Radiation Oncology, Incurable Tumour, Life expectancy of hours. April Fools Day...
| Mary Silverstone puffed condensation as she ran up the front steps of the Sisters Of Mercy Memorial Hospital, and traced her way through dim passages.
As instructed, she continued past the Radiation Therapy clinic, with its own deserted nurse's station, and hurried further on to the palliative care ward.
These beds, where people waited to die, were strategically located in a quiet corner at the end of a hallway, distant enough for the Intensive Care Unit beeping to be restfully muted.
She felt chilly, even though today was the first day of April. It was much too early for visiting hours, but she was an exception; they let her through.
The highly polished vinyl floor reflected green exit signs, and a red fire extinguisher hung like a warning next to a door. This exit led directly outside. It was only used occasionally by night staff to sneak a quick cigarette, or day shift to sit at the picnic table talking; somewhere private and unofficial, where they could gather their strength before the next A & E trauma. This morning, a few orderlies and a Doctor sipped coffee, standing around on a lawn wet with dew.
Mary's long hair glowed from brushing, and she had left it hanging free today. She wore a floral dress from the back of her wardrobe, stored there for years. It was his favourite.
They had not spoken, or seen each other, for over fifteen years. They spent too much time apart and finally the separation came; one of those partings where there was a lot said, but no one really said goodbye.
Their grown children, wrapped up in their careers, busy overseas, couldn't have cared less what happened to their arguing and aging parents.
As the first buds began to appear, spring almost upon them, Mary had taken the call from harried hospital staff trying to do their professional duty. They had finally tracked her down, and told her the news. Even after so many years spent resisting old passions, she came running.
She'd been away in her vacation cabin, absorbed in her reclusive world of researching and writing another best-seller, someone else fielding her calls.
By the time she received the message, and traveled back to the town where he still lived, it was almost too late. The doctor said that her ex husband Carson had not responded to months of radiation treatment, or chemotherapy. His illness was considered terminal, condition deteriorating by the hour. He wouldn't last the night
The ward where he lay dying was empty of nursing staff; silent except for the distant sounds of a busy medical team doing their rounds.
At first she thought he had already passed away but as she touched one of his pale hands lying on the white sheet, he opened his eyes. She spoke, hardly knowing what to say.
"Does it hurt, Stoney?"
His eyes were touched by the same jaundice colouring his face, but there was little warmth to match.
"You finally came?" He hadn't yet noticed her dress or loose hair, and she tried not to flinch at his cold reception.
"Carson...don't. I came as soon as I heard. I've been...away" .
"Yes, you were always away. You likely don't remember, do you? It's our Silver Wedding Anniversary today." he grated, but she said nothing.
She imagined that he must be in terrible pain even though the doctor said they had, "made him comfortable", for his final hours.
They couldn't think of anything to say. Eventually a nurse turned into the ward, her squeaking shoes announcing her arrival.
After perusal, she hung his stats clipboard on the end of the bed and bustled about, greeting Mary and asking if she'd like a coffee; too late for the breakfast trolley but she could talk to the kitchen staff, maybe rustle something up. There were visitor facilities along the hall.
She pointed and was gone.
The plate and remains of Carson's breakfast lay on the tray, the U shaped trolley still positioned across the bed; stainless cutlery and empty cups waited for the next collection. With no appetite he'd insisted on ordering and asked for proper cutlery for his last meal, not the usual plastic throwaway rubbish. The attending GP was a family doctor who bent a few rules. He would miss his favourite golf buddy.
His eyes weren't completely closed, just slits and only focused on memories of the past. He didn't feel uncomfortable with the silence.
"You know that I never stopped loving you?" Mary couldn't help blurting it out. She'd wanted to say this for a long time but he never called.
"Stoney, you never called." she said, and then regretted the words, upsetting him on his deathbed. But he turned slowly, gasping for breath until he faced her. He wanted to talk. He spoke with a gentleness she'd never heard before.
"You are forgetting, Mary. It was you who went away. You said I was weak and useless. I had no tolerance. You said that I couldn't stand your moods where a lot of husbands would have made allowances. Night after night you'd be up all hours with your writing. I put up with it for a long time without complaint. But Vietnam came calling again. The nightmares, the..." His eyes were half closed and the little speech had drained a lot of his strength. He drew from it again and said,
"How could I call you? I tried a few times and someone told me you didn't want to be disturbed."
She closed her eyes, remembering her grumpy old housekeeper's voice barking those exact words into the phone. If she'd only realised it was him phoning and not some salesman or call centre. Only her publishers, agents and bank manager knew her cell phone number. She had no one else that mattered in her life.
"I love you, always have." He said, sadly.
Though she gazed at him with love, the lines on her face told another story of the same frustration, as if it were yesterday. He had never understood why she had to write. Given her time over again, she would probably do the same things; she would still write, but experience over the years, and a change in social attitudes, had taught her that there were better ways of balancing your life and work. You could still be an author while giving quality time to others. You could still love.
His eyes were closed but she knew he was still awake. He held her hand, and squeezed it every now and then.
She didn't know about time management back then when they were together, when she could have related to the children. but she wouldn't have listened to advice either.
Now it was all too late. Not even enough time to share regret.
She sat carefully on his bed and together they listened to the muted sounds of nurses in other wards, ICU monitors and respirators hissing in the room across the hall. A patient in light blue hospital gown shuffled past pushing an IV pole on castors, micro-pore strips holding a cannula in a sun-spotted arm. It was close to nine am by the clock over the doorway.
Carson was whispering and she bent to listen.
"Your dress is lovely. You've done something with your hair. I love you" He was wheezing, and ceased trying to talk.
They heard the sound of the fire door at the end of the hallway opening and a gardener’s ride-on mower roaring outside, before the sound cut off as the door slammed shut. A few quiet seconds lapsed and there stood a man blocking the ward doorway.
Carson's eyes flickered to take in a large guy, white lab coat and sensible work shoes, stethoscope over his neck. Any resemblance to a doctor ended at his right fist. The gun was grey metal, the business end of it sporting a neat little black hole aimed right at Carson's head.
The intruder's head was covered with a black woollen balaclava, eyes the only feature visible.
His eyes were golden brown and bloodshot, and he was peering at Mary as if surprised at her presence.
"Don't make a sound, St..." he whispered hoarsely, cutting off mid sentence.
Mary's hand was on her mouth as she leapt away from Carson's bed and the gun waving man. She rushed to the chair near the window, and sat heavily, feeling faint.
"Good work ma'am." the gunman said, oddly polite. "Now, where's your wallet Mister...and her handbag?" he added pointing the gun at Carson's head again. "Give me your phones. Now!"
"You have to be kidding!" Carson's face was a picture of disbelief as he cursed the man.
"Here I am dying, and you want my wallet...our...our money?"
The gun wielding man hesitated strangely as if he was a novice at pointing weapons and threatening people. He looked at Carson and across at Mary and his gun hand lowered as he stepped toward the bed. There was a noise outside the door and he turned to look, but it was just an orderly walking past pushing a trolley, ignoring them.
Carson took advantage of the distraction to swipe something off the breakfast tray over his bed. His hand disappeared below the sheet. There was an intravenous bag on the pole hook above him, and a heart monitor cord draped over the bed frame next to him.
The telemetry unit was sitting there unused; a small light on the front panel indicating that the power was still active.
The man was now close enough now for Carson to smell his aftershave, and see him swallow with nervousness. The man raised his arm, oddly gripping the balaclava, as if he was about to rip it off and expose his face to them.
While his mugging victims weren't likely to fight back he had underestimated Carson's tenacious grit and army training. Carson's teeth were bared and clenched. His eyes had clouded over, became deadly black reflections of the jungles of Long Tan, pupils mirroring the assailant's.
The menacing figure was too slow to lift the gun as Carson's skeletal arm snaked out, his fingers clamped around the gunman's arm in a death grip.
With an almighty twist of his torso, Carson's other arm came over and he stabbed the fork tines deep into the hanging electrical cord. The power was switched on.
There was a loud bang of sparks, and the both of them were efficiently connected to each other, and to the hospital power supply.
The gunman had no time to struggle, or move away, before the jolt of current locked their muscles into a fibrillation spasm neither of them could escape.
They were being electrocuted. Carson, in his dying hours, was defending his wife the only way he could.
Mary stumbled from her chair as the assailant's gun clattered under the bed, mercifully without discharging a round. Before she could think what to do someone was pounding along the hallway from the exit door, and they heard a switch being thrown somewhere. The power cut off instantly and Carson fell back on his bed, his eyes closed, face deathly pale, fork still clutched in his locked fingers. Mary grabbed the pistol from the floor, puzzled at the light weight plastic. It was a toy!
The gunman's body hit the wall, crashed to the floor taking the electronic gear and IV pole down with him in a tangle of leads and hoses.
Into the ward rushed an orderly who took in the scene in a horrified sweep, crouched to help the recovering gunman to stand, and then fussed over Carson. The orderly began hastily explaining to Mary.
"I tried to talk him out of this!" the ward attendant shouted, out of breath. He accused the gunman with a dismissive gesture. "He wouldn't listen."
He finished examining the patient. "Poor Carson!" They saw Carson's eyes opening.
"Darling, my darling!" Mary held his face gently in her hands.
"My hero!" she breathed, tears falling onto her husband's cancer wasted cheeks and neck. Then they both gaped in shock as the wardsman pulled off the assailant's balaclava.
The hold-up man was Carson's Doctor! His own physician! The Doc stood there coughing, leaning on the bed for support, his face flushed.
The attendant lifted the machines off the floor, stood the IV pole up, restoring order to the equipment.
"Choi Oi ! What the...?" Carson's mouth stayed open as he stared at his medical specialist and veteran of the same war. They'd shared the same battalion, and on their return, the same rehabilitation unit, being treated for the same post traumatic stress symptoms. Then they'd found golf.
"Carson! I'm..I'm so sorry. This has got way out of hand! It was meant as a quick joke! I was about to rip the cover off and..."
"Joke!?" Carson replied, too weak now to show much anger. Mary could only shake her head.
"Remember that time you guys tied me up naked, to a lamp post, on my bucks night? And then pulled another stunt at the Golf tournament? And what about that day, over the zone? You guys had your share of laughs at my expense.
This was just meant to be a quick payback joke! I didn't know you'd be here Mary. You didn't tell me she was coming, Stoney!" His finger stabbed toward his patient, his face a picture of chagrin.
"I'm so very sorry, old friend. I surely didn't intend to upset you, either of you! I just wanted to cheer you up in your final hours...a good laugh..."
Mary cleared the fright from her throat, and finally found her voice.
"Carson Silverstone!" She sounded unimpressed. "Lucky for both you idiots this man thought quickly enough to cut the power, or you'd not be arguing about it like this.
"Thank you!" she nodded to the orderly who was still shaking. He wasn't used to the craziness of these two ex army fighters.
Although Mary had been absent for a long time, she knew that some things never change.
"That was a close call..." her voice trailed off.
Carson held his wife's hands as his eyes started twinkling. He gazed at their GP with some of the old humour she hadn't seen for years.
"Well Doc, you didn't reckon on me reacting so quickly, you old sod!" His pale face broke out in a grin.
"I'll be gone, dead before tomorrow anyway, so no harm done to me. Are you OK though?"
"No Carson, nothings ok about this. I didn't plan on the joke going so far, I was ready to own up right when you grabbed me. That gun is only a child's toy.
You owned me well and truly, but you're still an April Fool, aren't you Stoney?"
"That's what you thought in the A Shau Valley, ya BUF!" They both laughed, and the tension faded. It was a rare moment that anyone tricked Carson, and he tried not to show how good it felt to laugh about this outrageous practical joke; a ridiculous prank that no one else could possibly understand. His twitching lips and crinkling eyes betrayed him. He grunted out something to cover up weakness.
"Hey, you aren't as smart as you were back in the day, Doc..." He paused.
A relaxed companionable silence continued until Carson, who had been staring at the bedclothes, fighting off the emotion that still plagued his throat, glanced up at his Doctor.
Carson's eyes narrowed and he knew there was something more. He knew his friend better than himself. There was a tingling of some sort of excitement, barely contained in the Doc. He knew.
"Your holding something back Doc, aren't you?" he croaked from a hoarse throat. His fingers were entwined with Mary's as they squeezed each other, love overflowing in the closing minutes of his life.
Finally, the Doc couldn't hold it in any longer.
"Yes. There is...a little something." His voice was controlled; toneless and even as he passed some papers across. "Stoney. Mary. Look at this."
Carson and Mary's heads came together as they peered down at the sheets of paper; a report the Doctor had only recieved a couple of hours ago. He'd wanted so badly to blurt out the news to them, instead of playing a stupid joke.
The couple holding hands drew in their breath.
"Yes." The Doctor said with immense satisfaction, and conviction.
"I don't begin to understand why, but you're last blood tests have come back completely clear. Your body is like a newborn baby. You just need time to recover that's all. Give it a few days, couple of weeks maybe, and you'll be able to go home, Stoney.
The Doc quietly withdrew as the two held each other, the silence stretching into the beginning of a new era. They had the rest of their lives ahead of them now.
Battle of Long Tan