So I waited. The hospital chaplain, a gentle man with a wonderful quality of stillness, came and sat with me. We made conversation. Was he married? I asked. No. Not married. Time passed. I think I drank the tea. I knew as I sat there that whatever happened, I would never forget that room. The low coffee table, the chairs we were sitting in, and oddly, the small sapling growing in the grounds outside. I remember looking at that stunted little tree and knowing that I would always remember it. That hospital has been closed now, and the grounds redeveloped; that little tree will have been destroyed. But it will remain in my memory as a part of the backdrop to the worst day of my life.
I had often thought about how I would react if John were to die. I had tried to imagine the pain, the sheer awfulness, and I'd envisaged myself lying on the ground, beating it with my fists, howling and screaming. “Do not go gently into that good night,” wrote Dylan Thomas. Well, I was never going to let John go gently; I was going to rail and scream and protest; to “rage against the dying of the light”. I wouldn’t be able to help myself.
But when the doctor came to give me the news, I was almost calm. The tears flowed unstoppable down my cheeks – not so much drops, as a steady flood - but I sat and listened to what he said, and took in nothing at all. All I knew was that John was dead. John was dead. Even writing it now, all these years later, there is a sense of disbelief.
In Rose McCauley’s book The Towers of Trebizond, there is a passage about the death of the heroine's lover. She writes: “Vere is dead, and it is too outrageous to be true”. I have never forgotten those words. The death of someone you love – indeed, the death of anyone – is indeed too outrageous to be true. That a human being can simply – cease. Just like that. It is outrageous. Belief in a God and an afterlife may be helpful, but as far as this life - this world - is concerned, that person has gone. Later, I would think of John's wonderful mind; his broad interests; his energy and enthusiasm; the huge breadth of his knowledge. How could all that be snuffed out just because one of his organs had ceased to function? It was, quite literally, unbelievable.....
............I was asked whether I would like to see him now, and my immediate response was, no.
But even as I said it, I knew that I would have to see him; that I needed to see him. Because there are some things that you cannot take in unless you have seen them for yourself. And I needed to say goodbye.
Together, the chaplain and I walked up the ward to John's screened-off bed. It was little more than twelve hours since I had last made this short journey the previous evening with the boys. We had all chatted together, planning John's homecoming. Now, there was to be no homecoming.
John looked peaceful, and I spared a grateful thought for the nurses who must have tidied him up for me after the abortive attempts to save him. I noticed that his pyjama jacket was soaked (borrowed pyjamas, because he didn't usually wear them), and imagined an intravenous infusion being torn or spilt in the rush. I stroked his head, and it was still warm. It was like coming into a room just after someone has left it; embers in the fireplace, a chair still warm from the last occupant, but no-one there. Heartbreakingly, I had arrived just too late. For the last time, I bent to kiss my husband.
Many years before, when we were first married, we used to go to our local pub for beer and (as an occasional treat) chicken in a basket. On one of these occasions, I clearly remembered John turning to me and saying: “Just think. One day, one of us is going to die in the other's arms.” But now that would never happen. I had let John down. I had been unable to keep my side of that bargain, and there would never be another chance. In my career as a nurse, I had been with many people as they died, and it seemed particularly cruel that I couldn't be there for the person who most needed me. That is something that will always haunt me.