It was exactly one year later, on one of the cooler September days, we all boarded a boat on the River Severn. My youngest cousin insisted on holding my hand as she took the wide step onto the decking. The older boys began by teasing my dad and I for a recent defeat for Liverpool in the hands of Manchester United. After a tranquil journey down stream, complete with spotting a kingfisher, it was time for all conversations to be hushed. We each took a moment to scatter petals of white and pale pinks amongst our trailing waves. Last to land on the water was a black and white photo of my dad, grinning with a missing front tooth, and a face that was yet to grow into his ears. He was lifted in the arms of a youthful lady with his hands clung to her neck. Her black locks were pinned behind her ears and the shawl about her shoulders draped to reveal a hanging pearl. On the bed of peaceful colours it floated out of sight downstream.
I remember when my supervisor pulled me from the office. Part of me was relieved to be taken away from the arrogant and self-assured boy I was made to spend the week with. He shaved about six months off my life so happily I fail to recall his name. Yet another part of me felt sweat build between my fingers and beneath the strap of my watch, with an increasing glue-like quality. I didn’t know what to do with the pen I was holding, or how to communicate with another human being.
Head bowed, I followed her stilettos past glass offices and eyes peering over computer screens. All the corridors looked the same, white and minimal. I found myself back in reception where I had started the morning equally as nervous. This time Dad was sat on the sofa sunk between leather cushions, flicking through the pages of a magazine as if its pictures and text were absent. A hand on my shoulder emitted warmth and somehow told me that my placement was no longer the most important thing. My silent look thanked her for such gratitude, but also cursed her for everything I did not yet know. As I descended the three steps towards Dad, my eyes were fixed towards an answer. A stiffening of my spine suggested that being stuck with the overactive mouth of that egotistic boy would be favoured over what I was about to face. Unaware of my approach, I slid the magazine from his hands to provoke some sort of acknowledgement. In this public place he sat me besides him. The inquisitive stare of the currier man lugging deliveries through the door was distracting, but I liked being accompanied. As a cold draught crept up my trouser leg from the gaps around my ankles, he said the very words I did not know how to listen to.
In the car, 24 degree heating conspired with the fully open windows to discombobulate my senses. A slight stuffy sickness in the stomach, and eyeballs stung by the razor ends of hair dictated by motorway winds. We pulled into the hospital car park, and I was glad to notice Mum’s car. I wanted us all there together, more backs for me to hide behind. We only ever came to Wolverhampton to go to Newcross Hospital. Dad would always point towards the ‘new’ maternity wing that was christened eighteen years ago by the cries of my own birth. But there we were, asking for directions to intensive care. Before that summer I would not have recognised the group of people that waited at the end of the corridor to greet us. For as long as I had known my dad, there was no talk of nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, or even a mother or father. The occasional photo in some of the earlier albums now began to make more sense. I had managed to put names to faces after the previous months spent going back and forth to the care home, Dad’s parents’ house, and back again. It was the house that was most unnerving.
I remember when his mum was first diagnosed. The whole family would retreat back there between hospital visiting hours. My younger cousins would run straight in, kicking shoes off in their usual place beneath the stairs, and make a b-line for the second draw in the freezer to the constant supply of Fab ice lollies. They could have been tracing the direct route my dad took after school decades ago. But I got the feeling he had never done that. He looked like a different person when we went there, he wouldn’t pull socks off the little children and chase them threatening to tickle their bare soles. His jacket would remain zipped, and after the third or fourth visit I noticed that words were never exchanged between him and his father. During these overcrowded visits it was rare to see anyone sitting still. Rather they kept themselves occupied constantly making tea and topping up the bowls of spiced cashew nuts and crisps. Everyone except for Dad.
The thing I found most strange were the photos. A black and white of his mum and dad full of life on their wedding day; Dad and his three siblings sat at the dinner table one Christmas; his sister at her graduation; my cousins together at Lego land, and again at some family party. Then there were ones of myself, though none past the age of about 6. I sat on the fireplace in my primary school uniform with exceedingly chubby cheeks; I was perched on the ledge at the top of the stairs cradled in Mum’s arms; I was stuck on the fridge door, sat on the sofa, in the living room of this house. I was present in a place I felt so distanced from.
As we walked down the off-white hospital corridor surrounded by smells of alcohol disinfectant, I still found it peculiar that the congregation of people ahead shared the familiarity of Dad’s face. Deep brown eyes set beneath definitive brows. His brothers, my uncles, were starting to grey in the same place as dad, behind the ears. I guess they’ve got the thinning patch on the top of their heads to look forward to. We were last to arrive, so the three of us were ushered straight into the room where she lay. This time, there were extra wires and pipes connecting her to machines. I realised I was still clutching my pen, and my discomfort was not helped by the cardboard shirt of my ‘work’ attire. The label that read our family name at the end of her bed was the only thing that identified her to me. An oxygen mask distorted her face, and the blues of her skin were prominent. Each time I had visited her she looked different. Her chest was being moved up and down, but her eyes lay still.
I was still waiting to feel scared by this sight. Of course, I felt sadness for the weakness of life in the lady that lay before me. By now I had become familiar with the downward droop of her eyes, how she doesn’t like the natural yoghurt she is sometimes given, and how her head always rests to the left when she sleeps. But when they said Motor Neurone Disease, I recalled more knowledge from science lessons about the benumbing of her spinal cord than I could about her. Mum pushed me to go closer to the bed and hold her hand. I couldn’t see the point; how would she know I’m holding her hand, or who I am?
Letting go of the pen, the heat of my palms caressed the long bones of her fingers. On her wedding finger, a ring of gold had become loose. Mum tidied her hair and told her whom these hands belonged to. In that moment, I felt the pulse in her wrist strengthen. Though it could be my imagination. I wondered of the image that occupied her mind to cause this. How tall was I when she last saw me? Was it anger that brought this little burst of life, or was that a sign of contentment? Either way I figured it was irrelevant, as for a few minutes my grandmother and I were together.
She hadn’t spoilt me with extra sweets or pocket money. Looking to the corner of the room, I saw what she had given me. Dad sat motionless with reddened eyes. I had to leave the room. In the corridor, several arms buried my head in their chests, but my dad’s shoulder was the cushion I wanted. Which words could he choose beside the bed of his mother? Maybe silence is the only way to greet decades of absence, and the faded face of a family whose tree bares discoloured leaves. I was scared.
It should have been at least 4pm by now, instead it was only a whisper past 12.30pm. Through the window, the cars in the car park had become familiar, always parking in the same places. The pale green and blue specks of the flooring became fascinating, and I started to wonder if I was looking at exactly the same spec as the previous visit. When Mum and Dad rejoined us, food sprung to Dad’s mind as it always does, and his suggestion of lunch was innate. By now everyone was slouched in various knotted positions down the length of the corridor, but the offer of milkshakes and Fabs brought lifeless children to their feet, dragging parents with them.
Five little round café tables bunched together to accommodate us, and all other customers were stripped of their excess chairs. A hospital canteen didn’t quite provide the milkshake I think Dad had in mind; the thinness of water was far from satisfying. Nonetheless, it made my younger cousins content for a short while, during which I observed the way each had sat beside their own parent, as if not accustomed to interacting with those their own age. A bite into my dense and dry looking brownie was imminent, but then I felt the presence of a figure approach from behind, and linger. A cold draught tickled my side as dad got up, and exposed me. With his brother, the conversation from across the room was made of many elaborate hand gestures from the doctor, and dropped eye lines.
When they returned little was said, but automatically everyone abandoned their drinks and followed the doctor in retracing the steps we had not long taken. In the lift the quiet was seldom broken, but every now and then a few whispered words spoke of a life-support machine. The lift door opened and there was a brief pause before the doctor took the lead. His funny looking shoes trod gently on the laminate flooring, but the ladies amongst us were clearly less accustomed to hospitals; clip, clop, heel, toe, more striking than usual. Past the pillar that had previously bore my weight, and past the view of the car park, which I had concluded must be for staff due to the cyclical nature of activity. I recognised the door to my Grandmother’s ward by now, mainly because I recalled the hand-sanitiser dispenser we had managed to significantly consume.
An exchange of stares between the adults somehow decided that my dad, his brothers and his sister (who I still felt strangely about, not helped by her unnecessarily thick, black eyeliner), were to enter the room with the doctor. Mum and I withdrew from the remaining crowd, back to my pillar. We sat there long enough to change positions twice. Her shoulder was bonier than dads, and both bum cheeks served their time. When dad emerged, his hands were glued in his pockets, his eyes fixated on the floor and his feet reluctant to move him much further than the door. We approached him, but a gulf of no-man’s land was created between the most familiar face, and us. A hand on my shoulder felt cold and directed me into the room.
I stared at my grandmother’s face. It was free of the pressing mask. I peered beneath the sheet that veiled her body, to turn her wedding ring the right way. On the bedside table amongst cards and flowers, her pearl necklace rested with the chain neatly wrapped. A photo of her embracing a dark haired infant boy was a new edition.