Rachel Bride died in her sleep at three o’clock in the morning. There was nothing remarkable or dramatic about her last breath, and there was no-one beside her when she died. There was a last, wheezing breath, a gentle sigh and she relaxed. If the hospice had any warning of her dying they would have rung her grandson, David, but there was no knowing when she would pass away. There was no-one else left to contact, to have beside her as she died, except the one she lately loved, the man she had met after her husband died six years before. Calling him before she died, though, was unthinkably inappropriate.
Farewells had already been said. David Bride had visited his Grandma two days before. At the time, she did not recognise his face, calling him by his late father’s name until his throat became so tight he could barely talk. He left quickly, brushing by Anne, his Grandma’s carer, and another visitor, a well-dressed man who he barely noticed. David’s mind was filled the Grandma he missed: the sly wink as a piece of cake was passed beneath the table, the whispered ‘Don’t tell your Mum’, the thrill of a shared secret. Above all, he missed the woman who held him tight at his parents’ funeral, the shared pain of losing loved ones too early in their life, the time they spent together in sadness and play.
David missed his Grandma’s love much more. It frustrated him that he could not return the care she gave throughout his life. She progressed too far down the path that was only spoken about in whispers. ‘She’s gone’ they would say, ‘Not long, now’, and then the subject was changed lest the speakers be cursed by the same, mind-numbing disease. For the past few days he had waited for the call at home, at work, asleep, loathing the approaching end.
At a little past three, Anne noticed Rachel Bride was dead. She was on her rounds and poked her head around the door to check on the care home’s oldest resident. Time had taught Anne the difference between the dead and the deeply asleep: the near-silence from shallow, tidal breathing; the almost-unseen movement of bed sheets in the moonlight from the window. Experience had taught her that only death brings true stillness, a lack of noise and motion that the living can never achieve.
Rachel was now completely, truly still. Worse, the air was filled with the cloying odour of an over-full incontinence pad.
Anne called the Duty Sister immediately. The Sister checked Rachel’s pulse and breath, found none and rang the on-call doctor and the next-of-kin, David Bride. The notes, she knew, said ‘DNR’ and ‘No aggressive resus.’ so she hesitated to try and revive Mrs Bride. She, too, cared but the exigencies of her role demanded a care protocol to be followed and, at an ending, much of which she would prefer was proscribed.
The duty doctor arrived by four on a visit demanded by protocol despite the expectation of Rachel’s passing. He followed his routine, recorded details and noted that her death from pneumonia had been anticipated. Without such concern for the family an autopsy would follow, delaying her funeral and upsetting relatives with its aggressive invasiveness. He left quickly, another patient to attend, this time living and in pain.
Anne and the Sister performed the messy final ritual their care required: washing and drying Rachel Bride. Their movements were swift but gentle, performed not just from need but as a restoration of dignity to one who had been in their care for so many years. Neither complained, both aware that once such loving rites were carried out by the friends and family of the deceased, the final act of cleansing washing away the survivors’ pain at the loss of a friend. When finished, Anne and the Sister laid Rachel on her back, her limp hands above the bed sheets and her body cold but the bed still warm.
David arrived at five. His eyes and nose were red, his cheeks overly clean and his clothes unkempt, creased and mismatching. The Sister gave her condolences, offered to make some tea whilst Anne took him to Rachel’s room.
David sank to one knee beside the bed and hesitantly reached out to hold his Grandma’s cold hand. He rested his head against the pillow and stared. From time to time he whispered the intertwining memories that poured through his mind and formed a collage of grief. ‘Thanks for the summer picnics, Grandma.’ He squeezed her hand; there was no response. ‘Thanks for being with me when Mother died.’
He held her hand for as long as he could, until the unnatural cold and stillness impinged upon his sensibility and interrupted his tears. He let go. ‘Thanks for being there – for giving me time.’
He fell quiet, then stood and strode out the room. He brushed past Anne who was used to seeing such pain and could only watch in sympathy, without judgement. Anne locked the door behind her to ensure none of the other residents could walk in upon Rachel, either to accidentally disturb the deceased or become upset by her lack of response.
In her office beside the entrance, the Sister watched David stumble through the double doors. He stood by his car, his shoulders shaking as he pressed his eyes. He fumbled with the key fob and slipped inside the car. It was minutes more before he drove away.
It was time for another call, to Sherland & Sons, the funeral directors who had arranged first Mr Bride’s funeral, then that of Rachel’s son and daughter-in-law. Though out of hours, the arrangements were all in Rachel’s notes, the funeral pre-paid.
The Sister was aware that Mr Sherland was a friend of Rachel Bride, had even been in to see her a few days before, so was not surprised when Mr Sherland himself agreed to come in later, after the morning duty doctor had made his rounds and signed the forms. The Sister thought Sherland a caring man, a loving man. He would be on time; he always was.
* * *
At nine, true to Mr Sherland’s promise, a small, black van parked outside the Sister’s window. ‘Private Ambulance’ was emblazoned along the sides of the van, its rear windows darkened glass and its number plate was anonymous, unlike the other vehicles in Mr Sherland’s fleet. Without hurry, without a smile, the driver and Mr Sherland stepped out and quietly closed the doors. Both wore dark suits, polished shoes, tightly creased trousers and had their hair perfectly arraigned. Whilst the assistant opened the back of the ambulance and calmly unloaded a portable gurney, Mr Sherland’s walked sedately into the Sister’s office.
The Sister buzzed for Anne and checked the forms and numerous copies one last time. Though she hated to admit it, an oft-practiced manoeuvre would now take place: the lift locked into ‘Service’ mode; carers gently guiding the residents away from the lifts and corridor; Sister escorting the gurney up to the room. Mrs Bride would be wrapped with as much respect and care as Mr Sherland could muster and then they would return. Some residents would realise that one among them was departing, a few would recall Mrs Bride and only one or two might need consoling: it had been a year at least since Rachel Bride had shown any care and concern for other residents.
The ritual procession unfolded as smoothly as so many times before, the cast straight-faced, their composure intact. Anne blocked stairs and corridors so Sister and her convoy had a smooth journey to the lift and to Rachel’s room. Finally within the room, it was time for the Sister to stand back and allow Mr Sherland and his aide do what was required. They slipped on surgical gloves before crossing Rachel Bride’s arms over her chest and wrapping her in plain, white linen. Mr Sherland hesitated before covering Rachel’s face, staring at it one last time before he and his assistant counted to three and hefted Rachel’s unresisting body onto the gurney. The straps were buckled over her securely as the horror of her slipping or falling could not be entertained in any way. Quietly and steadily – no fuss – they wheeled her back the way they came, making sure their charge was neither knocked nor unduly disturbed.
Sister watched the black van leave. Mr Sherland checked his paperwork one last time before nodding to his assistant and climbing in. For her more time was needed: the bedsheets would be washed, the room disinfected and aired and finally announced as available for another in need of constant care. For her and the hospice, Rachel Bride’s care ceased but, in ending, opened the door for another in need of similar attention. Sister wiped away a tear and scolded herself: wishing her favourite charges would never leave was futile.
The tear reminded her of someone else. Anne would be upset – she had been close to Rachel Bride. Rachel’s favourite carer should be given leave to attend the funeral, perhaps an early end to her shift. Anne had no need for physical care but needed to be shown someone cared for her.
* * *
Mr Sherland drove the private ambulance himself. His assistant, mal, was perfectly capable of driving. It was only Sherland wanting to ensure that, if anything went wrong, he had only himself to blame. Despite his professional mask, his shoulders were taught, raised high, and he could feel tears prick his eyes. He wanted – needed – something on which he could focus and driving was all there was to do on the way back to his mortuary.
‘You’re quiet,’ said Mal.
Mr Sherland grunted in reply.
Mal looked across, noticed the tension. ‘You knew the deceased?’
‘Mrs Bride. Yes.’ Curt.
Mal nodded. ‘I can drive if that would help.’
Mr Sherland almost snapped a reply, then recalled who it was in the back of his van. She would not have liked him mistreating anyone trying to show some care. He took a deep breath to contain himself. ‘No, thanks. I’m fine. I need to drive her myself.’ He could not trust himself to say any more.
Mal nodded, had seen grief many times before – though never in Mr Sherland. ‘If it’s okay with you, boss, I’ll open the gates and mortuary door. I’ll come back to help wheel her in.’
Mr Sherland swallowed and grunted his assent.
* * *
A strand of hair had fallen across Rachel’s face. Mr Sherland brushed it away. She was cold but peaceful, her expression one of the utmost relaxation only the dead can show.
They had first met at the death of her husband. After his funeral she had returned to prepay her own funeral. ‘I don’t want David to worry,’ she had said. ‘He’ll have enough on his mind.’ Sherland agreed, took her cheque, gave her a receipt and found her looking at him with a quizzical expression. ‘How do you cope, Mr Sherland? Doesn’t this get to you, sometimes ?’ She had waved around at the offices, towards the rear and the mortuary.
‘No,’ he reassured her. ‘We’re used to it. Professional detachment, Mrs Bride.’
‘Call me Rachel.’ She had smiled briefly, a flash of beauty. Then the smile faded. ‘What about the children?’
His face clouded. ‘You are right,’ he admitted. ‘Babies are difficult.’
She laid her hand on his. ‘If you ever need to talk…’ And she had smiled again, a broad smile that lit her lined face and brought sunlight to the room.
Encouraged, he had talked to her and found in her a concern and love that lifted the weight of so much sorrow. The time he spent with her lifted his heart, enhanced what he could give to those brought into his care. Did he fall in love with someone forty years his senior? He visited her in the hospice, always taking flowers or treats even beyond the time her recollection of him faded. She cared for him and for a time they had shared: that was all that mattered.
Here, now, in the chilly mortuary, there was no way to pretend that could ever continue. He laid his hand over hers beneath the linen. ‘I was glad to know you, Rachel Bride.’ The corners of his eyes would not dry. ‘Professional detachment,’ he chided himself. He turned off the lights and dark crept into the windowless mortuary. It was not a threatening dark but one that embraced, calmed, a peaceful dark made caring by the presence and memories of Rachel Bride.
Sherland paused in the doorway. ‘Thanks for letting me help, Rachel.’ He smiled to himself: even in death, her presence eased his pain. ‘We’ll take care of you.’
The heavy door closed behind him, refrigeration units hummed. Slowly the room fell back to the temperature that did not freeze but which would hold back time and slow decay. This was the only care she could now be shown but it was care that would allow all who knew her to be released from grief.
It was the time and care only he could give, for Rachel Bride and all who knew her smile.
* * *
[Photo: Fire and Fuschia, (C) Tim Bancroft]