Tuesday, August 16, 2005


My Dad has just got back out of hospital after spending four or five weeks there with a mystery malady and irregular heart rate.

A man died in the bed next to my Dad's whilst I was visiting him one afternoon in the Acute Ward. My Mum had left the ward to buy Dad a PatientLine card so he could watch the TV, and whilst I was talking to him about the cricket, I became vaguely aware of a nurse by the side of the bed next to us, asking the patient if he was alright. There was no answer and within moments, before I could even glance across, the blue curtain had been drawn around this patient's bed. The mutual side of the curtain was now draped completely over my Dad's bedside trolley, leaving my Mum's handbag, a bowl of nuts and a water jug stranded in the zone on the other side of the partition. The rest of the curtain around my Dad's bed was then drawn, and we heard the swish of every other curtain in the ward, one after the next. And then the resus team swooped, and my Dad and I listened to them as they tried in vain to resuscitate the poor man.

The curtain that separated my Dad's bed from that of the man's next to us flapped and bulged like the stage curtain in one of those comedy routines, where two people are apparently fighting behind it and all the guffawing audience can see is the occasional hat or floppy dummy flung above the top briefly. My Dad's trolley clanged as it was suddenly nudged by an unseen (nurse's?) bottom so that it poked through the curtain, and as my Dad reflexively reached out to minimise the impact, I remember whispering to him that my Mum would have kittens when she came back to the ward, on seeing that it had been completely curtained off ... My Dad, still suffering from dysphasia following his stroke, shook his head, eventually finding some philosophical words: "what can you do?". Apart from that, we said very little to each other.

I sat uncomfortably on the bed, looking at my Dad propped up by his pillows, his bare chest still covered with the polygons of stickiness left by recently removed electrodes; and I imagined the dead man rising out of his body, perching over the two partitions, looking down at us – on one side seeing the clinical glimmer of the team trying to save his life, and on the other me and my Dad, sombre, isolated and umming in the blue gloom. I felt self-conscious, undeserving and privileged. Only that morning, I'd been bratishly shouting at my wife for failing to remember to buy some self-tanning lotion on her shopping trip, and here was I attending this dead man's second most significant episode in his life, other than his birth. I was sure the dead man could see me blushing, as we heard him being declared dead by muffled words in the past tense: "He was an 83 year-old man who came into A & E after having a stroke at home. He was sent down to us and had only been here half an hour".

When the resus team had left, the nurses pulled back all the curtains in the ward except for the one around the 83-year-old dead man's bed. My Mum came in, her kittens in tow, and I retrieved her handbag. It was the first dead body I'd ever seen.

A few days after, again whilst visiting my Dad, we listened to a man in the opposite bed mumble the words "Oh dear", forlornly, every 15 minutes or so, into his oxygen mask. "Do you think he's confused or in pain?", I asked my Mum discreetly. "Oh, I think they have things for pain", she replied.

He died that night. He had been dying and I suppose he knew it was the end and all he was saying was "Oh dear". The understatedness of the phrase still haunts me; the way his voice had fluttered, perhaps due to the billowing oxygen or the skittish arrhythmia of his heart.