I am close to my last breath. I can feel it, fomenting inside, brewing with increasing impatience, waiting to be expelled in a rush of air and a gasp of dying life.
I am close to my last breath. This I know and accept. Never will I embrace the prospect. Never will I relish it. But over the years, very gradually, acknowledgment seeped in and stilled my fears, spreading over them like a blanket of soothing fog.
I am close to my last breath.
I rejected treatment. I do not know the price of human life, nor would I presume to guess. But I am certain that the meagre, pain-filled weeks I could purchase cannot be worth the inordinate cost of the drugs I was prescribed. I do not know the value of a dazed, spinning month, but I am convinced it is not an experience I wish for.
Lynette and David railed and cried. They insulted and pressured. Eventually, they begged, using grandchildren as proxies. They paraded troops of wide-eyed children through my bedroom. The younger ones were oblivious to the tubes, wires, bottles and bags. They clambered onto the bed, wonderfully ignorant of the medical accoutrements and their meaning. For the older ones, the snaking of wires, the staccato hiss of the oxygen tank and the unpleasant, sharp odour of unchanged sheets signalled an unpleasant, distressing end. Where once, they flung themselves towards me in delighted abandon, now, they hung back, wary and shy. Intimidated by the machinery and by the pale, drawn man who had replaced their grandfather.
I am close to my last breath. I know not when it will be, but every heartbeat, every blink brings me closer to that edge. I feel myself falling over it. A gentle tip at a shallow angle that steepens every minute. I do not fear it. If anything, it mystifies me. What lies over that edge? What exists beyond? I am not a religious man, yet the experience of dying has ignited a curiousity. I would not call it an evangelical journey, more an awakening of a moral centre, of finding myself on the hairline blur between science and ethics.
Wealth was never an attribute of which I have necessarily been proud. Nor have I ever viewed it as shameful. It just is. A fact. It has allowed me and my children a lifestyle denied to a great many. It allowed the best treatments on earth when I fell ill. And for a time, it allowed me to delude myself that money could cure my cancer. It bought false hope that one’s proven and fierce ability to fight a battle could be invoked when the villain was grossly mutating cells. Instead, money was a fleeting friend that proved to be as useful, as they say, as a chocolate knife. Instead, it transpires that one’s capacity to fight disease is not linked to one’s strength of character. Passing waves do overwhelm even the most determined of us. It is not a personality flaw or personal failing to succumb to disease.
And succumb I will.
I have only days, maybe hours. Each breath is a scalpel slicing upwards. Every movement sends stabbing pains through my extremities. I ache; a dull, nagging throb that invades every cell. It beats its drum relentlessly, hammering through my body. I can no longer track days. Minutes meld seamlessly into hours. I had the clock removed from my bedroom, because it no longer reflects my concept of time. My time is circular, it is technicolour. The pain medication warps my days, twisting them beyond recognition, proving once and for all, that time is relative.
I hope I have enough energy to say what needs to be said, before the end. My children need to hear it, and I need the selfish comfort of the confession booth. I have waited this long because, and I am honest with myself, I have to force out the truth, but I have neither desire nor stamina to exist in this world long enough to deal with the messy consequences.
Rarely, if ever, do we have the luxury of escaping the consequences of our actions. This time, death will absolve me of that burden.
The curtains drawn tight and the door firmly shut; my bedroom is ink. The air lies dank and stuffy; the hum of equipment the only noise that invades the black silence. Very soon, dawn will break on my last day. My children will arrive shortly, prepared, silent, sullen, but steeled. They are my children. They will not shirk from the final moment. I would not have it any other way.
I have imagined this moment for months. In my mind, in my dreams, I have planned its unfurling. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, except, I suppose, its direct opposite. Its antithesis. Rather than life blossoming, I will curl myself into that fragile shell and disappear. I wish it were so simple and painless – the oft-hoped for gentle drift into oblivion. I fear I shall not experience such a soft ending, for death, in its refusal to slip away quietly, ravages us. Death is ugly. It is slovenly and raw. It is weeping sores, the stench of incontinence and the slow unpeeling of dignity.
I could not bear for my children to provide the personal care I need. My pride would crumble under that assault. I have hired nurses who show me no pity. Stern in their professional detachment, I am grateful for their clinical approach. Oddly enough, the ensuing dehumanisation comforts me, as I separate myself from my broken, embarrassing body.
In sparing my children from this task, I hope they will judge me in less certain terms when they know the truth. That their guilt will temper the anger and confusion they express.
And so it begins.
“I have something to tell you. I need you to remain calm. I have to say this. And you have to hear it”.
They appear grave and drawn. Addled by lack of sleep, worry and the strains of caring for both a dying parent and small children. Their thoughts, like mine, shoot and zip, pinging from side to side with little coherence or order.
David and Lynette lean in, their faces looming over my bed like buttery hovering moons. They glance uneasily at each other. I imagine their nerves beating fluttery wings, which set off jets of fizzing anxiety streaming upwards through their blood. I would feel distinctly similar, except the shrieking pain and the high-pitched scream of my body straining against disintegration, drown out all other sentiments.
“There is a part of me I have hidden for some time. A kernel of my being sequestered safely away. It has never tried to break free. I have never been tempted to let it spill from my mouth”.
Lynette and David merely stare. They are holding hands by this point. My vision is reduced to pinpricks of twinkling light, so I cannot see their tense hunched shoulders, the whitened knuckles or the chests replete with unexpelled air, but I know they are there.
Shards of gleaming glass stab inside my head, pushing outwards with explosive energy. I cannot move past the pain to grasp the words I need. And yet I must finish. I must. My legs tremble, jerking and flicking, even though my arms lie dull and unresponsive. No longer under my control, my limbs already answer to a higher master. As if they have gone on ahead, and started the journey without me.
My breathing shallow and laboured, each gasp must be forced out with all the power I can summon. I hope that as the air leaves me, it will carry with it my words.
“I am gay.”
I have always known this. It is a ribbon running through my core. From my tiny days, I have never questioned it, yet for a tangle of reasons, could not share it. At times, I was content to guard my privacy. At others, it barely felt like a secret worth disclosing.
“I am gay”
With this happy declaration of myself, this triumphant pronunciation of my very soul, I melt contently back into the world that birthed me.