‘You are having vivid dreams They’re not real. You’re not dying’
Hilary Fannin: My mother looked at me as if from a great distance . . .
Hilary Fannin: “Nice, sensible girls, who close their eyes to the gathering dark, always know the nice, sensible thing to say to elderly ladies.” Photograph: Alan Betson
The ward was locked, the sign outlining visiting hours visible on the door’s small window – half an hour until I could be admitted. It was, according to the notice, “patients’ rest time”.
From beyond the closed doors I could hear an elderly man roaring “take me home”. I watched nurses glide by on rubber clogs, their hair scraped back from tired faces. I turned back to the lifts.
I asked the nurse if there’d been a change to her medication
There’s nothing like a nice solid task when thinking is too dangerous. I returned at the allotted time, busied myself finding my mother’s hairbrush, folding her nightdress, putting used tissues in the bin.
“How are you feeling?”
“Weird,” she replied.
I asked the nurse if there’d been a change to her medication.
“And tell me,” I inquired, fidgeting around the nurses’ station, “tell me . . .”
I smiled, as I always do when I speak to medical professionals, foolishly thinking that if I’m a good, co-operative, sensible girl, they’ll look kindly on me, redirect the black-winged squadrons flying low and steady over my horizon.
“Tell me: did, by any chance, my mother leave the ward last night? Was she brought somewhere else in the hospital? Perhaps?”
“Your mother has hallucinations,” the nurse answered. “At night she is anxious, restless, difficult to settle.”
I went back to my mother’s bedside, where she was waiting stoically in her plastic chair, her lipstick on, her thinning hair combed, her yellow basket (containing her toothbrush and clean nightdress) on her knees. She had got herself ready to be taken, once again, to the strange room in the bowels of the hospital, with the pillars and the low-coloured lighting, the piped music and glinting syringes, where, she suspected, she would soon be euthanised.
“You’re not going anywhere,” I told her. “You have an infection. It’s just a dream, a very vivid dream. A couple of more days on the antibiotic drip and you’ll be fine.”
She looked at me as if from a great distance, as if she was looking at a photograph. I looked back, hollow, grainy, lifeless, flat.
We existed, my mother and I, in different dimensions. She browsed me a moment longer, before looking away.
“All right,” she said with a sigh. “I’m sure you’re right.”
Because I am a sensible girl, I wrote it all down in her notebook for her to read after I had left.
“You are having vivid dreams. They are not real. You are not dying,” I wrote, twice underlining the word “not”. I brought her washing home.
The next day I brought her washing back. She was to be discharged, I was told. She was chirpy, sitting out in her chair, waiting for a transport ambulance to bring her back to her residential home. Opposite her, a staggeringly beautiful young woman was mopping down a blue plastic mattress, surgical gloves covering her long brown hands. Before she left the ward, she removed a glove and blew my mother a kiss.
From a room down the corridor, the shouting started again
“Such a beautiful child,” my mother said. “Such a beautiful child. They’re wonderful here, you know, the nurses and carers. And Christ, what a job they’re trying to do.”
From a room down the corridor, the shouting started again. “I want to go home,” howled the disembodied voice, petitioning the disinfected air. “I want to go home.”
“Any more dreams?” I asked my mother. “Any more trips to Soylent Green?”
“No,” she answered. “No, but I got rid of the one-legged old bastard who was trying to crawl into my bed sharp enough.”
“What one-legged old bastard?” I asked, looking around at the yellowing elderly women bobbing about on seas of restless sleep, anchored to drips and catheters.
I watched, across the ward, as one of those dressing-gown astronauts, busy orbiting the known world, had her flight interrupted by muzzy instructions from the mother ship.
“Sit up now and have a spoonful of this for me,” the nurse said.
I saw the old woman’s obedient, moon-parched mouth open to crushed pills in strawberry yogurt.
“You’ll be glad to get back to your own room. It’ll do you good to be back in the home, surrounded by your books and drawings,” I told my mother, briskly folding up her nightdress and neatly repacking her case. Because nice, sensible girls, who close their eyes to the gathering dark, always know the nice, sensible thing to say to elderly ladies who wander abroad through chambers of the unconscious and occasionally surface again to share their narrow beds with ghosts.