We don’t talk about death here. It’s not encouraged. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s actively discouraged by the powers-that-be. They’re definitely from the ‘don’t spook the horses’ faction of care-management.
Which is a bit unfair really. With death being just about the next item on the agenda for most of us here, we might not mind discussing it. It makes a change from tomorrow’s visit to the shopping mall or the theatre (and the abundance of lavatory facilities therein). Not to mention the proximity of the best emergency hospital.
There’s a group who don’t mind bucking the system though; five of us who haven’t yet slipped permanently into la-la land (though one or two of us may visit from time to time). And we’re looking for a bit of meaningful conversation before we do. About the things that concern us.
Oh they watch us, the management and the other residents. Sometimes they follow us around the grounds trying to eavesdrop, but we haven’t lived this long without learning how to fool people.
And then one day Lily arrived, with her gleaming white hair, lavender-blue eyes and wrinkle-free skin. When we found out that death was just about all she talked about, we were pretty damned pleased. Normally we take our time getting to know the newcomers; some of them cling like limpets to the first soul holding out a welcoming hand, and then can’t be shaken off.
But with Lily, it was different. On her second day at the home, she just walked up to us as we huddled round the back of the gazebo, having a crafty smoke, and struck up a conversation. Bill, who can be a bit unfriendly with strangers, started talking about dying, almost as an initiation trial, feeling sure that she would give us a wide berth after that. It didn’t work. She was like a dog with a bone on the subject, having very clear views about death, views she wasn’t averse to sharing, and though we didn’t all necessarily agree with them, it was refreshing to get a different slant on things.
Soon she was an accepted member of our group, and it seemed Emily liked having another woman around. We noticed that Lily was also pretty popular with the other residents, which we weren’t. So she acted as a bridge between us, which was pretty useful as we miss out on a lot of the gossip, being a select group. Things went pretty well for quite a while.
It was Chuck who first postulated that she might be an angel, sent to bring us home safely. The signs had been there for a few days that Chuck was about to take his next trip to la-la land, so we didn’t take much notice really. He’d be back with us soon; two or three weeks should see him right.
Only Chuck didn’t come back this time. The meds were a bit strong for him, and though we visited him every day, we could see things were going downhill. Lily stayed with him all the time though; from dawn to dusk it seemed, talking, stroking, soothing.
The management said it was the most peaceful passing they’d seen. Never even got him to hospital, no need, he just drifted off after lunch, with Lily by his side. The management kinda liked that. Looking after our own, they said.
After a while, we noticed that Lily was quite busy easing a number of the residents out of this life. The management said she was a ‘compassionate soul, always there for people’, and we thought so too, for a while.
Then Bill got a chest cold, which turned to something more serious, and since we’d been pretty close for several years, I visited him often in his room. Lily was always there, plumping his pillows, lifting his feeder cup to his lips, soothing him with her words. The doc looked in occasionally, saying he was doing fine. Lily always kept quiet then.
Bill kept looking at me strangely – couldn’t put my finger on it. Like he was trying to tell me something. Then one evening, just after dinner, he gave me an exasperated glare, and died. Just like that. Lily replaced his hand gently on the coverlet, with a soft smile. Kinda eerie, I thought.
The remaining three of us discussed it at length. I suspected that Lily wasn’t so much guiding folks as despatching them, and though Emily and George were less convinced, they agreed we should talk to her about it.
One day, when nobody was dying, Lily joined us behind the gazebo and we tackled her. Her lavender eyes filled with tears and her hands crept to her mouth.
“How can you say such a thing?” she said. “All I’m doing is talking to people, caring for them, preparing them. That’s my mission. I can’t believe what you’re implying.”
She didn’t hang around with us so much after that, and we were careful to take pretty good care of ourselves for a while.
But none of us were getting any younger, and one day I had a mild stroke and was confined to bed. I asked, in so much as I was able to frame a sentence coherently, to go to the hospital, away from Lily. But no-one understood me.
So Lily sat there day after day, stroking, soothing, and talking about death. There never seemed to be a moment when I was on my own. Her very presence was wearing me down, bit by bit. I couldn’t relax. I watched her like a hawk, particularly when my meals were brought in on a tray.
When Emily and George came to visit me I tried to get my message across to them with my eyes, glancing at Lily and then looking imploringly at them. I think they were beginning to get nervous now, only two of them left. They weren’t quite as perceptive as they had been. In fact, they were looking pretty old.
I’ve not been so good today, feeling tired, finding it hard to breathe. If Lily would only leave me be for a while….. on and on she rambles, about the tunnel, white light and the pearly gates. If she’d just shut up I could get some sleep. I can’t take much more of this endless chatter, I’d be better off out of it.
‘Maybe,’ I think, ‘death might not be so bad after all.’
“That’s it, dear,” Lily whispers, leaning over me. “Now you’ve got the idea.”