A hospital room with a view of eternity

An Irishman’s Diary: Who was keeping the grass cut and the bird feeders full?

When I reached 70 I felt great. I even had a party, which is not my style at all. Thanks to modern medicine I had already lived four years longer than my father. He died in the South Infirmary in Cork – the doctor told him to take aspirin for his heart and the nun on the ward said to this frail man wheezing for breath “Come on, Mr Ryan, answer up the Rosary.”

Lately things have started to catch up on me and I’ve got to know consultants and surgeons quite well. Without exception they were skilled and compassionate. I also got to know many new medical terms such as Type 2, triple A, angio, A Fib, tracheostomy and even, God help me, ED.

Last year, things finally came to a head, as it were. “One week,” said the cardiologist. In the heel of the hunt I spent seven weeks in a very high-class hospital because my heart wasn’t quite as strong as they thought.

So a new valve, three by-passes and a week in a medically-induced coma later, I lay in a private room looking out on beautiful Dublin Bay, ferries going east and west across the calm waters.


But all I wanted was to be able to look out on my own back garden. Who was keeping the grass cut and the bird feeders full? Chaffinches, bull finches, green finches, the cheeky robin and secretive wren, fours kinds of tits, gold finches, blackcaps, sparrows, blackbirds, magpies and sometimes the swooping sparrow hawk. I thought of them all every day.

My wife, daughter and three sons came to visit. In a way they seemed unreal. To this day they claim that they were ready for any outcome, even when the surgeon said that I had him worried. I don’t know whether to believe them or not.

And the grandchildren came – best clothes, scrubbed faces, curious, on tiptoe at first, beautiful. I looked at them and saw they were the images of their parents. Whatever happened me, life would go on. Just as it was meant to.

I have two special memories. One morning the nursing assistant asked me would I like a shower, my first. She laughed when she saw my face light up.

“Right so, take off those pyjamas, let’s go.”

She led me by the hand to a low stool in the bathroom. She washed me softly, reverently. She sprayed the warm refreshing water over my bent shoulders and then wrapped white towels around my weak and naked body. She did this every day she was on duty until I was able to leave.

I wanted to write a poem. A poem that would move those who read it, a hymn and a lay of thanksgiving. I have only got as far as a working title, something like “The Sacrament of a Shower”.

One quiet afternoon, just a very nice nurse and myself in the room.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said softly.

How could she know?

“OK so. What am I thinking?”

“You are thinking will we run away together?” and she laughed a tinkling laugh.

I was speechless at this admission of . . . liking each other? That is sufficient. But in the post-op stress her features and her countenance have faded from my memory. That makes me very sad.

When I got home, nothing much had changed. Politicians were still squabbling and not listening to anybody. Hunger and poverty still reigned. Well, did I expect anything else?

I had to go to TV channels such as BBC, Channel 4, Al-Jazeera to follow the plight of the people of Syria who were fleeing in their tens of thousands from savagery and slaughter. Too often RTÉ seemed preoccupied with more insular news.

I read lately about John McGahern’s unique gift of being able to describe both the joy and the despair one meets on one’s life journey. One clings to the physical world as a barnacle clings to a seashore rock, but according to McGahern it is when one is on the brink of eternity that one sees perhaps for the first time ever the “awesome glory” of this world.

I think I saw some of this glory in the work of those who tended the sick in many different ways. But how does one show any of this awesome glory to those on the brink of eternity who have never experienced anything but the evil wrought by their fellow man?