Hospitals are always loud. Irritatingly loud. Waiting rooms are always impersonal and cold. This was my third time in three years to visit this hospital. The pain never lessens. That’s a Hallmark lie, if you ask me. Being in the hospital always brought me back to those insincere Hallmark condolence cards.
A trolley sped up the hallway. I only got a fleeting glimpse of white sheets mingled with blood red. I hate hospitals. I really do. I thought of her – Mum. She had promised me she would always be there, but that wasn’t looking likely. The Nurse’s words came to mind… “If we can stop the internal bleeding, she’s got a chance… But it could go either way…”
I rested my head against the wall behind me, and cast my mind back all those years, to my very earliest memory of her. It was a secret, private memory that I had cherished for all of my life – one of those rare, fleeting, beautiful moments that we only ever get a handful of in life.
I was about four, and I had climbed into her bed early on Saturday morning after Dad had gone to work. I had been talking animatedly to her sleeping form when she interrupted me.
“Listen to the birds. Can you hear them? Listen! Aren’t they lovely? Keep listening.” She opened her wings – her vast and maternal wings – and engulfed me in one of those hugs that only my mother was capable of giving me. Being a young and impressionable child, I stopped talking and listened to the birds singing in the garden. They were beautiful, she was right. The truth, of course, was that she just wanted me to stop talking so she could sleep.
My childhood seems idyllic now when I look back on it, but I had to have been aware that everything was not perfect. The memory of the day my mother lost her job was perhaps the most extraordinary. She had come home crying. The law firm she had worked for had delivered a horrible blow – her job was gone. I will always remember the way her talons came out. She fiercely clicked her beak, before she retreated to her room for three days.
Then the snow came. I woke up in the morning to her face hovering above mine.
“Joseph, it’s snowing! Do you hear me? Snowing!” The most massive grin appeared on her face.
She dragged me and my brother Eamonn outside. She had never played in the snow with us before. She collapsed into that glorious snow. Tears streamed down her face as she laughed, and I watched as she made a snow angel, its wings as wide as hers.
“I’m finally free!” she sobbed. I think it was the first time I saw her truly happy.
But things didn’t stay idyllic for too long. When I was fifteen, things changed forever. Dad, a construction worker, fell off a roof. And there came my first trip to the hospital. We looked at his mangled form in the bed. We knew. I knew. Eamonn was sobbing hysterically. Mum sat us down several weeks later. She asked us the question we were both dreading.
“The doctors think… well, they think that it’s time we turned it off. He’s not responding. He’s brain dead.” Always the brave woman, she fought back the tears.
“But I wanted to ask you both-”
“Switch him off. He’s not there. It’s obvious.” My words had even shocked me, and when I saw the way Mum and Eamonn looked at me, I regretted it.
But sure enough, we switched him off. We all said goodbye to that seemingly sleeping figure, and flicked a switch. I shed two tears. I wanted to cry more, to show that I cared, but it wouldn’t happen. Little did I know that not long later, my second trip to the hospital would greet me.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. O’Kane… Tragic accident… Drove off a pier…” I listened to the Garda’s words from the stairs. Something irreparable broke cleanly in two in my heart. Eamonn was dead.
Mum was in bits, of course, and couldn’t identify the body. We both went in the Garda car, but when we got there she had an anxiety attack and needed to be sedated. I had to be brave at sixteen years old. His skin was white and prune like from the water. “It’s him,” I uttered, before running from the room.
What made it all worse was that we knew that Eamonn’s accident had been no accident at all. In the year since Dad’s death, he had become severely depressed. He tried to kill himself earlier that year, which had led to a three month spell in the infamous “unit”, which strangely made him so much worse.
He had been to counselling, tried anti-depressants – everything. But none of it worked. He had wanted to die, and in the end, he achieved his selfish goal.
After Eamonn was buried, Mum immersed herself in her work. She did nothing but work – and cry. However she only did the latter in the dead of night, when she thought the only ones that were listening to her were the ghosts of the past. The once soft and beautiful, yet strong and maternal eagle that had been the centre of my life transformed into somthing sinister, like an unloving cat. I suppose the truth is that I could never know the extent of the pain she was experiencing.
I was awoken from my daze suddenly by the sound of my name.
“Joseph O’Kane?” A woman wearing a nurse’s outfit said as she walked into the waiting room.
“I have news about your mother. The surgery was a success. We were able to stop the internal bleeding. It wasn’t as serious as the doctors thought it might be. None of her organs have been damaged. She’s had a lot of stitches, and she’s going to be in a lot of pain when she wakes up, but the important thing is that she’s going to be OK. She’s asleep right now, but you can go and sit with her if you like.” The Nurse smiled. I could tell she loved delivering good news. My heart felt like it might burst with the relief – the happiness – and the absolute delight.
When I went into the room, she was pale but breathing softly. I waited patiently for six hours until her eyes flicked open.
“You’re all right! You’re fine!” I said as I walked across the room to her bed.
I filled her in on everything. I told her that she had been mugged in the car park outside her workplace, and that the two men had stabbed her. They stole her purse, and left her for dead. To my surprise, she started laughing hysterically at this news.
“My purse? It was empty! I had left my card at home by accident I had no money, no credit cards, no nothing in there! In fact all that was in there was my library card!” She continued to laugh hysterically
“The purse only cost me a fiver,” she continued. “Imagine – getting stabbed for a cheap, empty purse!” I couldn’t resist the contagious laughter, and I too became intoxicated with it.
When the laughter eventually subsided, she lifted her wings and spread them, asking for a hug. I gently put my arms around her and realised that for the first time, I was engulfing her in my wings. It was early morning, and I realised with a jolt that I could hear the birds singing outside.
“I’m so sorry about the past year, Joseph, I haven’t been there for you. Things are going to change. I’m going to look after you again when I’m better-”
“Sssshh – listen to the birds. Can you hear them? They’re lovely, aren’t they?” I knew that she understood because she started to cry silent tears. She would never leave me alone. I knew that. I had always known that. My third trip to the hospital was the only one that ended happily.
By Patrick Kelleher