“What does it feel like to know you’re dying?” A short story that serves as a pointed reminder to take pleasure in the mundane…
by: Caroline McNeilage
The oncologist’s office is cold but we’re both still hot and flustered from the summer heat outside.
“Hello, Jack. I’m Dr Walsh.”
“Pleased to meet you. This is my wife, Mathilde.”
“Jack, I’m afraid, I have some rather bad news.”
Mathilde and I exchange glances. How bad can it be?
“Well, go ahead and rip the band aid off, doc.”
“The lump in your nose is malignant and highly aggressive. It’s stage four, which means it’s advanced and has spread to other organs, your lymph nodes, liver and pancreas. It’s terminal. I’m sorry.” Dr Walsh takes a breath, avoids my gaze by looking down to his notes.
“What’s the plan of action? My Mathilde asks, the forever planner.
“Palliative care. We can keep Jack comfortable…”
“How long have I got?”
“A few weeks, I’m sorry.”
“What exactly is going to happen?” My Mathilde, the attention to detail master.
“One of Jack’s vital organs will fail.”
“Oh my God! This sounds intense. A vital organ failure, what do you mean exactly? Which organ?’”
“We don’t know which one. As I said, we can keep him comfortable. After that, how long he’s got is something we cannot say for sure.”
I decide to stay home until it’s absolutely necessary to go to the hospital. Hospitals are for dying, and there I can avoid inflicting additional stress on my family. They’ll have all the morphine I need handy. But until then, home.
Here’s my three-act story.
You’re born. You live. You die.
I never expected my life to be cut short. Everyone else in my family lived into their eighties. I didn’t drink or smoke and I ate well and exercised. Why shouldn’t my story be a long one?
I squeeze the hand of my love, my rock. I look at her and notice everything about her, down to the oversized pores on her cheeks.
I want this moment to last forever. She’s my life. My wife. My Mathilde.
Freshly condemned to death, we bid the doctor goodbye and leave. He’s the specialist; he stays there, forever alive. The sun blinds us and the sweltering wind nails our bodies to the wall.
Before we set off into our certain non-future Mathilde and I hug tight.
“We’ll get through this,” she promises.
One of us will.
“I love you.”
What does a few weeks mean? A week is made of seven days. Is it possible I will die mid-week? My body is rapidly failing me. I’ll have to make a decision quickly once home.
I admire the bright white kitchen I’ve installed and the brand-new floorboards I’ve laid out. I’m leaving something solid behind, besides broken hearts. Just thought I’d have longer to enjoy it.
Life is short. One of the most clichéd sentences you’ll ever hear. The truest.
Mum used to read us bedtime stories. My favorite was The Little Match Girl. In it, a little girl sells matches in the street during winter. The city is covered in snow. She is starving and cold. People ignore her. Before she freezes to death, she lights her remaining matches, one at a time, to warm herself. With the last match she hallucinates and sees her dead mother who invites her to a cheery room with food. I remember as a little boy, being struck by the tale’s loneliness. How heavy it was. I hoped for a different ending and asked Mum to read it again, just in case it might change with each telling.
Today, I’m the poor little boy with just a handful of matches. I’ll face death on my own. I’m cold and scared. Who or what will welcome me during my last match? I never believed in God.
I still don’t.
I tell our son face-to-face, but I delegate the rest — assorted family and friends — to Mathilde. She’ll be the spokesperson. It’s a heavy thing for her to carry, but I won’t waste my energy repeating myself. These are my final weeks and for the first time of my life they will be entirely mine. I’ll use my last matches as I see fit, or as my body will allow.
I take Danny on a walk. He puts his arms around me and asks if there’s anything he can do.
“Live your life well. Seriously, I mean it. Do what makes you happy. Because in the end I tell you, son, no one gives a shit about you really. And, I mean, no one.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t believe you won’t be there for my twenty-first birthday.”
We break down.
News, a sieve, triages the heroes from the blow-flies. People I thought I could count on desert me at the speed of light. The ones I took for granted, rise up. I grieve for the time I wasted not knowing them earlier.
What I want the most is what I can’t have: the mundane. A run, a long drive. I spend most of my time sleeping. I dream. Strangely it’s my childhood I dream about most. The first time I went skiing with my mother and a school friend. My cello lessons. My time at the police academy. After that, things blur and I don’t understand why. Maybe it’s the fact that most of my time was spent working.
My body deteriorates much faster than anticipated, but I’m outliving the predictions. I was certain I’d prove the doctors wrong. Now I’m not so sure anymore.
We watch the season finale of our favorite series. The fifth season is coming out at the end of the year. Mathilde switches the television off. I won’t see how things end. We don’t talk about it. I open the fridge and notice the expiry date on the jar of mustard. The fucking mustard will outlive me. My eyes sting.
The postman arrives with a delivery, I’m not quick enough to get to the door. He leaves the parcel on the ground. I bend down to lift it and I can’t. Our next-door neighbor, a sixteen-year old named Tammy, offers to bring it in for me. It’s like a feather in her hands. She can’t make eye contact. Death is now perched on my shoulder. I can smell it. Others can see it.
“What does it feel like, knowing you’re dying?” Mathilde asks. The first time she’s asked.
“Surreal. Truly weird. I can’t describe it.”
What am I supposed to say? I’m petrified? I’m broken-hearted because soon she will be on her own. Every time I hold her hand, I want that feeling to last forever. I genuinely cannot imagine there’ll be a time I can’t touch her.
In the dead of the night I watch her sleep. Grief stings my soul and mutes my screams. I mourn for the time we’ll never have.
I’m so sorry to leave her, for all that I’ve put her through. Endless medical appointments and hospital visits. Our life is a slow-motion car crash. I won’t come out of it alive. Fatally injured people replay their lives in a few seconds — I linger for days, weeks, months.
My memory plays tricks on me. Was it yesterday my mother read my sister and me The Little Match Girl?
Today, life teases me, throws a couple of matches my way. Bursts of energy where I’m pain free. Ephemeral glimpses of hope that it was all a bad dream. Only to slump and crash again. My body rebels, it’s too young to die. False promise lasts the time of a small match to be set alight, burn and die. Life mocks me, but I fight this final fight, cling to life. Its last match where the winner was declared long before the battle began.
Life, a sadistic cat, toys with me.
I’m bitter and resentful. I’ve been let down. I played by the rules.
I wear the cheerful mask. There still could be a miracle. Mathilde makes me special smoothies. She works hard to keep hope alive. She asks if I have any regrets. I dig deep and come up with yesterday’s corny answer that becomes meaningful today.
“Yes, I regret not having spent more time doing the things I enjoyed.”
“What things?’ my love asks.
“Singing. I wish I had spent more time singing. I should have joined a band.”
What I didn’t say was that I wish I had done more things for myself rather than of out of duty. I wish I had loved myself enough from the start, not to compromise my own happiness.
My body compensates its self-destruction by randomly heightening my senses. Everything’s a high-resolution tragedy and makes the most unintelligent people stand out. Unsolicited opinions and advice in my ears constantly, eat this, drink that, think positive — you can beat this. Perfectly healthy, perfectly ignorant people with unhealthy lifestyles are bestowed immortality. I never expected life to be fair, but still, I rage silently.
I have things to do. Places to go. People to love.
The angel is wearing a white toga. There’s a tattoo on her left arm. The sun pierces the dark temple and ignites her long flaming hair. She moves like a big cat. I’m a fallen Roman soldier, injured in battle. For a moment, I see two worlds at once.
“The meds are knocking you out,” says Alessia, the homecare nurse.
She crossed Mathilde’s path on her way out. We’re alone. I can take the cheerful mask off.
“We’re getting close now, aren’t we?”
She doesn’t reply and smiles while she changes my dressing and gently rubs balm on my bed sores. I feel love emanate from her every pore. She checks the box of supplies.
“Looks like we need to get you more Fentanyl,” she says. She takes me in her arms and fixes her emerald eyes on mine.
“Here’s the thing. You haven’t done anything wrong. It’s not like you didn’t fight hard enough. As a palliative nurse, I hate it when people talk about battling cancer. It’s not a battle. It makes people like you feel like they’ve let themselves and others down because they didn’t fight hard enough. It doesn’t work that way. The anomaly is that our body works without a glitch. It’s a miracle, even with all our medical progress, still a mystery. There’s nothing you could have done differently.” She hugs me tight. Her hair smells like jasmine.
“What’s that big tattoo?” I ask.
“It’s a Roman symbol. I’m obsessed with ancient history.”
I focus on my last years with Mathilde. When we first met, first kissed. Everything was easy and fell into place. We used to wonder how it could be so easy. Whatever happened, we had each other, we used to say. We drew so much comfort from each other, two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Our first seconds of wakefulness were spent in blissful wonder at each other. We used to say that for the first time in our lives, reality was better than a dream.
Surely life couldn’t be so cruel as to separate two people who loved each other that much?
But it’s true what they say: life’s a bitch and then you die. Cancer, life’s minion, a capricious toddler armed with a machine gun. Watch your favorite person in the world die a slow, painful death. The agony of watching Mathilde watch me fade away.
Strike a match. It was all a bad dream. Today I feel the best I have in ages. Mathilde laughs. “Maybe it was just a virus!’ Miracles happen. Maybe she’s right. The doctors got it all wrong and it was a false alarm to jolt me out. I’ve made my mind up how I’m going to spend my last match.
“Darling, I think it’s time…”
“Do you need your tablets?”
“Mathilde darling, you know what I mean.”
The broken look on her face tears my weakened heart in a thousand pieces.
“I’ll get the car.”
“You can drive me to the station. I want to catch the train in. It’s the last normal thing I’ll do in this life.”
She looks shocked.
“Your last normal thing to do before you die, is a ride on the train?’”
I don’t expect her to understand. When you’re young and the conversation gets morbid, you try to imagine what you would do if you had a year, a month, a week to live. You feel like you have to come up with some crazy original ideas. Like jumping out of a plane, deep-sea diving, climbing Everest. I want to be part of life, just the plain life.
Heck, I haven’t been able to have my normal daily dump, and have been hooked up to a catheter and bag for the last thirteen weeks. Give me something mundane.
Mathilde drives me to Richmond station.
It’s peak hour on a hot summer morning, on an overcrowded train. The air conditioner doesn’t work. The mix of body odours, deodorants, perfumes, food and and coffee smells like a dim sum or a fart. Coughs, crying babies and, sneezes all sound like music to my ears.
People are giving me space since I look like a deformed gnome. The tumor on my nose has exploded. My body has lost all its fat. I’m an old dog looking for a hiding spot to die. I want to ride this train one last time. I used to hate it in my youth. Those years of commuting on public transport felt like hell. Today, it feels like my last earthy luxury.
In half an hour I will be in a hospital bed, family and friends will come to say goodbye every day, until the day. I worry about my family. My boy’s all grown up and has his life but I will never meet his children. My poor Mathilde…we’re getting to the until death do us part bit. I’m so sorry to leave her behind even though I know she will be alright. I hope.
From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of a young woman trapped between a man’s armpit and an obese woman. I see pity in her gaze. Oh, darling girl, do not pity me. Pity yourself if you are unable to take pleasure in the mundane. Be grateful to be part of humanity, even when sometimes it stinks a bit.
I eye the non-smoking sign. Grin. Light my last match.
Caroline McNeilage was born and raised in the French part of Switzerland and came to Australia as a teenager. She has a bachelor of psychology and is currently working on a novel, a psychological thriller, with Faber Academy, London.