My first impression, I admit, was negative.
There's a communal kitchen/dining room down in this wing, with glass on two sides looking out into a pleasant walled courtyard. There is a fishtank hosting a trio of fat and happy goldfish, and the obligatory notice not to feed them. Obligatory as well the "you're welcome to use the kitchen but we'd appreciate it if you cleaned up afterwards" sign. My negative impression was formed from none of this.
You see, I know this room really well. I keep some of my blended foods in the freezer there, and use the kettle and microwave. I often meet the hospice staff, nurses, volunteers and relatives of patients in there.
He was dictating, you see. Not as in speaking in order that someone else writes down his words but he was telling the woman sitting corner-wise from him at the large table how things were going to go. What he was doing, in what order, the list of things to be sorted out, pointing point-by-point down the list on his iPad screen, propped up in the twee little leatherette case-cum-stand. His manner spoke to her a great freight of now-redundant words from their shared past as siblings; all the known tropes of who's the coper, who's the awkward misfit, who's successful, who's in charge and who needs support. An unfeeling observer might describe a scene of gentle patience, of care, of a brother looking out for his younger sister in this fragile moment, as the details of what to do about Dad are made forensic; matters of necessity only. Someone with perhaps a more sensitized heart or who find themselves a little vulnerable might however describe it as a scene of withering pity, of grumpy resignation that these timeworn roles should persist even in this moment. That real feelings cannot be shared and shown, be made real - as real as the matter of the mortgage payments and bank accounts and insurances and all of that. He would as usual cope, and she would acquiesce to her superior in all things worldly. Please him by so doing.
I reflected on my reaction.
Later, more of the family had gathered. All middle-aged; five people, three laptops, the iPad and four mobile phones arrayed around the table now in that tidily rectangular mess of technology and foodstuffs as they held their cabinet. He was dictating again, it seemed. Looked at me as I waited for a kettle to boil, apologised for them "having taken over" ... "as we always do" quipped a new sister to the scene by way of self-deprecation. Offered me a sandwich. I shook my head no, smiled.
And reflected on my judgment of these people.
Wirelessly networked, the men now had their plans and to-do lists, contact files, dates and logs all synchronised in the Cloud, oh-so-patiently explaining how to manage the connection to sister number 3, keen to be involved but preferably not to take any action. To feel useful and relevant in decision making. Their father still lay fifteen feet away across the corridor, bed lowered and stand-up alarm activated lest he try to stand and then fall in his presumably terminal restlessness, aware or not of the council deciding for their mother what would be done I do not know. A draft obituary was commented upon by somebody. For when the time came, you understand. Crowdsourced.
Still, I am displeased with myself. I cannot shake this set of thoughts, and they are unkind.
In my room's ensuite, 3 doors down from the Man In Question I am washing out my soup cup, the one I use to warm and pour my tube feeds. My doors are open, and a Bach violin Partita issues softly from my own laptop, beneath the silent screen showing the cricket, you know, in case something happens. There is a soft knock.
He has come to my room, the Dictator, with that tray of sandwiches from the hospital kitchen he gestured towards earlier, half-gone and gently covered in plastic wrap. "Really", he says, bending humbly, unsure in the doorway whether to come in further or not, suddenly acutely uncomfortable in what he now senses is my space - he hadn't thought this through and there is a tinge of panic colouring his close-cropped balding crown and too-wide eyes. "Really, I'm sorry we take up so much room, and we can't eat all of these ourselves. Please have some".
My feelings break at around the same moment his do. I feel an enormous and profound stillness fill me up from spinal cord outwards, standing me up straighter and softening my face. My sadness and compassion well up together, beauteously balanced. Of course, I cannot speak. His eyes have not left mine this last deep second or two of precious connection, as he lets me see his utter vulnerability, his crashing fear of the emotions he feels as an almost external force overspilling the sea walls of his safe harbour and drowning his ability to Get The Necessary Things Right. I cannot know, but it seems to me that he sees in my eyes the understanding, the empathy of a fellow Competent Man who knows this chill - the fear of Suddenly and Publicly Not Coping. I too now lean forward, returning his supplicant bow, and lead his eyes down slowly at first. They flick over the font of my ironic t-shirt, the one with the red love heart circumscribed with a cartoonish feeding tube that reads Super Tubie, and he watches widely now as my emaciated claw of a hand hooks up the shirt, too slowly for comfort I am aware ("get it over with!!") and reveals my feeding tube. By way of explanation of the shaking of my head, and mouthing out my best effort at "no thanks, you see, I cannot eat."
Gravity overpowers him for just an instant; a wobble, a half-genuflection, a tipping and a saving of the tray. He bends some more, as if getting ready to sit, looking now aghast at the floor, at my face, the floor, my face. Stillness again and we lock eyes now. I help him hold the tray, and through the electric medium of the stainless steel we touch. He stands. He is about my height.
"OK," he says at last, nodding. "Thank you."
"Actually, thank you" I squeeze out and I know he understands me, literally and otherwise.
And I reflect again on my reactions as he walks back out, headed for the kitchen cabinet meeting again. This time happily, relieved that my compassion came back. Grateful that he held the mirror for me, contrite that it took me 3 hours to properly remember it was me all along, not him.
As I write, the father still breathes, sometimes over-loudly (I can hear from here even) which means it probably won't be too long now.
What a privilege to be in a place where such things happen.