I woke up to find myself among the dying. As a child I had nightmares about waking up with everyone around me dead.
My companions were in pain but managing well, even joking with each other about their curtailed lives. It was apparent they would get worse – whereas I would get better.
Unable to find a space in the short-stay ward, the hospital had put me in a side ward with four beds. The other three were occupied, I discovered, by terminally ill women.
Marcia was young, had curly hair, a lively personality and breast cancer with secondaries in liver, colon and spine. Barbara – older, sallow, and bald – had a warm smile and incurable leukaemia. Jenny, suffering with a rare degenerative lung disease, whispered her words and was on oxygen most of the time. The others teased her saying that the vapour flowing out of her nebuliser made her look like Darth Vader.
I lay in my bed listening to their affectionate banter. There was a real bond between them. I felt the outsider. But I had hope.
The trio were discussing holiday options for the terminally ill. Dying in the sun would be a nice way to go, sighed Jenny, and one-way tickets were cheaper. Marcia giggled, recalling that a single-journey airline ticket always had the word ‘void’ in the space for the return destination. Barbara said they were too ill to be allowed to travel by air.
Marcia suggested booking a cruise departing from a UK port, although waiting until spring might be a waste of money if she died in the interim. Jenny had heard that the shipping company were obliged to repatriate a body, which would be useful. Barbara cackled with morbid laughter saying it might be a bit chilly in a coffin down in the ships’ hold.
I asked Marcia about their gallows humour. “You get like that,” she muttered with a shrug. In the night she had a problem and was wheeled out. All her veins had collapsed so she would need to have a Hickman line inserted – a very painful procedure. She didn’t return.
The next day, Barbara was moved to another hospital. She was having chemo and had been offered a new drug trial, “Might as well. It’s a last ditch option. I’ve nothing to lose – except my life and that’s ending anyway.” She grinned as she left.
I recovered quickly. The following morning, as I dressed to leave the hospital and go home, I thought, Why me and not them? Saying goodbye to Jenny, wheezing with her oxygen, her every breath drawn raggedly into her lungs, I felt so guilty, yet so thankful. She gave me a tired smile and said, “Bring it on!”
I left the ward. And then there was one.