As the morphine flowed into his bloodstream, the overwhelming supremacy of the pain radiating from the hard, grasping knot in his gut receded. It wasn’t that it had disappeared; at this stage of the cancer’s progress, where nearly all his body’s natural defences had been overwhelmed, that was too much to hope for. The general staff of doctors, their radiological battles lost and chemotherapeutic campaigns routed, had abandoned the fight, leaving the opiates to fight the last hopeless battles before his body finally raised the white flag of systemic surrender. But the pain retreated, becoming just one component of the reality which could be left behind in the distance as the morphine carried him away into dreams and memories …
The sun balanced momentarily on the Atlantic horizon, a great orange balloon on the slate blue-grey of the ocean. A slight breeze rustled the hardy grass on the dunes, producing a whispering silver sound. The whispering was just part of a greater stillness, as were the continuous rising and falling hiss of the gentle waves on the beach, the shrill cry of a seagull, and the barking of a dog somewhere in the distance. It was growing a little cooler, that in itself a relief after the hot summer day. He watched the sun sinking below the sea, bleeding orange and yellow into the sky, etching a ruddy path from its going across the sea. He felt very peaceful.
Later, when the sun was gone and the colours of the day had withdrawn into the growing greyness of the twilight, he made his way back across the dunes to the tents and the others. Eddie had lit a small fire and he and the girls sat before it, talking. Dark Side of the Moon was sounding from Joan’s cassette player.
“… Long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be …”
He sat down beside Ann and they kissed. He could smell and taste wine on her mouth and she handed him the big bottle of Valpolicella the others had been passing around. He took a swig of the wine, relishing the full fruity taste and the tingle of alcohol.
Eddie finished building a joint and lit up. Joan was talking about the music.
“Have you ever really listened to the talking bits on that record?”
“‘And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do,’ that’s one of the things that’s said. They recorded all sorts of people who just happened to be around in the studio at the time. Paul McCartney was one of them.”
Eddie laughed. “Trust you, David, you’re a mine of useless information!”
David grinned. “Only about Pink Floyd …”
Ann grasped his shoulder. He turned to look in her eyes.
“Are you frightened of dying, David? I mean, what if you knew you were going to die in, say, an hour’s time? No way to avoid it. Would you be scared?”
He pulled deeply on the joint, drawing the sweet, acrid grass smoke deep into his lungs, holding it in, exhaling slowly. His feeling of relaxation, contentment, downright mellowness grew. Ann’s green eyes held him, the fire flickering in them, demanding an answer. He considered for a few moments.
“No, I don’t think I’d be afraid. I could go right now. I’ve had the best of what life can give me. It doesn’t get any better than this – than it is now. And that’s the best time to die, isn’t it?”
“Quit when you’re ahead, eh?” Eddie, as always, inclined to be quick with a trite remark.
Once more David took his time to answer, his gaze still fixed on Ann’s.
“Yes. No. I mean … look … we’re all young, and there’re loads of things we haven’t done and lots of wonderful things that we’re going to experience in life. But a lot of bad stuff too. It’s just, right now everything is about as perfect as I can imagine it could be.”
The conversation died and they sat companionably, watching the last of the day fade as a huge orange moon rose in the eastern sky. David felt the warmth of Ann beside him and his feeling of relaxed, unquestioned perfection grew. Idly, effortlessly, his mind held two paradoxical thoughts; the wish that this moment could last forever and, at the same time, the feeling that he could now, in this moment, peacefully relinquish his life. A phrase from Keats came floating up, “to cease upon the midnight with no pain …”
“Does he know I’m here?”
The voice was familiar, trusted, even if it came from far away reality through morphine-soaked cotton wool. It was that of Patricia, his daughter.
“It’s hard to say,” came the nurse’s reply. “He’s just had an infusion of morphine, so he may be simply out of it at the moment. But, I think, at some level he will register your presence. Take his hand, talk to him quietly. People sense things at all sorts of levels.”
He tried to open his eyes, look at his daughter. Too much effort. He felt her bend over him, kissing his cheek. She took his hand.
“Hello, Dad.” Her voice was choked; he could hear the barely suppressed tears. He wanted to tell her not to cry, that everything was all right. But then the thought faded, borne away into the analgesic ocean. Reality was ever more distant. A small part of him felt faintly that he perhaps ought to be concerned about this, but he was too detached to follow that idea. What remained was the touch of his daughter’s hand holding his, caressing it. In the background, her voice. She was talking but it was too strenuous to listen to the sense of what she was saying. The awareness of her presence was enough.
Once more he drifted off into memory …
The wind whipped rain against the windows, forming thin lines of pearling drops on the panes. In the hospital bed his wife slept, exhausted after the long and difficult birth. David sat beside the bed, holding his newborn daughter. He looked down at her, nestled in the crook of his left arm. So small. So fragile. So perfect. Patricia, he thought wonderingly, amazed. My daughter. My life will never be the same again.
For some reason he remembered that evening at the coast, six years before, with Ann and Eddie and Joan, and what he had felt about dying. That’s all different now, he realised. I was so young, I hadn’t a clue of what I was talking about. Dying was out of the question now; this little miracle bundle he was holding in his arm had changed all that. She needed him, was completely dependent on him and, though he was awed at the responsibility, he accepted it readily, joyously. I’ll always be there for you, he thought, looking at his baby daughter, for as long as you need me. Have you taken away my freedom? Yes, but I give it willingly – it’s a trade well worth making. He took her hand and examined it. So tiny, yet perfectly formed. Gently he unfolded her fist, marvelling at her fingers, astounded how small they were compared with his. The idea that she would grow, would one day be an adult, was almost impossible to believe. But now, he promised, I’m going to be there for you, care for you, love you, give you everything you need …
Reality returned, slowly. Once more he was aware of where he was … and of his situation. Colonic cancer, diagnosed too late, was killing him. He was in hospital. He knew he would not leave alive. He felt curiously detached from it all. Doped, he supposed. There was no pain now. He could feel Patricia’s hand, still holding his. Once more we hold hands in a hospital, as we did twenty seven years ago, the evening you arrived in the world. He would have liked to tell her this, but speech was too much effort. Have I kept my promise, have I loved you, lived for you? He realised that he had. She was a grown woman now, standing on her own feet, living her life for herself. Certainly she will mourn me, he thought, she will miss me, but she no longer needs me.
It was difficult to remain lucid, even for himself, without movement, without communication. He felt it was important, just for a little while more. What was that thought? Dying. Yes. He could die now. The spoken lines on the Pink Floyd record, the ones they had discussed on that magical ocean evening over thirty years earlier, came into his mind once more. And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do. The Great Gig in the Sky, Clare Terry’s voice soaring. Eddie always claimed that the song was about orgasm but, even then, David had known better. It was about dying. He was sure now. “If you can hear this whispering you are dying.”
He could hear the whispering getting louder, becoming all there was. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it – you’ve got to go sometime.
Gathering the last of his strength, he focussed on his daughter’s hand holding his own. This was all there was now. He increased the pressure, spanning his muscles, giving her hand a light squeeze in farewell.
And then he went.