CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner 2014; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Friday, 1 August 2014

Died of Wounds

I don’t know what it feels like to die. To be dying. To know that you are dying. One day, I will know, of course; one day I’ll know too if all the things that the doctors say and believe are true.

They say that when people are terminally ill, their bodies prepare them for death. The doctors will tell you that it’s just the body slowly shutting down, a systemic and systematic ending of its biological processes from least important to most. A person will sleep; stop eating and drinking, urinating and excreting; their blood will become sluggish, their skin mottled; their breathing will become laboured, choked, rattling; they may become confused, agitated, as oxygen flow to the brain reduces. And they'll tell you that all of this is to be expected, none of it is terrible. That as long as pain has been controlled and conquered, all of these things are only distressing to see, to hear. To helplessly witness.

Feelings are called feelings because they start in our bodies. Before we think them; before we understand that they exist. Or why. The person that sits next to a bed for months, weeks, days, hours, minutes does not have a body that is preparing them for death. And all of those differences between us that endure right up until those last few minutes and seconds of life are thrown into stark relief. We sit or pace or cry, and watch systems shutting methodically down, while our own are denying or pleading or screaming or grieving or raging, and always hurting, hurting, hurting.

So perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is less terrible to die than to be a helpless witness to it. Is that a comfort? It should be, in the same way that all the stories you hear in a hospital or hospice (any and every hospital and hospice the world over) should be: the ghosts that come back for their spouses, their siblings, their children; the changes in the air, on the skin at the moment of death; the high shelves lined with obscure objects that people are able to describe on enough occasions that they will never be taken down. But more often than not, it’s probably no comfort at all. Because someone is dying, someone is leaving. And after the terrible of now, someone will be gone.

But when that happens, know that this was done to you too. Only, you were the one that survived. Less than intact now, but you didn’t die of wounds. And that old cliché about carrying someone inside your heart, inside your head? You’ll know it’s true; you’ll know that one day it will be a comfort, but not yet. You’ll know that when people say that they are sorry, it’s only because they don’t know what else to say. That the earnest eye contact, gentle and infuriating handling as if you’ve become a completely different person, the neon thank God it isn’t me that flashes overhead between you won’t last forever. The knowledge that millions, billions have gone through all of this before you, and inevitably will again. You’ll know that all of those things and none of those things matter a shit. You’ll know that your sadness, your anger is okay, but that your fear, your despair should be controlled and conquered. You’ll bore people shitless with every last detail of your lives together, or you’ll just dream them, remember them, write them down. You’ll know that love is always its own reward.

And eventually, you’ll realise that you’re not alone. That you’ll never be alone. And you’ll trust that one day, someone will put themselves through this for you. You’ll sleep and dream, your body’s systems slowly shutting down, and you’ll wish with all of your heart that you could take their pain away, close their wounds, make them see that the doctors were right after all. And then maybe, one day, you’ll be able to come back for them too.

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