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  • chantaljmacdonald

The Last Stop (Short Fiction)

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

“Code blue. Code blue,” the overhead PA system shouted to the floor staff. I pressed myself against the pale wall to make room for the nurses sprinting past. I didn’t know what Code Blue meant, but judging from the way the nurses hustled, it wasn’t good.

I continued down the hall of the palliative floor doing my best to avoid eye contact as I passed rooms with open doors. Finding the right room number, I knocked gently on the slightly ajar door to announce my arrival.

“Come in,” spoke a familiar voice.

My stomach knotted as I stepped inside. The voice may have been familiar, but the frail body tucked between crisp white linen looked like a weak shadow of the woman that had been a loving presence in my life for almost twenty years.

I willed my feet to move forward and placed the white orchid I carried in my hands on the window ledge. “I brought you a flower,” I said, stating the obvious. “It’s an orchid. You’re favourite.” The window overlooked a busy parking lot. Not the nicest of views, but I suppose she wasn’t spending much time taking in the sights anyway.

The voice from the bed beckoned me. “Come closer and sit beside me. Tell me about your day.”

With my back turned it felt familiar. I could almost picture her sitting at the dining room table in front of a plate of warm cookies. She always wanted to know about my day.

And so, in spite of the tears I knew were threatening to escape my eyes, I pulled a chair close, took her hand, and told her about my day.

She did not have the strength to wrap me in her arms or walk with me like she used to. All she had was her voice. But for that, I was very grateful.

A petite, blond nurse politely interrupted our conversation and announced that It was time to refresh the bedsheets. A simple task made challenging by the immobile patient who occupied the bed.

The nurse did not complain.

Instead, with gentleness and respect, she rolled my dear aunt on her side and proceeded to strip the sheets and replace them on the clear side of the bed. Once finished, she rolled her back and repeated the process on the other side.

I stood in the corner watching her work and wondered about the magnitude of exhaustion that one must feel in such a career.

The tasks were physically taxing. I imagined the slight nurse attempting to refresh the sheets of a patient two or three times the size. But more than the physical work, there was the emotional climate of such a workplace. Especially here. Daily facing grief, pain, regret, conflict, and frustration, and being required to face it with grace and kindness, preserving the dignity of patients and loved ones.

I shook my head, in awe of those who willingly chose to care for strangers in such a way.

The nurse took a moment and assessed the vitals of the woman in the bed who had closed her eyes and was breathing heavily, the ordeal clearly having worn her out.

“I think it might be best if you let her rest now,” the nurse said.

I agreed and, giving a gentle squeeze to her papery hand, promised to return again soon before slipping out the door.

When I arrived the next day I found her asleep. Aside from some minimal furniture and machinery the room was empty, save of course the occupied bed dimly lit by an overhead lamp. Not wanting to disturb her, I pulled a vacant chair close to the bed and rummaged through my bag for a novel I was reading.

Several minutes passed before there was a stirring next to me.

“Hello, dear.”

Her voice sounded significantly more laboured than it had been the day prior. That was to be expected, they told me. The days were short now and the decline would be steady. I swallowed hard.

“Hi Auntie. How are you doing today?” I mentally kicked myself for asking such a question. Before she could respond with an answer I really wasn’t ready to hear, I added, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

With her head she gestured toward a tattered, leather bible that lay open on the bedside table. “Read me a story?” she asked. I nodded and gently lifted the book onto my lap, it’s worn pages telling their own story of faithfulness.

“What should I read?”

“Just start reading from where it’s open.”

I began to read from Revelation. As I did she settled her head back into the pillow and closed her eyes, a smile resting on her thin lips. From the words she drew a peace that seemed to ease the lines of tension or pain on her forehead.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. For the old order of things will have passed away.” I stopped reading, a lump forming in my throat. How I wished for that type of life now. I longed for the story to be true.

For her sake and for mine.

As I was reading there was a knock on the door. Three more family members entered to visit, their arms filled with more flower arrangements for the already crowded window ledge. I returned the bible to its place on the table and offered to give them privacy.

They assured me that I was welcome, but it was my aunt who made the strongest argument.

“Stay,” she requested. So I stayed.

The others retrieved chairs that they pulled up close to the bed as well. We sat there together for the better part of an hour chatting about our own personal memories of her. Funny moments, sweet times, ways that she had shown us love. We laughed. We hugged. We cried.

It was a heartbreakingly beautiful thing – a circle of loved ones spending focused time together reliving the best moments of one’s life. With each memory we covered her with a blanket of love, of gratitude, of peace. She had lived her life well. On each of our hearts were imprints of her.

My aunt did not have the strength to carry on a long conversation, but seemed content to listen. Her face glowed in the light of the remembering.

No one spoke the words, but just below the surface of reminiscing was the understanding that these were goodbyes. This was how they were choosing to spend their last moments with her. With thankful hearts they allowed the stories of remembrance to write the ending of their time together.

******

The middle is a difficult place to be.

The space of waiting, not fully in life and yet still very much alive. Death standing at the door awaiting permission to enter.

When I asked her if she found the days long she answered that time passed differently inside the four pale walls of the room that would be her final home. It was nearly impossible to keep up days or dates or even with the changing of shifts for the doctors and nurses by whom she was attended. But when her mind was alert enough to notice, she told me how she measured time through the visits. The space between them was long and hazy, filled mostly with drug-induced sleep, but each visit brought joy and light that served as a balm to her soul.

The people who came to shower her with love or appreciation were the timepiece by which my aunt measured life in the middle. This did not surprise me. She always loved people.

I was grateful that I had prioritized time with her in spite of the way that the smell of antiseptic churned my stomach or how uncomfortable I felt around sick people or the fact that I had a deathly fear of needles.

It was a small sacrifice to be able to bring a little sunshine to a woman who had sacrificed much for me and to be with her while she waited in the middle.

******

It was my third visit to the tiny room at the end of the palliative wing. Something about the visit today felt different. Final. I couldn’t place my finger on why, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling.

As I entered, a question weighed on my heart. It was, perhaps, one of the hardest questions to ask someone, yet I had to know the answer. I took her hand in both of mine and squeezed. I spoke tentatively. “Are you ready?”

She paused, thoughtfully considering her answer. “You know, I’ve spent so much of my life caring for others, putting their needs ahead of my own. To say yes, that I am ready, feels selfish. It feels like I have failed in some way by giving up, by letting the disease win.” With great effort, she shifted uncomfortably in the bed.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, but thankfully she continued. “But I’m tired. Tired of being in pain. Tired of others seeing me in pain. The weariness of this world is heavy on me. I am not afraid to die. I know that my Jesus is waiting for me with open arms and that it will be just like you read the other day – a place with no more pain and no more death. So yes, my dear girl, I am ready.”

I exhaled a breath that I didn’t realize I had been holding. I was prepared for that to be the end of the conversation, but she had more to add. Her eyes focused on me more intently than they had before. “I have been given a gift of time to make my peace and say goodbyes. Not everyone has that opportunity. We must each daily respond to that question for ourselves. We must consider how we live and for whom we are living, because if your time was now,” she paused, “would YOU be ready?”

When I left that afternoon I did so with silent tears cascading down my face. I walked away confident that I would not see her again. She had taught me so much in my lifetime, and now in our last moments it seemed she had one final lesson to impart. A different question was rattling around inside my heart, and for that question, I did not have an answer.

******

Dressed in black I stood with my family at the graveside committal. An intimate few had gathered for this part of the final farewell. All of it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

For being so common, death felt like an unnatural reality that I was not interested in facing. I dug my toe into the fresh earth and tried my best to put my thoughts elsewhere as the pastor finished reading the scripture.

The closed casket was slowly lowered a few feet into the ground. As mourners stepped forward to place flowers, I snuck away from the crowd. Once inside my family’s vehicle I put my head back against the headrest and squeezed my eyes shut tight, grateful to be away from the tension that was causing my head to pound.

A rap on the window caused me to jump. Peering through the glass was my uncle, the man who had just buried his beloved. I climbed out and received his awkward embrace.

“Thank you for coming. She thought the world of you, ya know.” His voice caught in his throat and he pressed a worn bible into my hands. “She asked me to make sure that you got this.”

I thanked him, unsure of what else to say. As he walked away I leaned against the car and thumbed through the book that had clearly brought much joy to my aunt through her life. The pages were filled with underlined passages and handwritten notes. A thin sheet of paper fluttered to the ground.

I picked up the note that was scrawled in shaky handwriting.

“Love God and love others. This is your holy purpose. When love is your anchor, you can weather any storm.”

Holy purpose. I don’t know if that message was intended for me. Perhaps she planned for me to find it. Perhaps it was divine intervention. Either way, the words hit their mark. A self-centered life was no life at all. I wanted to do better, to be better. I wanted to live a life like my aunt’s, one with a holy purpose.

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