I sat on the edge of her bed, and it was so soft it was like trying to get comfortable on a massive, clinically white marshmallow. I remember being jealous that she should have such a comfy place to sleep, and have her own room, while I had to share a smaller space with my little brother. The family filled the rest of the room, their faces drawn downwards with such misery and sorrow that it looked like someone had turned the gravity up on their faces, and their frowns were being dragged towards the cracked tile floor by its pull.
I understood a lot then, a lot more than adults think that little kids do. We all remember being a child and seeing things all wrong, all up the left, but we still saw them. Through my childish eyes I knew she wasn’t well, I just had no idea how unwell. I couldn’t understand it, just a few weeks ago she chased me around the garden with a wooden spoon, and now she didn’t have the energy to squeeze my tiny little fingers.
Her hand was cold and damp, and that seemed to set the tone for how the next few months would feel. A constant winter where the weather always echoed our feelings, where a Christmas came and passed with one missing seat at the table, with one un-pulled cracker. Her absence seemed to weigh on our chests like a fat mosquito, leeching all joy and replacing it with this feeling of time slowing down, like we were all moving through a big bowl of cold jelly towards something awful.
I played with my new toys that day, but all the enjoyment was hollow. Santa had brought me a Let’s Play Doctor’s kit and my little brother insisted I take his tonsils out, but all I wanted to do was make Nanny better. When the plates were cleared and our bellies filled, my Dad stood up and uttered those few words we were dreading, yet eager to hear. “Time to go visit Nanny.” And he hoisted me and my brother up, holding us in the nook of each arm like he always did, carrying us to the car.
I clutched my new doctor’s bag like a totem against evil spirits, holding it pressed to my chest, trying to think which part of my medical arsenal might make Nanny all better so she could make us cakes again and chase me around the garden with the wooden spoon when I had been bad; which incidentally, was quite often. My brother sucked his thumb as if it held some sort of powers to help her, I looked at him scornfully, and thinking about how his hocus pocus magic was no match for my imaginary medical degrees that came with the bag. I suppose we all had our ways of coping.
Dad’s knuckles were white, gripping the wheels as we drove through sleet and snow to the hospital, my Mum asked him, “Are you alright honey?” and he muttered something about the roads being dangerous and difficult today. But he’d been driving in these conditions all his life, it never seemed to stop snowing up here, and I had my detective head on in the back seat, thinking that Daddy was really sadder that he was letting on. Usually the snow on Christmas was a magical thing, the typical winter wonderland they always sang about in those awful songs, but today it all seemed grey, it seemed that all the snow we saw was just dirty slush, fallen from the filthy tires of ancient machines as they ploughed through the virgin snow at the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.
The hospital was basically deserted, save for a few unlucky patients and a few unlucky doctors and nurses who moved with forced Christmas cheer and happiness, obviously thinking in the back of their minds of juicy turkey and presents, wishing they were home in front of a warm fire. To be honest, I wished that too, but I had a job to do. As we trot down the endless bleak corridors, each one a mirror of the last, I pluck my stethoscope from my white bag and put it around my neck, just like I’ve seen the other doctors do.
A rugged old one, with a white beard and ruddy face walks past me in a white coat that still seems grey today, everything seems grey. He gives me a small smile, points to his stethoscope as he walks past, and then gives me the thumbs up. That’s when I knew that I was a real doctor, and that I could save Nanny with my cutting edge medical knowledge of things like ice lollies help sore throats, and that when you kiss a cut better it doesn’t hurt as much. My brother and I had tried the kissing better thing on Nanny before, and it didn’t work. In fact at the time we thought it had made things worse, because it made her quietly burst into tears.
As we entered her room and all cried Merry Christmas, hugging her, giving her presents, and adjusting the decorations in her room, I looked at her, properly, for the first time in a long time. She was wasting away to nothing. Veins stood out everywhere on her fragile body, bones that weren't supposed to be seen were visible under clammy, translucent skin. Yellowing pupils were half covered by drooping eyelids in a grimace that seemed to scream ‘cancer’ to the filled room. Sometimes I worried that Nanny was contagious. In a weird way, that eventually proved to be the case. I managed to eventually get a moment in the room alone with her, and I approached her bed, bag in hand, stethoscope feeling cold even through my several sizes too big reindeer jumper.
“Are you my doctor sonny?” She says kindly, smiling down at me with all the strength she can manage, which isn’t all that much. It makes my little heart hurt. It still makes my slightly bigger heart hurt now, all these years later. I nod with a lump in my throat, and I plop myself on the edge of the bed and hold the icy cold stethoscope to her chest through the thin hospital gown.
I have trouble finding her heart, and I’m not sure if this is because of my lack of knowledge of anatomy or because her heart is so weak, the silly toy stethoscope has trouble finding it. I tap her knee with a hammer, and I stick a Mr. Bump sticker on her forehead, and my work is done.
“Thank you, I think I’m all better now.” She says quietly, smiling warmly at me. Of course she wasn’t, she never really got better. There were a few false relapses but nothing really stuck. She passed away a few months later. I stood at the funeral in a tiny black suit, clutching that same little bag in front of me, tears streaming down my cheeks as they lowered my poor nanny into the cold ground.
And after that, that little bag lay in the attic of the home I grew up. It gathered dust for nearly thirty years, until the dreaded ‘C’ word reared its ugly head again, and dug its cruel nails into my poor father. Hitting the family again for seconds, a niggling fear woke me up sometimes in the night that it might visit me for thirds. I could see myself in the same way that my grandmother and father had found themselves and as cold sweat clung to my body, I’d look to my beautiful sleeping wife, and I’d look in on the kids, and hope that God would be good to them, and good to me.
I walked down those same plain corridors, the same endless days died a bleak grey, and even though thirty years had passed, I could swear that the same doctors and nurses walked the halls, and the walls and rooms hadn’t been repainted or redecorated. I looked for the old doctor that greeted me all those years ago, expecting to see him as nothing more than a skeleton in a labcoat, endlessly prowling the hallways with a rusted stethoscope that hang over empty ribs, with nothing beating inside them but the steady ticking of a death march.
On my youngest son’s birthday, I found the bag and gave it to him, to see if it would serve him any better than it did me. He keeps asking me if grandpa will be okay, and to be honest, I can’t answer him. I can only hope, hope is all we have left, I guess. We go to visit a few days later, and in my head I can feel the five year old me calling out that my poor daddy would soon be up in heaven with granny. With a heavy heart, I watch my son carry the little bag, which is now stained slightly brown from the accumulated dirt and dust from the attic – somewhere in the back of my head I think that I should be cleaning the attic, it’s a reaction I’ve had before. Anything’s better than being here in this moment, watching this sad echo and repetition of time and suffering.
Sure enough, my son does exactly what I did all those years ago, and my father quietly cries. Sticking a faded Mr. Bump sticker on his forehead. I see my beautiful son turn to me, uncertainty in his eyes, and I can tell he’s thinking almost the same as what I did all those years ago. Did I hurt Grandpa? Did I make it worse? I shake my head slowly, trying not to cry too, I know that would just frighten him even more. My Dad pats my son on the head and I almost run and pull him away, thinking that it might catch, as if somehow, Nanny passed it to him, and now he’s passing it on to my son too. I can almost feel it growing inside me, a dark malignancy. I shake these stupid ideas from my head and I go to my father’s side, clutching his weak and trembling hand tightly, thinking this is all far too familiar.
It was a miracle, really. At least that’s what the doctor said.
“It’s a miracle, really.”
“What is?” I replied, hardly daring to hope that he was about to give us good news. Hope was a dangerous thing, I tried to keep hope at arm’s length, or at least leave it up to the kids.
“Complete remission, I’ve never seen anything like it.” He turns to face me, his face split by a big grin that I mirror without even thinking.
“So, he’s going to be fine?” I squeeze my wife’s hand a little bit too hard, her face presses into a grimace but she doesn’t say anything. I love her more than I could ever put into words. Things like this have a strange way of lending a strong sense of perspective to your life.
“Hopefully, we’ll need a few follow ups, he’ll need to stay under observation for a few days, and will need regular checkups for the rest of his life, but we are pretty sure that he should be fine.” Not something a doctor should ever really say, but I accept that at face value. When I get home and see my son again, he’s playing doctor with his little sister. I lift him up and his sister up and hug them both so tight that their heads might pop off.
“You did it, little guy.” I whisper in his ear, and he giggles excitedly, and I can feel the cold stethoscope press against my arm. I realise that it’s probably unsafe for a kid to play with a real, metal piece of medical equipment, and question the wisdom of the makers putting it in there, but I can’t take it off him now, it’s his.
I hope he passes it down to his kids some day. I mean, it was probably just luck that my Dad was spared, but I can’t help but feel that having that little bag in the house makes us all a lot safer. And there’s nothing wrong with hope, is there? Without hope, what do we have left?