Everything in the room had been scrubbed, folded and straightened. Sharp corners highlighted the emptiness around me; the space looked bigger than it really was. I sensed undertones beneath the beige and yellow ordinariness of it all. Through my first floor window I could see trees hanging their limbs over the car park below. They seemed unreal, like a cheap painting lacking composition and perspective. And my room had several of those on the walls.
In the room next to mine I could hear the voice of an elderly woman. She seemed to be speaking to a nurse. What she was saying was clearly muffled by pain. Listening as she tried to communicate with the nurse wasn’t easy. At first I was confronted by her proximity to me, as I was still cautiously silent on the matter of my own pain, such as it was. Would I end up sounding like her? I hoped not, but I felt uncomfortable about that prospect. I got used to it eventually. I brooded, watched TV and listened to her struggles and requests as they turned into complaints and criticisms. They were all responded to calmly and professionally.
After a few days, during which her interactions with staff had merely been background noise, the tone changed and she ramped up the volume. Her voice escaped from under its muffle and became loud and demanding. She was still responded to with professionalism but with slightly more urgency and reciprocating volume. Then the responses started to change.
“Iris, that’s enough now. Iris. Iris!” Sentences ended with upward inflections, rather than the soothing downward conclusions I had found strangely reassuring by proxy. This change was unsettling.
She started to sing in the middle of the night. “Happy birthday to you...”
A nurse’s voice, muffled in the wings, “You being noisy again, Iris. Stop it, please.”
But Iris had taken centre stage. “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do...”
“Iris. You’re waking everyone up. Iris!”
“I’m half crazy, oh for the love of you...”
“Here you are. Put this on your tongue. Sip the water. Swallow.”
“It won’t be a handsome marriage...I can’t afford...”
It went on until morning, upsetting the rhythm I had tried to apply to my own days and nights. I started the day feeling wrung out. When she started up again in the afternoon, after an hour or two of quiet, I could feel my stomach tighten and my shoulders stiffen and pull backwards. I thought about demanding to be moved to another room. Then I realised that her singing would carry around the ward and that it would be futile to try and escape. I could tell from the staff responses to her, in the rising frustration when they spoke to her and to each other, that there weren’t any more cards to play. Iris was now running the show.
That evening the encore performance got under way.
“You’ll look sweet upon the seat...”
In the middle of the night someone up the corridor yelled out “Shut up, will you!”
...”of a bicycle built for two.”
It came around to Saturday afternoon. Despite what we were all enduring, I sensed a note of relaxation on the ward. The nursing staff weren’t as hurried or preoccupied as they had been. Visitors were dropping in and out, quietly and respectfully. The sensation that something had changed might just have been my tribal sporting response to a Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t be sure. I was becoming used to not being sure. Iris was asleep, so I listened to the footy and got some rest.
Around five in the evening, as the urgency leaked out of the football commentary, people began assembling around Iris’ doorway. They were milling, looking around. I recognised from their body language that they were children, parents and grandparents. Some looked bored, others just distracted. Now and again someone would slide out of Iris’ room and a group would go off down the corridor. But more seemed to come and the faces around the door kept changing into the evening.
I hadn’t heard Iris sing all day and relished the peace. Some people around the doorway nodded to me, maybe out of discomfort that they could see so far into my life. I nodded back at them. I slept well for the first time in days.
I wonder still how they got her out. I imagined at first there must be a separate lift. It would be too confronting to have a sheet covered trolley in the lift with you as you left after a visit, surely. They wouldn’t do it that way. Then I thought they probably would have waited until the middle of the night and made a daring run down the corridor, into the lift and out to an ambulance. Now I think the plan would have been to simply wheel her out, just as she was. People would see an old lady having a good nap whilst she’s being prepared for treatment. I guess they would only have to slide her eyelids down, like in the movies.
I’d said to a nurse, “Iris has quietened down, hasn’t she. That’s a relief.”
The nurse raised her eyebrows and then she smiled softly at me and told me Iris had died the night before. I felt so silly. My lack of awareness of a death occurring only five paces away was a surprise to both of us. I had missed the whole event.
I still think about Iris’ death and how they managed to restore ordinariness to the ward.
Cancer Council NSW would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work.We would also like to pay respect to elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people.