Thursday, 14 November 2013

Overheard, or Life, Glorious Life

“Hello, Good Morning Mrs. Williams, I’m Doctor Barnsley, how are you today?”

“Not too bad,”
Mrs. Williams is an elderly lady, small, with a cloud of wispy, snow-white hair framing her delicate face, and possessed of a very sweet smile and gentle demeanour. She leans back into her pillow and awaits Doctor Barnsley’s further utterances.

I’m glad to hear that,”
he says and sits down on the edge of her hospital bed. He is a big chap, robustly healthy, the rugger type, as so many doctors seem to be. He is in shirt-sleeves, his stethoscope casually draped round his neck. He takes her wrist in his large hand, his thumb on her pulse. 

I’ve come to talk to you about the test results. You remember the ultrasound and x-rays you had, Mrs. Williams?”
Barnsley is calm and professional. Mrs. Williams nods, she is poorly physically, but compos mentis.

“Do you remember I told you that we found that lump in your chest? It’s bigger than we hoped it would be.” 
Barnsley gives Mrs. Williams time to grasp what he says. She continues to look up at him trustingly, her sweet smile still in place. Again she nods, but doesn’t say anything. 

“There’s nothing we can do about the lump; it’s too big and quite inoperable. We believe that the usual treatments wouldn’t be much use to you; they’d be harsh and it is unlikely that you would gain anything.”
Barnsley’s voice is measured, slow, utterly dispassionate, yet not unsympathetic. He offers no personal emotion, but he repeats his sentence in slightly different words, to make sure that Mrs. Williams understands. Her smile grows serious but doesn’t disappear altogether. Mrs. Williams knows how to behave. Then she coughs, pressing her handkerchief to her lips. The cough is long drawn out; she finds it hard to get her breath.

“But that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing at all,”
Barnsley continues, his voice remaining even and relaxed.
“We can make you comfortable, free from pain.”
This is another sentence he repeats several times, using different words. 
We can make sure that there is no pain and you will be comfortable at all times. You will have to have more care at home, of course. Who looks after you? How much help do you have?”
Mrs. Williams has children and there’s a husband. 
“You will have to have professional help too; we can arrange for that through Social Services.”

Mrs. Williams receives her death sentence as calmly as Doctor Barnsley pronounces it. I am no longer certain that she has fully understood that her days are not only numbered, as all of ours are, but that her numbers will run out in the near future and that there will be a period of suffering and pain to go through, no matter how helpful modern medicine is. Her smile fades. Her eyes become vacant, no longer focussing on the speaker.

Doctor Barnsley rises to leave, gently putting Mrs. Williams’ hand on the coverlet, patting it, absently. “I’ll get the nurses to ring for your family.”
 Mrs. Williams speaks for the first time.
“Thank you,” she says.

Later in the day, husband and son arrive. Doctor Barnsley also appears. He speaks quietly to the two men. All I can hear him say, repeatedly, is:
She knows, she understands.”
Mrs. Williams herself is silent, a barely perceptible presence.  Neither husband nor son address her directly. Doctor Barnsley excuses himself and the men stay at the foot of the bed; now and then a word punctures the invisible fog of helplessness surrounding them. 

Come on, Dad, let’s go and have a coffee,”
the son finally says. Dad agrees.
“Back in a bit, Mum,” 
he says, as they turn to leave.

Not much later Mrs. Williams softly snores. She has fallen asleep.


  1. No matter how healthy the reader, it's hard not to see ourselves in that bed someday.
    Beautifully portrayed.

  2. Wow. That could be any single one of us on any given day. This touches me in many ways, as tonight we went to hospital to visit a friend who was in ostensibly because of a bad fall but there are other problems, quite possibly early Alzheimer's, or maybe she's just often in space. The doctor you wrote about seemed kind. I hope she is well cared for.

  3. Oh! A sad read. Somehow I was reminded of my mother.

  4. This is very beautifully written but also very hard. Of course they don't have to be mutually exclusive. This really puts things in perspective...

  5. Sad story, Friko. I hope by the time I get to the stage where that could be me in that bed, that I have grown gracious and gentle, too. I wonder if the doctor's job in such cases is easier if the patient is sweet natured? Maybe that would make the job harder?

  6. movingly well crafted
    ALOHA from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral
    =^..^= <3

  7. I would like to think that Mrs. Williams understood more than others thought, and was at peace with her fate.

  8. When my son visited this weekend, I commented that a friend had "died too young" - he was over 70. My son said that he considered the years past 70 "bonus time." I reminded him that I'd be 70 in May, and he nodded. Now, I'm thinking maybe he's right. Bonus does have a nice ring to it.

  9. Wow, that is tough news to absorb, and the lady seems so kind.

  10. Poor Mrs. Williams, and poor helpless Mr. Williams and Mr. Williams junior.
    You know that you are a very good writer, Friko, I don't have to tell you that. But have you ever considered having something published?

  11. Yes, they two feel helplessness without her. Poor woman. Sad final of life.

  12. Hallo Friko,
    der Text wirkt mit der Beschreibung der Krankheit bedrückend auf mich. Sofern der Text von Dir stammt (wovon ich ausgehe), ist das genial geschrieben. Ich tue mich zwar ein wenig schwer, weil er auf Englisch ist, aber Stimmungen und Gefühle und den Dialog finde ich klasse.

    Gruß Dieter

  13. Yes... it's like that in hospitals. The woman probably knew before anyone else.

  14. It all seems sort of heartless as if none of these men know how to deal with the feelings of a dying woman.

    1. Sadly most people don't. It's not a character flaw, just protective denial. If I have to deal with feelings about dying, I have to face the clear truth that I am dying too.

  15. That has the ring of truth, Friko.

  16. Hi Friko - sad they don't sit by her bed and hold her hand ... however uncomfortable they may feel ... or the son suggest it to his Dad ... so there's a choice for Mr Williams to make ...

    Not easy ... great story telling though .. Hilary

  17. Very sad story for Mrs. Williams, very well told Friko - grabs you by the heart.
    Been there with My Mom, but I got to sit by her bed and hold her hand and talk to her for a week before she passed.

  18. 'Thank you,' says Mrs Williams, courteous to the last. So sad, so inevitable.

  19. Beautifully written, sad story about how we grow old and die. I was hoping for her to say something, but what is there to say?

  20. Friko, once again I wish to compliment you on your fine writing. You tell a story, paint a picture, describe relationships and awarenesses with such skill. Not all that many words...each of them is important and connects to the next one so very well.

    Prior comments have said this is a sad story. Well, yes and no. I think it is truly told. Perhaps it is because it is because I am now at an age when I do my own measuring of future days. This awareness has been sharpened for me by the deaths of friends (younger than myself) during the past year. This awareness makes me treasure each day I am given, with its possibilities for new experiences, new friendships, and happiness, too.


  21. Observed? Imagined? Dream? Nightmare? In any event moving and thought-provoking.

  22. Too sad. I can see you are back in the hospital and observing your neighbors. Don't know why, but I always have the "it will never happen to me reaction." I think I am going out with a bang. Dianne

  23. A lovely write, and so evocative. Life can be so very difficult at times.


  24. I'm into bonus time as well. Beautifully written

  25. Oh my
    your words touch my heart
    This is probably
    the way it will happen to many of us.
    This one in the last of the 70 years
    and now the matriarch of her family
    and the majority of friends now gone.
    Each as we continue to age
    sometimes wonder
    "how will it happen."
    thank you for your words...

  26. Beautifully told Friko. I wonder if observed too?
    Anna :o]

  27. What a powerful and beautifully written post, Friko! It captures so well countless scenarios daily and so many of our own fears for the future.

  28. I'm surprised that this kind of discussion took place where it could be overheard. I won't say that ouldn't happen in the US, but the rules about patient privacy here are very strict.

  29. I can imagine Mrs. Williams growing smaller in her bed with the news. How very sad for the two men in her family as they say a few words and leave the room for coffee. Dad got the news like this... about Mom. A strong man going in and a wisp of himself leaving.Such hard news for the patient and family as well.
    Be well, Friko....Balisha

  30. Very believable and such a sad ending.

  31. What I like best is the acknowledgement that palliative care is sometimes the most sensible and humane option.

  32. Oh je oh je, das ist so traurig...

  33. Written with enormous sympathy and feeling .

  34. So sad for the news and even sadder still that her family felt so awkward and foreign around her. A fine tale of human frailty.

  35. I felt like I was right there--another fly on the wall.
    Life is so fragile.

  36. Well told, Friko -- and I think well done on the part of doctor and patient. I feel sorry for husband and son -- they just don't know what to do.

  37. Friko, you make me feel better about the ending of a life. Every Blessing Freda from Dalamory

  38. fiction or no? if not fiction what you aren't saying is that you too were in the hospital. hope this was not recent. good that no one insisted on unnecessary extreme measures.

  39. So much here. So sad because the woman is never given her voice. She is the strongest one among them all.

  40. I feel as if I was on the other side of the curtain or thin wall - a silent observer. Makes us all wonder "will this be me?".

  41. I think it makes all of us wonder, will this be me? We all wonder how we will go in the end. Will it be fast or slow. Will those around us feel our suffer more than us. Very well written :)


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