In the same week, on two separate occasions, I worked on two different wards in the same hospital, looking after two elderly patients. One was an eighty-five-year-old woman with schizophrenia and the other patient was an eighty-nine-year-old man with dementia. On both occasions, I was overcome within an existential crisis. One of those moments where you realise you are alive, but in the same moment, you understand that you will eventually die. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, attempting to find a rhythm, and a cloud of breathlessness began to mask the breath I forget I have. I have had brief existential moments, like this, for a long time. I have learnt to ride the wave. I find them so powerful and beautiful, that afterwards, I am more relaxed about life and somewhat inspired.
Before continuing with this story, I remember, earlier this year, I was standing in the accident and emergency department after supporting a patient, when an old dying man was pushed past me on a trolley. He looked terrible and terrified. That night, I went online and bought a saxophone. I had always wanted to learn it. After seeing the dying man, I thought, had he ever wanted to do something but never did. And now, as he was dying on that trolly, I thought, he never would. He died that day. And every now and then, I try and play the saxophone.
Back to my original story.
The lady I was with had been given a new hip. My job, given that she could be hostile, was to support and manage her mental health. However, she was completely drugged up that she slept the whole twelve hours. Occasionally, she would wake up and shout, “There’s that bitch” and point over to another old lady laying in bed. Other than that, she was sleeping. So, I had a lot of thinking time as a gazed around the bays at the other patients with various ailments and conditions. One old lady kept getting up from her chair and attempting to leave the ward as she was looking for her bag. The nurses and health care assistant kept showing her the bag she was looking for, but shortly after, she would be on the hunt for it again. I wouldn’t want to be wandering forever in search for things that I already have.
Two health care assistants stood behind a blue curtain while they washed a patient. I could hear their conversation. They were speaking about their kids being off school for the school holidays. They had similar accents, so at times, it was like one person was talking to themself. I found that odd. The conversation was extremely mundane. It was the same conversation I hear when I listen to other conversations. I wondered if the conversation had any purpose other than acting as a distraction of washing a dying human. I often think that about many conversations. Are we just filling gaps with pre-loaded scripts that we all have within our head? Just to get us from one moment to the next.
As I looked around, it was obvious that all the patients did not have long left. And I began to feel my heart thump. I knew what was coming. I pondered the idea of being old, and what would it be like to believe that I had lost something important to me that I could never find. To be lost in a loop of worry. I would want to be lost in a happy loop. Lost in the moment of good news or a good feeling. The feeling in my chest began to intensify, and as I sat and watched everyone waiting to die, I then quickly realised that they were watching me die too! I know we are all dying, but not everyone is waiting to die.
At what age do you wait to die?
I have thought about this situation a lot. I suppose it is not age related, but circumstantial? The word and the idea of retirement is horrendous. I think for many people, once they retire, they are waiting to die. It is important to be relevant to yourself and ignore the idea of relevancy beyond, as it is too flimsy to hold any substance of value as it is based on use.
I was recently waiting for my new condensed dryer to be delivered. I was given a time between 7am and 7pm. While I was aware of the timeframe when the dryer would arrive, I just couldn’t sit around and do nothing, but I couldn’t commit to anything substantial either! I did not want to start a task or plan something and then stop it. I suppose waiting for a dryer to be delivered is like waiting to die. I didn’t really do anything. I just pondered about the house. Eventually the dryer turned up, so I basically died. I found the arrival of the dryer to be an anti-climax. I wonder if death is an anti-climax. Not the way you die, but the moment itself. It is difficult to comprehend that you once had family, friends, pets, hope, dreams and memories, then within a moment, you cease to exist, and you are no longer here, the same way you were not here before you were born. I often think about living forever. I only ask that question because living is all I know. And I like it. The whole time I was having these thoughts, another old lady kept shouting that she was going to be sick. She was never sick.
A few days later, I was looking after the old man. Though the man in the next bed, started to tell me about himself. He joined the merchant navy at sixteen and spent forty-five years in it. He told me, that he had got a good pension. He was now ninety-one years old. He told me that he saw Elvis and Little Richard play live in the 1950’s when he was in America and that he has travelled the world three times over. His legs were very swelled. The same shape from his thigh to his ankle. Like two tree trunks. He said the hospital said he could go home but he refused, because he wanted a hip operation. The hospital said his hip was okay. He said his hip was broken. Again, all the other old men were dying. There was an old man in bed one, who was from Bologna, Italy. He was shouting he had lost his watch and he wanted to die. At one point, he asked the nurse if she could give him some tablets to speed the process up. The nurse explained she could not do that, so he told her to fuck off.
A woman came to visit another man who was asleep. She sat next to him for two hours and he didn’t wake up, nor did she try to wake him. Five minutes after she left, he woke up. The nurse explained that his wife had came to see him. He asked if she had brought him anything. The nurse said no, and he went back to sleep. The man I was with refused to speak with me. I asked if he would like to play noughts and crosses. He said that it is a baby’s game, and he doesn’t play games. We didn’t really have a conversation again. I just made sure he was hydrated and looked after. I would like to think, that I would still like to play noughts and crosses if I get old.
One of the nurses looked upset. I asked if she was okay. She told me that a man, aged sixty-three, had come in this morning at 9am, after falling over and complaining of pain in his hip. His family had been with him all day. When they left, he began complaining of a pain in his back. He died a short time later. His wife and one of his daughters arrived just in time to say goodbye, but his other daughter was too late to say her goodbyes. It was now 3pm. When he was being removed from the ward on a specific trolley, he was pushed past me while I was eating a ham and cheese sandwich. Moments before, I was complaining to myself that there is no Branston pickle on the sandwich and it is a bit dry. Even though I still wanted pickle on the sandwich, the balance of events seemed disjointed. Without knowing the man, I pondered whether he would have been concerned with the lack of pickle if it was his sandwich and it was me who had died. I attempted to justify my desire for Branston pickle during his death with the notion of swapping roles and agreeing, that he too would have been concerned with the lack of pickle upon his sandwich, even if my body was pushed past him.
It is strange how life was happening before you or I came to exist. And it is strange how life will continue without you or me. And at the point of our deaths, there will be someone in the world eating a ham and cheese sandwich with a beautiful amount of Branston pickle spread upon it, and they won’t care that we have just died.
They will only care about their uneaten sandwich.
It reminds me of a painting by Wayne Thiebaud called Cheese and Olive Sandwich (1964).