With the recent news of an aunt’s sudden death, just five months after her husband’s, endings are on my mind. I now only have one aunt, and no uncles, left.
I was reminded of a short piece I wrote a few years ago, when a favourite uncle was terminally ill in hospital. I thought I’d share it with you.
A book in time
‘See that bloke in the end bed?’ says my uncle. ‘You ought to meet him, he’s written a book. And I think he’s related to the bloke who used to own your old house. Same odd name, anyway.’
‘That bloke’ is a perky fellow in his 70s, sitting on his bed in his dressing gown. In his mind he’s already left the sick and dying behind in this hospital; he hopes to be going home this afternoon. He’s escaped It this time.
I introduce myself. It turns out he is the uncle of the man I knew, but he’s nothing like his nephew, who was a coarse and ignorant fellow with hardly any teeth and a bitter outlook on life.
This Mr. N. is intelligent, amiable, neat. I ask about the book. He’s a bit embarrassed, but proud too. The printed copy only arrived in his hands today. ‘My grand-daughters have been at me for years to get it all down,’ he says. ‘The war, my squadron, lots of narrow escapes, you know. They always wanted to hear more stories… not that I ever told them the nasty stuff… but they liked the adventures, said listening to me it was as good as a book!’
I flick through it. The girls have had it printed for him, organised photos, layout, typed in the stories: they’ve done a good job. It looks inviting, interesting, humorous… like the writer, I think. I congratulate him on it, and the effort involved. ‘Lots of people apart from your family will enjoy this,’ I say. ‘It’s really important to get stories like yours down on paper. This is real history!’
He is pleased. My uncle has told him I am a writer… ‘But I haven’t got a book with my name on it,’ I smile. The doctor arrives just then for his discharge examination, and nurses begin to swish the curtains around the bed.
I return to my uncle. My uncle is dying, but we are waiting for a sign from him to admit that this is the last of the many hospital stays. ‘You’ll have a book out one day, I’m sure of it,’ he says with a smile. He’s always been the most encouraging of my family; he actually reads some of my stories, although occasionally they embarrass him with their frankness! He likes best the ones about the past.
The curtains swish back from the end bed. Mr. N. is now dressed; he’s got the all-clear. He comes over to shake hands. ‘Half your luck, mate,’ says my uncle. ‘Hope they’ll let me out that door soon too.’
My aunt and I exchange brief and painful glances.
Next day I visit again before driving back home, some four hours away. My aunt intercepts me at the door, ‘Come for a coffee first,’ she whispers.
‘It’s Mr N. The sister’s just told me he died last night. His first night home! I don’t want your uncle to know: it would depress him terribly. Apparently there was nothing more they could do for him here. It was still a shock, being so sudden. Heart attack, they think.’
‘But he seemed so well!’ I frown. And then I smile, ‘But thank goodness his book made it in time; how awful to think if it had come today instead of yesterday. That would have been a tragedy. And he’s probably been saved from the worst of a slow end.’
We go back to the ward. My uncle is asleep; he looks very gaunt and grey. My own words come back to me, and as I can see by her face, to my aunt too: ‘a slow end.’ We clasp hands, wish hard for such a happy deliverance from this for him too, but I cannot imagine what equally happy last gift we can bestow on him, to send him out with a smile, as Mr N.’s book in time.