As I walked into the room, I barely knew which person was the patient and which was the company. Both women, standing there in front of me, similar ages, similar physical beauty and dress. Then she smiled, and I knew right away who I was to be focusing my energy on for the next 11 hours of the shift. She smiled like she was holding her breath, like she had just been told the terrible news that she had cancer and was completely resilient to the fact that she was here for gruelling therapy.
Like a job interview, she seemed ready, like she was making an impression. At work, we don’t need impressions much, we just come to work, do our best in the job and then go home, and this is the safest way to protect our heart from the inevitability of some people’s journeys. That smile showed me a lot, and instantly I fell for it, because it had a friendliness and uncertainty in it which was beautiful to me.
She seemed so well and she was doing so well I thought. So I let myself get close to her. I let myself wander in on quiet afternoons on the ward just to have conversations about random things, or to see what lovely item was sent in the post to her that day. We spoke about a lot of different things and when I walked into her room my eyes would scan her shelves, table and wall at the pictures of her loved ones watching over her. I would find her sitting in her bed, showered and ready for the day. She would wear these big hoop earrings and do her makeup just to feel a little bit normal among all the illness. She was wonderful.
I would request her to care for just so I could have a breather from the stress other patients provided, she would always relax me and damn, I took that for granted because look at us now. I see her now in my head, standing at the windows with her binoculars looking down on the street, searching for her little dog that her sister had brought for her to see, these fourteen floors up. Fourteen floors closer to heaven.
She knew about me, knew about my life and what I had been up to on my days off. She knew the colour of my eyes and what my smile looked like under the masks we wore. With her Polaroid camera she begged to take a picture of me, just so she would remember me. But it is me that is remembering her, remembering her bright eyes that radiated sunlight, or dry sarcasm that would have me laughing through the door and down the corridor. I admired her resilience. “I’ve got this, I’ll fight this” she would say to me, and I believed it.
She was in remission and all my beliefs came true because she had fought it. She returned for a transplant, success.
It hadn’t even been two months when I saw her name pop up on our admissions list. My stomach turned thinking of why she had returned. The rumour surfaced of her relapse, it was all back and it was worse, there was nothing more they could do.
My heart sank and tore and bled.
She went home. I forgot to say goodbye.
She came back, this time worse and still, I didn’t see her.
News came that she was in intensive care and all I could think was about her, all the time. That woman who spent so much time making others feel better, making me feel like I was the best nurse in the world and like I could do anything, was coming to the end of this life.
It made me feel sick and so incredibly sad for her. I thought about her all the time, wondering if I would make it back to work in time to see her, to tell her what an impression she made on me. To thank her.
Finally I got myself down to the third floor on a shift at work. I was panicking and my stomach was in my mouth. I was scared to see her, scared to know that this was it, the probable last time I would see her face.
Room 4. I was mistaken for another team as I gowned up to go in, putting on a smile to the nearest colleague asking me what my intentions were on the unit, as I was far from home. I was directed in, and up stood her sister, the same beautiful company I could have mistaken her for in the first seconds of meeting. She lay on the bed, machines, lines and bedcovers surrounded her. All I would look at was her face and I will have it in my head for some time yet, I’m sure.
I don’t know what I said to her, I could barely think of words to say that didn’t end up with notions of life and death. I watched her eyes, opening little and often when I leaned in to talk to her or when she would wake herself up accidentally when her bent knees fell sideways and I would hold them lightly so she didn’t have to use up all her energy.
I can’t have spent very long in there. I think I could have stayed all day. She deserved for me to stay by her side but I had to leave to get back to my other patients. They didn’t seem to deserve me at that point, not when I felt so drawn to her. She always cared for me, regardless of being the patient. I didn’t deserve her, she is too good for this world.
I did not return to the ICU that day, nor the next. I hastily await Thursday to know if I will see her one last time, or whether that Tuesday morning will have been my final farewell to a wonderful person. I hope she got to go home, and I hope she is peaceful, whether she is still here right now, or with God.
That day was the last day I saw her. A week later she died, some 6 days after her birthday. To say that my heart hurt would be an understatement, for I will always be grateful for our moments together.