I dedicate this story to my partner and to everyone who has carried or is carrying the burden of grief.
Sitting by the bed, holding my hand, you think my mind is fighting against the decision of my body to quit life’s game. My eyes are closed, but I sense your will through the fingers laced tightly around my own. Tenderness is a force and you stake my claim to life through the insistent pressure of your hand. How it has grown over these long years from its immaculate small perfection to this manifestation of adult capability: greeting strangers, shaking on deals, carrying children of your own. From the first moment, holding tight to my little finger in the hush of the darkened hospital room, it wanted to latch onto me and the world. You needed reassuring then; you do now.
Beloved child, my hand rests peacefully in your own. Let it speak to you with the words I can no longer form: I am ready, so let me go.
Quitting seems such a nasty word. I used to think so too. Lying here, I remember telling you not to give up; to keep trying at those school projects, at winning over the sour-faced teacher, at striving to do your best in the world of work and family. So, it is no surprise that you desperately want me to go another round; you aren’t ready for me to hang up the boots and to let this be the final whistle.
Doctors speak in plain language of their expectations for this last round of play. You are resigned, seeming to concur with their prognosis; yet, when they are gone to the next ward, I feel the pulse of rage in the heartbeat of your hand. It troubles the peace I feel begin to slip about me like the blanket I wrapped you in, our blessed first night together.
Beloved child, tuck me into this long sleep.
Strength is sometimes a burden. I sense your head bowed with the weight of this demand: to fight on for my life. You are a pillar of strength threatened by tides of emotion. Let them come; lay down the boulder of your mighty will and trust me that there is no wrong or shame in this. It is ok to feel as small as a pebble, waves washing over it, again and again, caught up in the pounding tides of life; but there is also so much strength, even in the smallest stone.
If the doctor’s words have lit a fighting fire in you, they have quenched my last longings. I have been delivered from the exhausting expectation to struggle and soldier on. My body has long known the relief of a lie-down, now my mind can too. At the end of this illness, I can finally embrace myself once more, body and mind hugging each other tight.
Nurses come, those kind attendees with their needles and bottles to help ease the passing of my days. Quietly and efficiently they dismantle the apparatus that has helped me cling to life. Monitors and machines are disconnected and wheeled away; drips suspend their drops and beeps are silenced. Life lines are hauled out and I am my own net, catching my life’s dreams and memories. Holding them safe inside me, I am ready to let go.
Deep within you, I wish for a long-lost memory to stir. Do you think you can remember our first night together? There was noise, so much! The bustle of nurses, the instructions of doctors; machines robotically noted key data while I gasped my ragged breath and blew blast after blast on the trumpet of pain. Everything was labouring and then you shuddered into this world on a wave of love.
You added your noise, of course you did, roaring in a way that silenced everything else. I knew I had never heard a more beautiful sound than your first-born cry. There must have been other noises: temperatures read and recorded, pens scribbling on charts; your armband identification filled in and the blue plastic snapped onto your little wrist; sheets rustling as they were changed and freshly laid; casters clicking on the floor as we were wheeled to another ward, but I was deaf to it all. The only thing that returns to me, in the serenity of now, is the silence we shared as the rest of the world seemed to sleep; those first hours together when it was just us two, with eyes only for each other.
Eventually you closed yours and drifted off to sleep. I was beyond exhaustion and yet, watching your little chest rise and fall in a rhythm so wonderfully familiar and new, I pushed tiredness away as I held you closer to me. I wanted that night to never end; to put off that moment when we would be parted for the first time, even if you were just in a crib a few feet from my bed. My will was strong but eventually the night nurse came by and laughed at my stoic fight to stay awake and keep guard.
“He’ll be alright, he knows his mum is right beside him. Remember, there’s plenty of time for tiredness in the nights to come!”
She was right. When she lifted you from my arms and placed you in the crib at my side, you never stirred. The last thing I remember before sleep claimed me, was stroking your little hand with the tips of my fingers, realising that you knew I was there, and I knew you were there for me too.
Silence cups us as it did that night eighty years ago. Yours was the small hand then, now it is mine. Things seem different, but nothing really changes at all. Our hands will always reach out to each other across time and space; but in the circle of your memory, you'll reach me and we'll hold each other once more.
Beloved child, my hand rests peacefully in your own. Let it speak to you with the words I can no longer form. Tuck me into this long sleep.
I am ready, and you are too, so let me go.