‘I remembered the nail clippers, mum.’
If she had the strength to look down and see the state her fingernails had gotten into, she would have been mortified. If she heard me, she didn’t flinch. Not so much as a quiver of her eyelids.
I tended to her nails as she slept. It gave me something to do. She was always asleep these days. My friend had warned me, as soon as she starts refusing food and drink and sleeping all the time, that’s when you know the end is near.
If the end really was near, then at least she would meet God with clean fingernails. It was all I could do for her now.
I had to keep myself thinking, keep myself useful like that or else I would feel the pain. And I couldn’t allow myself to feel the pain, not until she was gone. Right now, I had to be there for her.
There was only me and my older sister left. The cancer had claimed dad a few years ago as it had claimed both sets of grandparents when Susie, my sister and me were still young. That’s why I’m not a mother at 37 years of age. I didn’t want any children of mine to have to watch me die a slow painful death from that terrible affliction. Because it was inevitable, wasn’t it? Grandparents and now parents. That’s how me and Susie will go. It’s just a matter of time really.
Mum looked better now that her nails were trimmed. I put the clippers back in my bag, replacing them with a bottle of hand cream. Squirting a tiny bit on my fingertips, I massaged her hands before I massaged her feet. Meanwhile, she slept.
It had been good of the nurses to find her a private room. That way, no one would have to feel uncomfortable visiting their loved ones while the elderly lady in the next bed became weaker and weaker.
When the nurses offered Susie and me a cot bed to sleep on, we jumped at the chance. No one ever deserved to die alone. We took the days in 12-hour shifts. They assured us there was only weeks left. Two at most. Susie was here from 8 am to 8 pm and I took the nights. Susie had been stupid enough to have kids, Ethan and Chloe, and needed to be home for them.
Being with mum was like having a full-time job. I had one of those too, so the arrangements suited us both. The nurses were always encouraging us to go for a cup of tea, but we couldn’t. What if something happened and we had left her here alone? The thought made me shudder.
My neck hurt from lying on the hard cot bed. After the first long, cold night I had to bring in my dressing gown, wrapping it tight against my body.
I sat back on the faded leather chair next to mum’s bed, admiring my handiwork. It would be easier when a bed became available in a hospice. At least that way, all the visitors were in the same boat – visiting a dying loved one.
They say it smells better in the hospice.
I washed my hands in the sink after I’d finished applying the cream. The green paper towel felt rough against my hands. The bin made a loud clunking noise as I opened it up to put the used paper towel in.
‘Hello, who’s there?’ cried mum.
‘It’s just me, mum – it’s Sally.’
I was immediately by her side. The pain medication was making her hallucinate, seeing shadows that weren’t there.
‘That man,’ she cried, ‘he’s back.’
I looked up at the door as a shadow passed in my peripheral vision. There was no one there. The room looked out into the car park below.
‘It’s ok, mum. It’s just the nurses,’ I soothed.
‘No,’ she cried, becoming frustrated. I stroked her hair, trying to calm her down.
The auxiliary nurse waddled in with the tea and coffee trolley.
‘Tea, Mrs Hunter?’ she asked as she stopped at the end of the bed. ‘I’ve got in some lovely digestive biscuits.’
‘Go on, mum. Have a cup of tea.’
She shook her head. ‘No thanks.’ In an attempted whisper, she said, ‘they poisoned my tea last night.’
I looked up at the nurse, my face flushed with embarrassment. ‘I’m terribly sorry, it’s the medication…’
‘Don’t worry love. I’ve been accused of worse.’
She had the good grace to smile about it before offering again, cajoling mum into taking a hot drink.
‘No, get out.’
‘Calm down, mum, she’s going.’
‘Good. She thinks I’m stupid. She slinks in here every night and tries to put poison in my food and in the water jug. But I see her.’
I looked at the nurse’s retreating back. She wasn’t the size to slink about anywhere but it was best to keep quiet until the nurse was gone.
‘Don’t worry, mum. I’m staying here tonight. I’ll look after your food and your water.’
I could have murdered a cup of tea, but it would have upset mum even further. I’d made that mistake the night before.
‘Will you keep the bad man out?’ she whispered, making eye contact with me for the first time in days.
‘Of course, I will,’ I replied, humouring her. It was the easiest way.
‘He wants to take me away but I’m not ready yet.’
A gust of wind blew in the open window, making all the Get Well Soon cards fly off from the bedside cabinet and the shelf above her bed.
Startled, I bent down to pick them up.
‘He doesn’t like me talking about him. He did that to frighten you.’
My skin prickled at her words.
‘Don’t worry, mum. I won’t let him get you,’ I repeated.
‘He has no skin on his face. It’s just bone. Don’t let him take me.’
I had been here less than an hour but already I knew I was going to be in for a long night. Once I’d picked up the cards, I went over and closed the window ensuring it was closed tight.
‘I won’t let him take you anywhere, mum,’ I said automatically.
The gust of wind had left mum’s room feeling like an ice box. Shivering against the cold, I grabbed my things to go into the bathroom to change into my nightclothes, leaving the door open so I could listen out for her.
Maybe if mum fell asleep again, I could bother the nurses for a cup of tea, I thought to myself as I brushed my teeth. I folded up my day clothes and stuffed them into my rucksack. Putting on my fleece dressing gown provided me with little comfort.
‘I’m dying, aren’t I?’ asked mum when I emerged from the small bathroom.
‘No, don’t be silly,’ I lied.
Susie and I both agreed we wouldn’t tell mum just how bad her illness was. Instead, we would pretend she was getting better.
‘I think I’m dying,’ she continued, ‘Your dad’s waiting for me at the end of the bed.’
My eyes were immediately drawn there. Despite my thick pyjamas, the cold air continued to attack my skin.
‘He’s keeping the bad man away,’ she mumbled. I looked over at her. Her eyes were opening and closing, fighting sleep. ‘The bad man wants me though. He likes the look of me.’
‘Go to dad,’ I encouraged her, unable to prevent the tears from falling down my face. There was an electrical charge to the room, like when you walk into a room where there’s a TV on mute.
‘Go on, mum. It’s time to go. Just let go.’
It didn’t take long.
I looked down at her face.
She was gone. But her last words would haunt me for a long time.
‘Be careful, Sally. He likes the look of you too.’