Authors: Martin Roper
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And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.
T. S. Eliot
I put the telephone down and know Ruth is in the last moments of her life. There have been telephone calls before at odd hours but never at four in the morning. I dress quickly and run out onto an empty Tivoli Road. It is dark and raining so heavily I am soaked by the time I get to where the car should be parked. I can't find it on the road. City of stolen cars. God is testing me. This is what Ruth will say and I try not to get angry but it is too lateâI am shaking with rage. I look in my pocket for money to call a taxi and as I'm counting the money in my hand I remember that it's a different car I have while mine is being repaired. It's blue this new one but I can't remember the make. I find it parked behind the yellow sports car belonging to the bitch who had once complained about the noise coming from the flat. I had confronted her about it, telling her I had no radio let alone a television. It's other sounds, she had said, like someone in pain. She had the gall to look me in the eye but when I asked her what she meant she just said it kept her little girl up nights. Tell her it's not pain, it's pleasure, I had said. You know pleasure, you're a married woman. I had regretted that. I had seen her in the summer in the garden with her excuse of a husband, seen the silence and the weak attempts to be a family with their desolate daughter. Every time I pass the soft roof of her sports car I want to slash it.
Ruth hated sentimental movies and I laugh at the appropriateness of the rain. I turn the key in the ignition, and the cassette player comes on abruptly:
The smell of fresh cut grass is fillin' up my senses
And the sun is shining down
on the blossoms in the avenue
There's a buzzin' flyin' around
the bluebells and the daisies
There's a lot more lovin' left in this worldâ
Don't go! Don't leave me now, now, now
While the sun is smilin'
I turn the music off and wonder if I should have called Ursulaâshe is visiting her father in Pontoon and won't be home until later this evening.
The roads into the city are bare and still I drive carefully. I stop at red lights and wait on the quiet, wet roads. The August dawn is coming. She will not wait for the morning, she will leave now, in the darkness.
Don't go yet.
She has been dying of cancer for seven years, and many times I wished her dead so her misery would end. And mine. I wish I had the courage to overdose her on morphine rather than go on. The windscreen wipers are exhausted with the rain. Don't crash. Just get there. I drive deeper into the city. It is a Tuesday bank holiday and the first trickle of workers are mournfully beginning the week. I am going the wrong way. I have been so used to going to the hospital to see her. Last Thursday morning the hospital had called me at work and told me to come in immediately. I had been called before like that and was reluctant to drop everything if it wasn't urgent. A week ago, Canning, the hairynosed fucker I had for a floor manager, had asked me how many miraculous recoveries I expected my sister to make. Not many more, I had said. But the nun spoke calmly and quietly on the telephone and said, yes, she said, yes you should come now. She wants you to come now to sign the papers. She wants to be moved from the hospital to the hospice. She is nineteen.
I slow down to get a sense of where I am going; my mind is blank and I drive without knowing where I am going, hoping something will click eventually. I am not meant to be with Ursula. If it was meant to be she would be here now. It is an absurd thought but instinct tells me it is true. I feel already we have left each other, that all there is left is to say the words of leaving. Harold's Cross. The hospice is Harold's Cross. Either through Ranelagh or Donnybrook, one of them. There is only the sound of the windscreen wipers and the tires cutting through the wet roads. The silence in the car is heavy and I turn the stereo on again:
you can't leave nowâdon't leave nowÂ â¦
if you get there I know you'll like itÂ â¦
I switch it off. The traffic light is red and turns green but I do not move. I start crying. The light turns red again. Then I feel her spirit touch me, a faint, warm embrace falling on me and I feel her faint kiss softly on my cheek. I feel a surge of relief run through me and then it is gone: I know she is dead now.
Darkness has almost completely left the sky when I park the car in the
space outside the main doors. The doors, usually open, are closed to the morning chill. I step into a churchlike stillness. A nurse is walking down the corridor. I take to the stairs, falling up them three at a time. It is futile to hurry but the legs are oblivious to what the heart already knows. As I come off the last step onto the landing, a young nurse, barely twenty, is standing near the window. She raises her palms to slow me down, and then changes her mind and drops them as if they are annoying her. Her face is taut with the struggle to find words. She looks as if she had been left in charge and is not quite ready for the job.
âAre you for Ruth?
âYes. It's okay. I know.
âI don't even know your name. Are you her husband?
âShe doesn't have a husband. I'm her brother.
I walk past her towards the ward.
âShe's not there.
For an instant I think perhaps she means she is in the corridor with a suitcase ready to go home. Then she moves her hand to her mouth and I know I am right in thinking her dead. It is disturbing that she has been moved already. It has begun, the whole grisly business of the body.
âGod, she was so young, she says.
The nurse is crying and I go to her and hug her shaking body. When I look at her, her face is blotchy. My eye catches her name tag, the same name as my sister. The strange serendipity of life seeping into us, swirling around us.
A mass of pillows sit her half up in the bed and she looks like she has a dozen times when she has fallen asleep this way, only she is completely still. I almost speak to her. Such stillness in death. I want to joke with her about the nurse crying. There is a sheet of paper in a clear plastic folder on the bed underneath her hands. I lift the sheet and touch her fingers: they are cooling. The Lord is my shepherd. Jaded words of comfort on the sheet, put there not for the dying but for the living come to mourn their dead. I put my hand on the side of her warm face and kiss her and then I lie down on the bed beside her and hold her. We were in Grannie's house the last time I held her, reading from the Flannery O'Connor collection. I hated reading those grim and meaningless stories to her but she relished them. She had fallen asleep on my arm and I awoke then to her calling my name through clenched teeth.
âWhat is it?
âBasin. It is too late and the bile, as yellow and as slippery as egg yoke, coughs out of her mouth onto the blanket. So strange, no gurgling intestines, nothing but the heaviness of death and a face without pain. I am frightened for her that she was alone in those last minutes. She had been awake, I am sure. Somehow I know she didn't go in her sleep. She had been awake, waiting for it. I shiver and still myself not wanting to pass my own fear into her. Her face is flushed with the life having left her. At last all the pain is gone from her. The heat of life leaving her now. I pull the blanket up on her to keep her warm and imagine her opening her eyes, calling me a gobshite.
I'm done, she had said, last Thursday, just before she asked me to sign the transfer papers. I don't want to die but this body is no use. I'm not giving up. You know that? I nod. I am staring out at the traffic on Eccles Street. A busy morning outside but here everything is quiet. The dirty windows can't be opened and the air is dead. I tell her she has done everything she could. This is the last road. We all take it.
âI'm not giving up. This stupid body is no use. Everything else is grand. You know I'm not giving up?
âYou're not giving up. We're fellow travellers. I'm going back to America, out of here. I'll miss you. I'm scared of you dying.
She smiles a long smile and lifts up her hand for me to come closer.
âI'm glad you said that. You're the only one who ever cared.
âHe cares too. He just doesn't know what to say.
I help her up then, to the bathroom. She holds onto my shoulder as she squats over the toilet bowl. Nothing. The morphine dulls the pain but constipates her. So she stops taking it and then the pain comes back. This is why I hate the medical profession. There must be something they can do with such a simple problem. Fuckers all of them. This is why I hate that we have no money, hate that my father drilled into us the mantra of the poor: money doesn't buy happiness. No, but it eases the pain.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
She is cold now. I get up and sit on the bed. I want to leave the room quickly. I am afraid of sitting with her here, dead, afraid of a dead body that is Ruth. I put my hand on her cold leg and close my eyes and listen to the candle flickering and hissing on the window-sill. For a brief moment I remember sitting in a circle and staring at a candle when I was on retreat with the priesthood, when I was on the verge of my novitiate. Eight years ago. Before all this. It had been the calmest I had ever been. Her coldness is coming through the blanket. There are voices outside, my father is asking the nurse to speak up because of his hearing. His voice rings down the corridors of the hospice, waking the light sleepers who will know another one of them is gone. They are all waiting, all wondering who it is who is gone. My father starts to cry loudly. In he comes clutching the nurse as if he is facing an accident about to happen. His emotion flaps wildly and the peace scatters. A sister appears and offers him a seat in an adjoining room. She touches him on the shoulder, touches me on the shoulder, smiles a radiant smile and strokes my head as if I am a child. God bless you, she says. How often I have heard these words and they mean nothing. But this morning, coming from her, I feel their meaning, and feel there
a God, and God is here now, waiting and watching. I follow my father into the waiting room.
The nun brings tea and sandwiches. The room is bright now, the sun is up. The nun asks if I would like something else. My father looks up from the sandwich he is eating, his eyes guilty as if caught in the middle of indecency. He looks as if he would eat anything, as if he is under orders. The nun comes back with a bottle of Paddy and a glass. I drink the whiskey and it burns into my stomach. My father grins and hands me a sandwich. It is nearly eight when we leave. The morning traffic is heavy and I drive carefully, trying to avoid the heaviest of it. This isn't the shortest way, he says irritably. I tell him it's the best way with the morning traffic. We start to argue. I am thinking of the last weekend Ruth and I had together, alone at Grannie's house. I had picked her up on a Friday evening after I was finished work. She would spend the week in the hospital and then have a weekend out. She was desperate to get out of my father's house when she stayed with him. The television was always on and there was always endless talk. Him sitting there not watching the blaring screen. I was tired that Friday night, I was doing badly at work. Gerry was covering for me. Canning was in shit form because the Japs had returned a consignment. I had argued with Ursula. Despite her understanding and support, she was jealous of the time I spent with Ruth. For as long as we've been together all she has known is this illness. I suppose it could have just been that she was tired of not seeing me and when she did it was hardly worth the seeing. My depression showed most clearly with her. This was another weekend when I would disappear with Ruth and come back Sunday night, tired and loathing the idea of having to get up on Monday morning to face those morons. Ruth wanted a Chinese takeaway. I asked her for directions and she said turn left and I did. No, left, she said. That
left, I said banging the steering wheel and she put her hand to her mouth for me to stop. She opened the car door and vomited onto the road. I am thinking about this as my father argues in the car over the shortest way home. He can't drive and has no understanding of roads. The longest way is sometimes the shortest, I say to him. We are both quiet, alone in the loss of her.