Four Small Walls

It is strange to think about who was there before we were. Who lay in the bed that was a prison to my Dad? Who sat in the armchair dragged close to his side by my Mum? Did they endure its scratchy and faded fabric hour after hour as she did, holding the bony hand that was once strong enough to pull two children up into their father’s arms?

The chair’s rough fabric matched the heavy linen curtains, its deep burgundy colour contrasting the pale, beige walls and speckled ceiling. There were two other chairs in the small, square room. A grey one with wide plastic arms and a green one borrowed from the waiting room down the hall. My brother always sat in the green and I in the grey, up against the window that looked out onto the uninspiring concrete car park below. Directly opposite the window was the door to the hallway, which was always left open for visitors and nurses. Strangers would pass by in various numbers, sneaking quick glances through the door to see who was inside. If they caught our eye they would give a knowing smile or nod to us, their own personal suffering and fatigue etched across their faces.

The room was hard and shiny, made up of pieces of sterilised furniture and machines, with the smell of disinfectant travelling through the air. But it somehow could not cover the smell of sickness and sadness, that heavy, unpleasant atmosphere that smothered you and left you desperate to run out the doors and into the fresh air where there was room to breathe and stretch your legs, leaving all your grief and worry inside.

The room did not exactly encourage patient recovery. It was not appealing or interesting or special in any way, but the sunlight streaming through the window brightened the atmosphere and gave some perception of time. It was a large hospital. Hundreds of rooms packed together on each of its six levels, all of them sterile and cold with pointy furniture and buzzing machines. It was never truly quiet, with patient alarms beeping, dinner trolleys rattling, or nurses’ shoes squeaking on the shiny linoleum floors. It was loudest at night. Noises seemed to echo through the darkness, the expectation of quietness and sleep making any sound ring out louder and heavier than it would during the day. In the room next to my dad’s lived an old man, whose bones jutted out underneath his pale, age-spotted skin. His thin white hair was as patchy as my dad’s, and they were almost as thin as each other.

Except this man was at least thirty years older than my dad, and yet they both had IV drips pouring drugs into their veins and both could not walk around without a walker or wheelchair. Their rooms mirrored each other in nearly every detail; the same rough burgundy linen curtains separated them from the outside world, the same black scuffmarks covered the linoleum floors. But there was one main difference. No mismatched chairs surrounded the old man’s bed. No family sat around him, no wife stroked his thinning hair and no son shared stories of his weekend camping trip with friends. No daughter held a laptop on her lap and leaned in close to laugh at episodes of Little Britain with him, their heads close as they shared the headphones. At night the old man used to scream.

When Mum took us home to sleep, kissing Dad and telling him we would be back in the morning, Dad would lie there alone in his room and listen to the old man’s cries. Isabelle, he screamed into the night, his desperate plea pounding through my dad’s ears. Isabelle, Isabelle, Isabelle. Dad would look to his left side where Mum’s empty chair was still close to the bed. She would be back in the morning, he thought, closing his eyes in an attempt to block out the old man’s screams. Isabelle’s chair would forever be empty, but his family would be back in the morning.

Some days in the hospital felt like a waiting game. The days when doctors were supposed to come and speak to us we all just sat there and watched the door. Whenever the nurse appeared we all sat up straighter. She used to smile at my mum and ask my brother about his homework, before placing a hand on Dad’s shoulder and beginning the hourly check-up. How many other patients did she check on that day, her hand patting shoulders and her mouth smiling? Maybe she remembered the last person who lived in my dad’s bed, lying there with their own family surrounding them in scratchy chairs with mismatched fabric. Or perhaps they had lay there alone, like the widowed old man in the room next door, staring up at the speckled beige ceiling, the tingling smell of disinfectant hovering above them.

Towards the end of our long stay in the small square room, a counsellor came to talk to us about the near future. She seemed it important for us to prepare ourselves, but to also not lose hope. As if we had not spent the last year doing just that, memorising the patterns of the speckled ceiling’s texture as we thought about what was inevitably coming, and identifying each beep of the heart rate machine and knock on the door as the ticking of a clock with less and less minutes left on it. The counsellor had told us that while they did not know how long it would be, it would definitely happen, and to start making plans and working towards acceptance.

Her indent on the sheets from where she sat on the edge of Dad’s bed had not faded when Mum’s quiet voice broke through the noisy beeping silence. “We should talk about it, love.”

Dad did not look up from the white sheets, but continued fumbling with a loose piece of thread, his hospital identification band hanging loosely on his thin wrist. He nodded, and then looked up at my mum, a thin tight smile on his face. There were tears in his eyes, shining in the harsh florescent lighting, threatening to fall onto his cheeks.

“It’s too hard, I can’t,” he said quietly. He glanced at me, the same forced smile on his face. The sight of him so scared made my stomach twist.

“I know, sweetheart,” Mum said, reaching for his hand. She held it tight in her own, knuckles white and fingers clenched around his, as if she could not intertwine them close enough.

“I want Pink Floyd and Iggy Pop for the music,” Dad said, and the strangeness of this remark made me laugh softly. He looked at my brother and I, side by side in our green and grey chairs, and his smile relaxed as he started deciding which songs from each artist he wanted to play at his funeral.

Wish You Were Here?” my brother asked. We already knew the answer.

“Yeah,” he said, before turning back to Mum. “And We Have All the Time in the World.” His mouth closed and his smile became tight again as he grasped Mum’s hand so hard his arm shook. The tears began to fall fast down his cheeks and neck. The ticking of his heart-rate machine droned on, so loud I could feel it against my own pulse.

Despite what the room essentially meant, it was special to us. It kept us together during the hardest time of our lives. An unexpected home. It was a place where we all watched movies together and spread Chinese food over the bed, sitting around it to eat, just like our table at home. Dad would lie still under the blankets while the takeaway boxes balanced on his legs. We would go on eating, watching our favourite movie Home Alone 3, until Dad finally shifted around too much and the sweet and sour chicken tipped over, sticky orange sauce spilling onto the bed. He would guiltily glance at Mum and smirk at my brother and I, and Mum would roll her eyes and make us lift everything up off the bed so she could change the sheets, shaking her head at her giggling husband, a smile at the corner of her mouth.

This room was the place where Mum’s empty coffee cups piled high in the rubbish bin, where I showed Dad all the photos of our cat I had recently taken, and told him about the new word our parrot had learned. In this room we laughed over memories from years before. We dumped our books on the small desk in the corner with the uneven legs and asked for help with our homework. We argued over the television stations. It was where I last held my Dad’s hands and kissed his patchy baldhead and told him I loved him. It was where we said our final goodbyes.

At just nineteen years old I had watched the strongest and bravest man I had ever known grow weaker and more afraid each day. I watched my Mum, who Dad had always protected and provided for, protect and care for him with every ounce of energy within her. I watched her fall over his bed and cry into the starch white sheets, her head shaking as she refused to let go of him. I watched my sixteen-year-old brother break down and cry on that very last night, while all I could do as I held his head in my hands was stand and stare in disbelief that it had actually happened; after everything we had been through, this was it.

And though I am too scared to ever return there, and feel a wrench in my chest whenever I enter another hospital, I owe that small square room with its speckled ceiling and squeaky floor. We lived an endless year within those four small walls on the third floor of that hospital, and I am grateful for it.

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