Monday night I left them to it,
Seeing I was the only non-blood family in the ICU waiting room
(which is for everyone, but we have somehow made ours in four long weeks)
And reading between the medical lines,
I pulled my jacket on.
One man, a stranger a month ago, hugged me.
“My God, don’t all do that, I’ll cry all the way home.”
“If there’s anything I can do…” I canted to their nodding heads.
If there was anything any of us could do.
0430 a text message – a dentist’s appointment,
would I take his brother?
Little boys get slowly picked apart,
But the world rolls on.
Pathetically grateful for my
Something I Can Do,
I’m waiting while he gets scaled and polished
When my phone rings.
Tears. Gasping instructions.
“When you’re done, get here now.
He’s not going to make it.
Don’t tell his brother.”
I don’t tell his brother.
Instead I package him into the car
And force my cheeks to beam at his new braces;
I can’t help but reach to my sternum.
Where a tiny pink dinosaur hangs, talismanic,
On a chain.
He plays video games in the front seat,
While I don’t tell him
We talk about shopping,
And maybe a new game, maybe,
If we’ve the money.
Aching to protect him from what I know is coming.
Longing to drive and keep driving,
To pass the exit to the hospital,
And deliver us from evil.
Cheering him on as he devastates digital worlds,
His gaudy death toll running to billions.
I cower behind his fun,
Rehearse in my head what I’ll say.
Hacking lies from my lines,
To say just enough.
But not quite enough.
“We’re going to stop at the hospital first…”
I don’t explain what comes second,
I don’t explain that I’ve betrayed him,
And tricked him into coming to watch
His baby brother die.
Side by side, through the bustling corridors.
I make an excuse to catch his shoulder,
Pull him tight to my hip.
(“Let the lady pass, buddo.”)
Then keep him there.
In the cafe, “our” tables are thick with hunched shoulders,
And heads and faces raise to our entrance.
He skips, delighted, into arms of loved cousins,
And I grab a friend’s mother, needing my own.
My face in her hair, I hiss my rage and grief,
Crying myself a liar and a Judas,
Until his face, still cheerfully deceived,
Tugs at my sleeve for hot chocolate.
Someone takes him upstairs,
I find a pastor because, My God,
I’ve learned this month gone by.
That wisdom and preaching may be bedfellows,
But you don’t need religion to take advice.
We’ll all have the chance to say goodbye,
Everyone who wants to see him,
Should see him.
And then the tubes and lines,
And drugs that pump his heart,
And flex his lungs,
Will be pulled back, slithering from him
To the floor, like streams of mercury.
Letting him be; no more dressings,
No more suctioning his mouth and nose,
Which, comatose, he still grimaced at,
As though the nurses had spat on a hanky
And wiped his face in front of his friends.
In one corridor his aunt passes me,
Walking too fast,
I lay a hand on her arm.
And she trips into my chest,
Hanging in my arms.
Gasping and sobbing.
I tarry in the cafe downstairs,
Far longer than I should.
Frightened of upstairs,
Nervous of intruding.
What’s the etiquette for kissing
Your friend’s kid goodbye for the last time?
Friends first? At the head of the queue?
Or last? Surely not, family last, I’d think.
In the end I’m led upstairs by friends,
But stop in the corridor,
Glimpsing through the glass and wire
Of a hospital door,
His mother, holding his brother.
Gun shy of her grief,
I despair to find that
Six years on the road has done nothing
To prepare me for this proximity to pain.
Another stranger wraps his arms about me,
“Take a deep breath, big man.”
An uncle finds us, little knot of friends.
“The doctor says if you’re coming in,
You should come in, like….
You should do it now, if you’re going to.”
Into his room.
His room with sinks outside,
In which I’ve scrubbed my hands countless times.
Where the first time I saw him,
His Dad stood with me,
And teased me about pink plastic aprons.
Where each time I’ve visited,
I’ve waited just outside,
With a toy dinosaur.
Or a song.
Hauling in ephemera,
To represent love and hope.
This time we don’t wash our hands.
There’s no point.
In his bed he’s tiny,
Not simply dwarfed by machines
And a hospital bed, but
Two legs and an arm smaller.
From the doorway
I can’t smother instincts,
And I see that this is no time
For long goodbyes.
That just as he’s defied the odds
For a month, he may yet surprise us again
And decide for himself when he leaves.
A nurse is busy with him,
So I sit beside his big brother,
Who tells me he’s sorry,
But he doesn’t think we can go shopping this afternoon,
Like we’d planned.
I kiss the little greying face on the pillow
And excuse myself.
Falling into a sofa
With a numb thump.
A grand mother says to me.
“You’ve seen some terrible things, haven’t you?”
I nod at my shoes.
“It’s different when you love them, isn’t it?”
Walking down Byres Road,
The smallest of the boys
On my shoulders while back at the hospital,
I took him from a teenage cousin,
Appalled to notice that we, as a building of adults,
Had left the baby with a girl barely out of school herself,
Whose red rimmed eyes showed she needed a break.
Two little trainers drum gently on my chest
As we stroll.
He leans over to my eyeline.
“Did you know…?”
“Did you know that Caden is going to heaven for ever and ever
And never coming back?”
“Yes, darlin’, I know.”
“It’s sad. Look, there’s a digger…can we buy some sweets?”
Standing in a car park in drizzling rain, my shoes muddied up the side from walking straight to my car.
Phone at my ear, ranting at a friend with the distance I wish I had.
Shouting and swearing and demanding answers from a God I don’t believe in.
We all retreat,
Giving the five-now-four of them
Some space to go home.
For some of them the first time home,
In a month.
Within the hour there’s a message.
“We don’t do alone well, please come.”
And we reconvene,
With drink and ministers,
And pots of soup,
And Chinese take out.
And as a group, we slide them, the four of them, back into their lives.
For what comes next.