“Matt, you’re buzzing,” she said. Concern laced to every word.
I sighed, and stubbed another dream I’d never remember out into the bedsheets.
Zzzt, zzzt, MUM, zzzt zzzt
“Matt, it’s Mum,” I prepared to hear, “it’s your dad.”
Strips of moonlight were trying to help me find my phone in the disorientating black, and my fingers managed only to disturb the ornamental steroid cream that now lives behind the bedside table.
“He-ello,” I croaked. I cleared my throat. “Hello?” I queried, as if I suspected an imposter on the other end.
“Hello, its Mummy,” answered a thin voice. “It’s your dad.”
I swallowed. I felt OK.
“Oh shit,” I said, “is he…what’s?”
“He isn’t coming back this time.”
I took a deep breath. Dea put her hand on my leg. I could feel her looking at me with pity in the dark and I found it so irritating. I’m not right, sometimes.
“We’re at the hospital,” said Mum, “Royal. 6B, in the family room.”
“Ok,” I replied to the unasked question. “I’ll be a couple of hours.”
Used to be when you hung up a phone it made a noise.
“Are you ok?”
“My Dad’s dying Dea,” I said like an asshole, punishing her for the hand on my leg.
“I’m sorry,” she replied unfazed, “Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. I swung my skinny sticks into the small hours of spring. “Come see us later.”
I felt OK.
I felt OK on the bus. I listened to music and thought of other things. I felt OK waiting for the lift at the foot of the towered wards. Inside, there was enough graffiti to keep me out of my head for the 30 second ascent, and thankfully no-one got in. I didn’t want to feel compelled to smile, I wanted to do literally anything else. I felt OK on the landing too, at least until I thought about the last time we spoke…
“Oh hello, Son,” he said.
“Alrighty Pops,” I replied. “It’s weird you being here. We give these guys our cystoscopes.”
He didn’t reply. Didn’t seem like he’d heard me even. He looked like someone had sewn his skin around the skeleton of a smaller man.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“How are you feeling?” I repeated, louder. He’d had the same hearing aids for years and they’d seemed more prop than assistance for most of those.
“Oh you know,” he said.
I didn’t. I never wanted to either.
“Joanna works here?” he asked.
“No Dad. I do.”
“Oh yes,” he said with a nod.
89 years, and he’d only aged in the last 2 months.
“Pepper’s missing you,” I told him. “Keeps looking for you around the house.”
“The dog?” he replied. “Your Mum will look after him. He won’t miss me.”
The casual acknowledgement of his mortality choked me. I shook my head because he couldn’t have been more wrong. I hope he didn’t really think that.
“How’s Dea?” he asked. He never got confused about Dea. I thought about the sweetness that could create such a connection to someone he’d rarely seen. It hurt my guts…
A door opened. I was on the landing, feeling OK.
“Oh hello,” said a nurse. “Are you here to visit?”
“My mum, she told me she’s in the family room.”
“Ah. Mr. Stanley?” she said as gravity took a greater hold of her face.
She smiled, pity perfected, and pointed towards an area of hall: “Second door on the right. Just go on in, no-one will disturb you.”
I felt OK.
My mum’s face was puffy from the hours that weeping had stolen from sleep. I hugged her close and tight like we never do, and she shook as tears dampened my shoulder.
“It’s OK,” I said, over and over, having apparently convinced myself that it was.
My sister was at the window looking out over a city waking up. She was cradling an arm into her stomach, a palm over her trembling lips, delicate fingers rippling code on their surface. I joined her at the window with my arms out and I held her too. “It’s OK,” I said. My mantra. If you say something enough times, it might become true.
“What happened?” I asked.
Mum answered behind me: “I was asleep,” she said. “He must have gone to the toilet, but had trouble putting his pajamas back on. He woke me up fitting.”
For a moment I was my mum, roused by the sounds of a body rejecting itself. Waking into nightmare, 40 years of love at the foot of a bed, exposed, undignified, unrecognisable, a violent structure of angles and catheter bags, a life struggling to free itself from a broken host.
I felt OK.
A door opened.
“You can come see him now,” said a voice I can’t place.
“Where is he?” I asked Mum.
“In the ward.”
“With everyone else?”
I felt OK.
The five sixths of the ward, uncontained by green curtain, guided us to his bed with their eyes and clamped smiles. I prepared for shock, but even after the grey-skinned paternal imposter yawned at me a few times, I still felt OK. We put on our blinkers and sat down – to watch apparently.
Three doctors, well versed in death, appeared from the wings for the final act of their theatre of response. Feet were poked, lights were shone in eyes, it was demonstrated how heavy an arm was, devoid of life. I’m not sure what we’d done to offend them so much.
“He’s fucked,” the doctor didn’t say. “You should probably sit in this box and watch him fade away.”
My Mum and Sister nodded. I felt…angry.
“So what now?” I asked .
“I think we just…wait,” replied my sister.
“For what?” I said, like an asshole again.
She shrugged, and a tear fell out of her eye.
I’d made her cry.
I felt annoyed again.
“Jo, I’m sorry,” I said. “Ignore me, I’m just upset. It’s just…this all just seems…cruel.”
“I need to ring work,” I announced, standing up. “You want a coffee? Mum?”
They didn’t. I’d get them one anyway.
“You take as much time as you need,” she said. “We can cover you for at least this week.
“Thanks,” I replied. My eyes stung. I’ve never been very good with people being kind to me.
Me, three coffees and a thin smile rode the elevator wishing we’d taken the stairs.
“I hate lifts.”
“Well this is me.”
When I got back to the ward, they’d moved my Dad’s imposter to a side room so we could spectate his indefinite death with more privacy.
“You should really get some fresh air,” I said to my Mum.
“I just don’t want to leave him,” she said, crumbling on the last word.
I sighed, and put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “You’re not leaving him,” I told her. “This isn’t him any more than…than the windowsill is or…or the door. And…and I know that sounds horrible, it feels horrible to say, but it’s true. It can’t be healthy for you, for anyone, to…to have to sit here and punish ourselves like this. I refuse to remember him like this. I refuse to believe he’d even want this. I know I wouldn’t. Dad’s not…he’s not in there anymore, he’s everywhere else. He’s in your mind now, he’s in mine. He’s exactly how you remember him, and he always will be. He’s inside everything that’s alive, because…because you can put him there. You look at my face, he’s there, he’s in Jo and the boys, in Pepper, like Max, like how you remember Max. I just…I…I mean, why do we do this? Who does this benefit? I don’t think it demeans Dad to not force ourselves to be here, and I know he would agree. I…it’s fine…it’s fine…I’m sorry.”
I sat down and watched the imposter yawn.
Ten minutes later my Mum stroked my hair and went to make some phone calls. My sister went to buy some cake. Dea turned up, and we went for a walk.
I felt OK.
I felt OK when I went back to work.
I felt OK in New York.
I felt OK speaking at his funeral.
I felt OK.
I feel OK.
I still feel OK. But I worry about that time when I don’t.
 Max was my parents’ previous dog. My mum still cries thinking about him. It doesn’t take much to make my mum cry.
About The Author
Matt Stanley is a Matthew if you’ve caught him kicking grit out the litter tray. He’s remarkably unknown, unless you have a penchant for obscure punk bands from the 2010’s. He comes from the Forest of Dean in the United Kingdom, a place famous for animals that either do or don’t exist, and who were never meant to have been there in the first place. He doesn’t have the accent though, sadly. He started writing about three years ago after putting it off for about thirty. He’s written a novel, but unfortunately half of it is rubbish so is currently working his way through its second draft. He’s never had anything published before this, although his dad had a few things published in the later part of his life; poetry and such, about forests and nice things. He works for the NHS, in Endoscopy, has seen the insides of a fair few folk and been pooped on more times than is strictly necessary.
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