It was Time.
A short story about life.
The old man was sitting alone on the porch with the rain cooling the evening air as it tapped on the wooden roof and dripped down in the places where the gutters were in need of repair. It was reassuring, comforting to be outside and still sheltered from the rain. The smell, the feeling of freshness was one of the old man’s greatest remaining joys. He could sense, better than he could see or hear, the approaching storm.
A woman came out onto the porch. It was a large porch; it ran the full length of the south-side of the building. It was deep too, with a few different sets of tables and chairs sheltering from the elements under its generous canopy. She was holding a blanket and she took it to the old man and placed it gently around his shoulders. He acknowledged her thoughtfulness with a slight turn of his head before retuning to his attention back to the rain and his own thoughts.
The woman wasn’t quite finished though and she tapped the old man gently but firmly on the shoulder and presented him with four tablets and a glass of water. The old man sighed but reluctantly took his medicine and handed the empty glass back looking up at her as he did so. She was of slight build with pretty dark eyes – she looked familiar but he wasn’t sure from where.
She smiled and touched him affectionately on the shoulder as she turned to go back indoors. Before she went inside she looked to the western sky. It was dark, heavy, laden with foreboding and she stopped to listen, it might have been distant thunder. There was no sign of the setting sun just a half light and darkness beyond. She took a deep breath and momentarily brought her hands together across her mouth as though making a silent prayer before exhaling and going – perhaps reluctantly – inside.
The old man waited just a moment and took a tablet out from under his tongue. He patted his pockets and found a small pill box and opened it perhaps to keep the tablet. He looked inside the little box with a puzzled frown. There were tablets already there and the numeral twelve on the inside of the lid. He counted the tablets, he had eleven but he couldn’t remember why he was keeping them though he knew they softened the pain. He struggled slightly putting the pill box away before a nurse came out and wheeled him inside.
It had rained all night and was still pouring down when the woman arrived at work in the morning. She was greeted warmly by the receptionist who started to run through the day’s appointments with her. It was mainly dogs and cats, a parakeet in the afternoon – which might be interesting.
Her eleven o’clock was her least favourite part of the job: putting a family pet to sleep. Bruno was a medium size dog. He was a bit of a mongrel and quite old. He was already blind and almost completely deaf, he was in constant pain from arthritis and now cancer. It was time.
The young boy came in with his mother slowly walking Bruno on his leash. They were taken straight through to one of the operating rooms. Both of them struggling to hold back the tears.
The woman looked first at the mother and then knelt down to address the boy. She gently put her hand on his shoulder as she spoke.
‘My name is Alison. Can you tell me what you understand about what we are here to do today?’ The boy looked up and spoke quietly but clearly.
‘We are here to put Bruno to sleep.’ A tear escaping down his cheek.
‘And do you know why?’
‘Because he is sick and in pain and he won’t ever get better.’ He was crying now and had to stop and wipe his face with his hands.
‘Yes.’ She looked up to the mother and then back to the boy. ‘Would you like to hold his paw so that he knows you are there for him at the end?’ The boy nodded.
Afterwards, as Alison walked the boy and his mother out to the reception the boy turned back to her.
‘Thank you doctor.’ The woman nodded and half smiled.
‘Good bye.’ She said as she turned quickly away and headed back toward the operating rooms as the boy and his mum stepped out into the downpour.
In the evening when Alison went back to visit her father the matron was waiting for her.
‘Good evening Alison, good to see you. Can I have a quick word?’ She indicated that they should retreat to the privacy of her office.
The office was cosy and felt lived in. There were some personal items, family photographs, plants and flowers. The artwork on the wall were all reproductions but looked deliberately chosen rather than randomly generated. Books on care of the elderly, assisted living and dignity lined one wall. It was not that different from Alison’s study back at home.
‘Alison, this is awkward so I will just say it. I am afraid that your father is getting worse.’ As Alison failed to fill the gap she continued. ‘I am sorry but he won’t be able to stay with us for much longer, we all love having him here, but we just can’t look after him and keep him safe. He needs a higher level of care than we are setup for.’ She was talking too fast, about to trip over her words. Another gap. Alison looks up. ‘He needs to be in a high dependency unit.’
Alison nodded. ‘I think he likes it here, at least in his more lucid moments.’ She smiled politely and got to her feet. “Thank you, I do appreciate the conversation – let me give this some thought.’
The woman came out on to the porch and approached the old man.
The old man was in his usual spot and enjoying the rain. The torrents cascading down from the canopy and splashing in the pools forming at the edge of the deck. The old man had always loved the rain. Downpours, tropical downpours, were his favourite and he would always open the door of their old house so he could hear and feel the rain. It connected him.
It took a few moments for him to register that the woman was next to him. He looked up into her pretty eyes. She sat in the chair next to his wheelchair and they shared the time both enjoying the rain.
The rain stepped up a level and was pelting down against the roof of the porch, the lawn beyond was now an emerging lake. It was later and completely dark, the lights of the porch playing with the water, the sound, the light, the sensation, this was being alive, this was being connected.
The woman lent over and touched the old man’s hand. He looked up. She said something. Maybe that she loved the rain. She lent forward and kissed his forehead.
They sat together for quite a while. He wasn’t sure when she left.
Alison worked hard and long. One of her colleagues was off-sick and she was extra busy all day. She caught herself sometimes being rushed with her clients and their owners. So she tried to slow down to match their pace and she pushed out a few appointments which meant she didn’t see her last patient until after seven.
The last appointment was a little troublesome. It was an elderly lady and her elderly dog. Neither were in great shape. The dog struggled to walk from the waiting area into the consultation room, as did the old lady. She was making light of their joint frailty as she entered the consulting room.
Alison lifted the dog up on to the examination table where he sat patiently. The old lady was not offering any guidance and had just sat down on the chair in the corner.
‘What seems to be the matter?’ Alison asked, as she stroked and surreptitiously examined the old dog.
‘Its my ankles. I don’t like to complain but I think they are worse and the pain killers aren’t working. Constant pain.’
‘Okay. Is that your ankles or the dog’s?’
‘Mine, the dog is okay, a bit stiff perhaps but he seems good.’
‘Okay, well that’s good. And why did you come here today?’
‘Well those other doctors are always so rushed and abrupt.’
‘It’s not about me. The end is close and I want you to look after Jasper here.’
‘Do you think it’s time?’
‘No, well I am not sure; but it is close.’
There was a silence as Alison continued to check the dog.
‘I knew your father when he ran this practice. He was a good man.’
‘Thank you, yes: he was.’ There was the hint of a tear, glistening under the harsh examination of the lights.
Deep breath. ‘Come back and see me when you and Jasper are ready and of course I’ll help you.’
“Thank you Doctor.’
Later that evening when the woman arrived the rain was even heavier than before. Even if anyone had spoken they wouldn’t have been heard out on the porch.
A nurse was giving the old man his pills. She was quick and had turned to go before the old man had swallowed. The woman was watching.
The old man fumbled and dropped the pill box on the floor. No sound could be heard above the roar of the rain on the roof of the porch. Water was coming over the edge in torrents and the wind was blowing spray in under the shelter of the canopy.
The woman bent down to pick up the small box. The old man stopped still and looked at her. She looked back and opened the lid. Twelve. She counted eleven and when she looked up the old man handed her the final tablet. She carefully put the tablet in with the others, closed the lid very gently and handed it back to the old man.
The rain started to ease off now.
The old man looked at the box and then up to the woman whose eyes were welling up with tears and handed her his empty water glass. The woman looked towards the building and she could see the shadows of nurses coming and going through the windows. She leant back and over. the edge of the porch and filled his glass with rainwater.
She sat down beside him while he took his pills and set his glass down for him when he was finished. She adjusted the blanket around his shoulders and pulled his chair slightly further in under the canopy. She took his hand in hers, she lent forward and slowly kissed his forehead.
The rain had almost stopped now and the night air was clear and fresh.