An occasional post: writing that has been placed or commended in competitions (with a loose animal theme)
My brother in law, Mick, has come to stay, with his wife Heather. I’ve never liked Heather; she’s got a dirty house and watches daytime TV. Mick was dying on Monday, but today we’re not sure. It’s a rare cancer; it has the consultant surgeon confused and has reopened a simmering feud with the consultant oncologist about the best way to manage it.
He coughs every minute or so and in between the spasms, instead of drawing breath, he talks about the pulse racing in his neck, or the pain in his side that might be another tumour, or how he can’t stop sweating. Then he coughs some more, holding onto his ribs. He says he feels like he’s suffocating. He says he doesn’t think he’ll see Christmas and when he shuffles up behind me, I turn expecting to see his dad, but he’s two hundred miles away, sinking his fear into a pint or ten and Mick is only thirty-five.
Heather rubs his back, over and over; she taps, pats and murmurs in the shape of a giggle every tenth rub. We separated them last night, to give Heather a break from his constant need, but she kept making that sound and Mick’s lips turned blue. If he hadn’t come to find her, I would have dragged him there. As he fitted inside her palms I wondered how she kept doing it, how she keeps doing it.
I can’t stop offering suggestions; I used to be a nurse. I offer heat pads and inhalers, pillows and baths. Heather just keeps on rubbing, all night for all I know, because he doesn’t sleep. I hear him cough as I lie next to his older brother, Jake, who’s only eleven months older.
They were sent to the Gulf together in 1991, but they didn’t come back together. Mick had to stay. He was a driver and the army needed drivers to take supplies to the front line, but they didn’t need any more construction engineers. Jake was home before the scud missiles set off the chemical alarm that had Mick racing, in 45 degree heat, to get into his biological suit, until word got round that it was their deodorant that set them off, so they just took the pills instead.
He came home three months later, when the war went into hibernation like a restless bear. It cost him £500 to get out. He was nineteen. Jake did another ten years and made Staff Sergeant. Mick got ill: stomach ulcers, headaches, lung collapses and now this, a nerve sheath tumour that’s got delusions of sarcoma.
Yesterday, Jake brought his brother to our home as if he refuses to leave him behind again, as if he can rewrite the past.
I hadn’t realised how intrusive dying is, how irritating his cough and his need to talk about this tumour and that scar over and over. At night I pull the pillow over my ears. I wish he would die quietly. Maybe what I mistook for emptiness behind Heather’s eyes is acceptance, the same acceptance that keeps her patting and stroking and stops her asking why. She doesn’t waste time bargaining; she with hands that stroke and pat and comfort a dying man, who may not be dying, who sounds like he is.
I can’t wait for them to leave. I can’t wait for death to be heading up the M1 away from my family. All I can think about is that I’m not as good and kind as I thought I was while Jake sobs in my arms, convinced he will never see his brother again.