Saturday, 22 February 2014

A guest at my table - Johnathan

He is one of my oldest friends; I have known him nearly all my life. Coming through the door he bobs his head as he wipes his feet roughly on the mat and comes over to give me a kiss as I stand, oven gloves in hand, by the stove. We are having fish cakes tonight, the significance of which won't have eluded him. I chivvy him over to the table and take pan to plate. Better to eat it whilst it's hot.

Johnathan has a light tan from a day's climbing and is cruising on a wave of adrenalin and fresh air. He wears a simple navy crew neck jumper and jeans over his slim frame. He is a good looking guy yet everything is understated about him. Nothing is out of place and nothing shouts to be noticed. But people notice him and love him for his integrity and his kindness.

Having spent years living in London and escaping only at weekends, he has now planted himself firmly in his beloved Yorkshire, the place of his birth. He has come home. His hair is close-cropped, greying only slightly though he is heading towards forty now. There is a criss-cross pattern on his forehead with fine wrinkles going both ways that belie some of the strains and stresses in his life which stay firmly under wraps. He is an intensely private person.

Now and then he breaks to go outside for a cigarette. But not when we're eating. I tell him of our problems; he sympathises and mends things where he can. Each time there is a list of jobs that need doing - mainly mending things which the kids have broken, drilling holes, fixing screws. He is good at that. He can take a 'to do' list and cross them off one by one until they are done. This takes willpower and patience which he has in buckets and of which I sense mine are seriously depleted.

It is a fine sunny day and we are standing in the most beautiful garden I have ever seen. It isn't large but every single flower in it is at its best and perfect just for today. The gardeners keep it that way. Earlier in the morning we have been at the hospital. I am not afraid of such places. For me, my main contact with hospitals has been with the happy times of bringing children into the world. Of flowers, and cards, and people visiting with huge smiles on their faces. Today it is an impersonal place, the staff busy with their work.
'Let's get out of here,' he says, a slight note of irritation in his voice. But only slight. There are no fond farewells just a form to sign, and we are gone. It is a relief to get out of the air conditioning and into the sunshine and breathe fresh air once more.

The new place is welcoming, in contrast. And here we stand in the garden; this perfect garden which has to be perfect for today and for every today; for every today is someone's last here. My little girls are one and two, dressed in matching buttercup yellow dresses and little hair slides pinning up their curls. Their outfits have been so carefully chosen, as has mine, today, for every little thing matters. The meaning of everything has to be the largest that it can be;  the elephant that is squashed inside the room beside us is taking up all the space there is.

And this is when I notice something else about Johnathan, something I had inwardly suspected but never managed to explain to myself. I saw his dying in my own terms. I wept, I cried, I emptied buckets and gave myself headaches; but it changed nothing. He sits us all down in a semi-circle facing him. Like the most Regal of kings he sits calmly and sedately on his wheelchair throne and explains to us in completely matter-of-fact terms how his next few weeks will be managed, what treatments there would be to alleviate his suffering, how his decline would most likely go. And all this without a single tear being shed or a flicker of fear or pain.

I have never seen a man choose to manage his own dying in this way, with such dignity and fortitude. They seem like values of a bygone era that are rarely seen these days where feelings are encouraged to be expressed at every occasion, however trivial at times. And yet he is far from being a man who is unable to express his own feelings.

As I look into his face I realise I can see completely through his nose. The blood has withdrawn itself along with the cancer and the nose is like glass. I fancy that if I touch it it will shatter in my hand. When it comes to the time to leave he gets up, with supreme effort, out of his wheelchair to stand on his one remaining leg so that we can hug. I give him a pained look as I stand back, turning my head diagonally to look at him as I do so. He mirrors me, one way and the other. We have talked.

A week later he is dead. The roses in the garden are just as perfect on the day he died.

And, although it is the saddest of saddest things, he is with me now eating enough fish cakes for two with the metabolism of a gangly teenager. And will always be with me. I promised him that I'd live for the two of us - and it can be quite exhausting trying to live two people's lives - and I try to hold on to something of the dignity with which he bore his dying when I'm faced with all the rubbish and adversity with which my own life seems to have had more than its fair share of (or so it seems to me).
For it is nothing in comparison.


  1. Ah, Martha, this made me cry. What a wonderful person to have and still have in your life. I have enjoyed all of your posts but am particularly enjoying the new 2014 format.

    1. I'm so glad you're enjoying the new format. I don't think this kind of linking food and 'fiction' has been done before - a new genre perhaps? - so I was a bit worried how people would take to it. But the feedback I've had here and on Twitter has been very good and positive. Many thanks.