case with Stan. He sat on the edge of his wire-based bed and peppered me with questions.
‘What does God look like?’
‘Will it hurt when I die?’
‘Will I know?’
‘Will you be here?’
He took a breather between each question. Not just to listen to the answer, though. Somehow he knew most of his questions nowadays didn’t have answers. He took a breather because that was what he needed, sitting on the side of his bed, the white bath towel dangling on his still wet feet, his breath coming in pants, his chest rattling, eyes a watery grey, gazing onto nothing much.
Stan has lived longer than he can bear. No, that is not quite right. It’s not that he can’t bear to live; it’s rather that he could not be bothered. Not that he wants to die, either. Well, he says he wants to die; wants not to wake up in the morning. But the next minute he asks me to turn off the fan, or he will catch his death of cold. Ageing is a conundrum.
The other day when I visited Stan, the nurse tapped me on the shoulder and quietly, yet gravely, told me that he was no longer eating what was put in front of him. I call her a nurse, but I am no longer certain what a nurse is. Many years ago, when I was young, in the middle of last century to be exact, there was a hierarchy involved in ministering to the sick. On the top was a Matron, in the middle was a Sister, and on the bottom of the heap was a Nurse. Now everyone seems to be a nurse, some are Registered Nurses, others are Enrolled Nurses and others are just Nurses’ Aides. I miss that diversity in name - a lot of the ‘romance’ has gone. So, Stan is no longer eating.
I tackle him about this. He is surprised, did not realise. He obviously did not do it on purpose. Well, not with the purpose of dying. I explain to him that God will only ‘take’ him when God is well and truly ready, so not eating will only mean a prolonged agony. He listens, but I know his brain is not engaged. It seems to spend a lot of time in neutral. That would send me bananas, but it does not seem to affect Stan.
There are days when I sit on the edge of his bed, and he tells me that he does not feel well. He reckons he is running a temperature. He wants me to tell a nurse. I don’t ask him what type of nurse. But I do suggest that we go for a walk in the garden. He no longer walks much. He says he does, but I am not convinced. Every time I arrive he is asleep on his bed. He worries about going outside. Should he take a jumper? He would not want to catch a chill. I don’t think this is humour.
I fold his jumper over my arm, and we take the lift down to the garden. We sit on the bench and name all the trees. We watch the birds fly over and name them. We sing ‘Pack up your Troubles’ and he tries to recite ‘The Man from Snowy River’. He thinks that if he can still say this, then he is definitely not losing his marbles. He starts to shiver and we take the lift back up to the third floor.
He doesn’t think he is running a temperature any more. I tell the nurse, the enrolled nurse.