By Julian Baker.
At first we all went together and huddled around the bedside, finding words to keep the flow of everyday pretence going.
“This happened to them.”
“So and so said…”
“Did you see..?”
Searching for small talk to make it sound as if everything was alright, our words to act as balm.
He, of course, when he could draw strength, would say something that cut through the politeness, usually a request since the time for sentimentality had passed.
When it become a vigil rather than a visit, we starting attending alone, only a brief catch-up at changeover.
During the weeks we still played at happy families, the atmosphere could stumble towards an oppression; with so many of us unnaturally gathered, it became hard to find subjects to involve everyone. The conversation would falter, leaking in the reality. I took these moments to step outside the room in the hope that more intimate numbers would allow for talk to rekindle.
There was little reason to trek downstairs to loiter with the smokers since I’d given up and the visitors’ canteen was on the far side of the building. Besides, there was an instant drinks machine in the stairwell just by the room. Before getting the teas in and lightening myself of the specially-collected small change, I would linger awhile in the corridor, keeping out the way by studying the genial art that lined the wall.
Being a public space, the pictures were in frames that screwed to the wall with a little brass plate on each side of the frame. It stuck me as a sad indictment that even in a hospital, particularly a ward like this, provision had to be given to stopping petty thievery. The drugs cabinet guarded maybe, but mass-produced prints of landscapes?
Right beside his door were three identical frames lined one above the other to fill a gap too small for the standard poster of a riverboat or field of watercolour poppies. My apprehension about seeing him face-to-face after hearing about his deterioration meant I hardly noticed them when walking by on my first visit. On subsequent visits I barely gave a second glance, thinking them certificates of some description.
Only when the situation became one of waiting for the inevitable and my sojourns in the hallway started, did I closely examine them to find that they were the original inserts that came with the frames. It stuck me as incongruous that someone could go to the trouble of screwing the frames into the wall while failing to notice the lack of imagery beneath the glass. Three times.
Aside from being right by the door in case I was suddenly required, I would lurk beside them in warped homage to whoever had so little interest or awareness of art they could mount three placeholders.
Towards the end, when the impending reality caused us to prefer solo visits, conversation becoming confessional, I would take stock outside the room on arrival and departure, and those three display cards in their frames became the only hint of humour in the day.
The moment came when we all gathered again to witness his death, our final visit. I stayed behind to help with paperwork and disposal of the now homeless belongings left in the room. Once it was empty, I took stock, standing outside in the corridor for the last time, eyes shut, willing back his appearance before he was bed bound, so not to take this place away as my final memory of him. Opening them again, I was confronted by the triple framed descriptors. A grin could not help breaking out on my face, contrasting with eyes puffy from grief – a sweet and sour expression reflected back at me in the glass.
The nurse who had attended the morphine cart was watching me from a short way off. She had rarely spoken during the administrations. Her role appearing to be a vigilant monitoring of dosage, the commencement of this final drug announcing only the deeper forms of silence that were to come.
She stepped towards me. I expected her to utter words of consolation, instead her off-kilter introduction threw me.
“I almost asked to be transferred from here. You aren’t normally given much choice which department you work in, but they do give some compensation for having to work on this ward. I drew what some might call the short straw and was stationed straight after graduation. Up ’til then it had mainly been post-op.
“I cried my eyes out the first few times a patient died. My boyfriend thought I should request a transfer. But now… I would hate to leave.
“I might have asked for that transfer if I hadn’t had a conversation started by art prints. We had a patient who didn’t receive a single visit in all my first few weeks working here, so I made an extra special effort to try and be cheery. Asked him if he liked the print in his room. We don’t normally encourage conversation that requires a reply – often talking causes pain, but I wasn’t aware of that back then. It must have sparked something in him, though, because he said he hadn’t really noticed it all. Odd, considering it was at the end of his bed facing him for days. All he wanted was to die, he said. Not in a ‘woe is me’ way, just when the body reaches its end – disease, abuse, genetics – it doesn’t matter, it’s time.
“When it’s apparent there’s no cure, when pain or immobility means you have said your farewells, you still have to wait for your body to wave goodbye. It’s a little slower than the mind to catch on. It struggles on, doing its best, thinking it’s all just some black mood it has to get you through, oblivious to its own role in it.
“The paintings are there for the living, he said, to make them feel better. The only improvement he would applaud would be release. It’s hard to imagine this not being morbid but it wasn’t. Instead, it revealed the purpose in my working here.
“I took extra training in palliative care and – ironically – gained an interest in how wards are decorated. We use this room by the entrance for our sudden terminal transfers so relatives don’t have to walk all through the ward, and the longer-term patients don’t get a reminder when they witness the rapid succession of changing visitors.
“There’s a company that specialises in supplying art to hospitals. They choose deliberately innocuous imagery – Monet’s water lilies are a perennial favourite. Did you know that torture victims can relapse into their experience on sight of visual stimulus present during the ordeal?”
Her candour up to that point had seemed, perhaps, a little inappropriate, but subdued as I was I had listened without admonishment. Now, suddenly, I was attentive.
“Hospital budgets are funny. Money left over from one thing can’t be spent on another, so when there was surplus in the flower fund kitty that had to be spent before years end they picked me to buy some pictures to fill this gap here since I was always ‘banging on about the pictures’, as the others put it.
“There used to be a fire hydrant here but it kept getting knocked into, so it was moved to over there by the reception desk. We needed to cover up where the fittings bolted into the wall.
“Everyone thought I was mad when I tried to put the frames up with just these cards in them. I told them that there wasn’t enough money to get prints as well, but they were really nice frames and we could stick some kiddie paintings or something in them later on. That it was better to get quality frames with the money we had. The excuse worked and now, of course, everyone’s forgotten about it. You’re the first person I’ve seen who’s noticed them.
“I thought about how the paintings were, in effect, only for the relatives, about how a simple image can flash you back, and I thought: do I really want to choose some banal picture sold in every framing and gift-card shop, a picture that will remind people every time they see it of watching their loved one passing away?
“I decided I didn’t, I couldn’t. So that’s why these three frames have no pictures. I couldn’t trivialise the memory of someone’s life with a pastel of some irises.
“I’ve secretly worried that it was a foolish thing to do, if I had made the right decision, then I saw you smile.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julian Baker started writing one weekend in June, and prefers writing to working, he wishes he could work less and write more. He has been published by nthposition, The Beat, Scarecrow, This Zine Will Change Your Life amongst others. He divides his time between trying to create wrong photographs and good writing.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 9th, 2010.