The woman with the red umbrella


A short piece of fiction I wrote for a University assignment:

When you are ill you are told all sorts. Some of it bullshit, some of it helpful, some of it plain stupid. Friends and family cluster round your bed like ants in the garden, annoying and indistinguishable. “You’re bound to get better”, “Don’t think about the pain”, “stay positive.”

But when you are told you are going to die the silence that follows is the worst. Now people can’t fall back on their positive pick-you-ups because there is no positivity to be found in death, none whatsoever. You could search the dark corners of that empty and vast room for eternity and fail to find anything. So people are quiet. For the first time in fourteen months I felt as if I could hear again.

I could be cared for at home they told me; I laughed. Maybe that was rude but I couldn’t even begin to explain what it would be like to spend my last weeks trapped at home, suffocated by their pity. I didn’t blame them, not in the slightest, they loved me and they were bound to feel powerless, grief-stricken and numb, but I did not want that around me. I was happy here in my hospital bed, surrounded by people who dealt with death on a daily basis. Hell, I was practically living with death if I stayed here, maybe we could build up a rapport, a friendship. Maybe he would take me out nice and easy.

It was a week after I had been told about my date with death. My health was “deteriorating rapidly” I was told by my doctor.  “Tell me something I don’t know” I laughed. He gave me that funny look he gives me often, shaking his head. He was leaving when he stopped at the door, tentatively turning to me, “Molly, you know there is always the hospital’s minister, he can pop up and talk to you anytime you want.”

“Oh Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. I already see the counsellor. Not my thing sweetie. But thanks for the thought.” I smiled brightly. “Now some more morphine would be accepted with gratitude.” He held up his arms and clipboard defensively before leaving. I had always wondered why doctors carried around clipboards, but maybe it was to hide behind.

The hospital’s counsellor was called Mrs Sims. She tried to ‘engage’ with me, but they had the wrong woman for the job. She sat at my bedside with her pinched up eyes and cold hands and tried to talk to me for an hour every week. I dreaded it. How was I feeling? (How did she think?) What were my fears? (That these visits would over run?)

I turned to the bed on my right. An elderly woman had been admitted a few days ago but had been sleeping most of the time. When there’s a bed shortage (with the NHS when isn’t there a bed shortage?) they group you all together. The terminally ill, sarcastic young one and the old and forgotten one who is surely on her way out. C’est la vie. She stared at me now unblinking. Her eyes were small and green, the folds of skin around them had fallen down (gravity always wins) but they had once been pretty eyes, I could tell. She had had no visitors so far.

“Who’s in the photo?” I asked, pointing to the framed black and white portrait by her bedside. It appeared to be the only possession she had, apart from a slender red umbrella propped up beside her.

“That is Henry, my husband. He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why? He died more than fifteen years ago. What have you got to be sorry about?” I felt stumped. Like my mum perhaps, who had just been told her twenty seven year old daughter was dying.

“I guess it’s just what you say.” I paused. “Do you miss him?”

“I see him everyday; the Lord makes sure of that.” If it hadn’t been disrespectful I would have snorted. Instead I just nodded vaguely.

“Child, you think you know everything about the world, about life and about death.”

“Don’t tell me I don’t know about death. I know death all right.” I felt angry now. The woman was smiling.

“Okay dear, Okay.” The nurse came to give her some medication then and the pale blue curtain that separated us was pulled firmly shut.

I lay with my eyes closed watching the soothing pattern of blood flowing in my eyelids. It pulsed slowly, a red haze blanketing it all. I could stay like this for eternity, here I was safe. The noise of the hospital was a far away buzz now, a backdrop. I thought about something Sims had said to me the other day about dealing with what would happen to me. I’d told her there was nothing to deal with, I would be gone, and I would cease to exist. People talk about coming to terms with death, about accepting it. But I would rather lie here in my red world and feel the steady pulse of my beating heart than feel sorry for myself. For I would be gone.

Over the next week the lady with the red umbrella and the dead husband, and I talked. Between pills and pain killers, drips and mushy food, she told me about her ‘God’ and I told her about my life. She didn’t look at me with sadness filled eyes, she didn’t tell me how young I was, how life was cruel. She told me I was cynical and bitter and I agreed. When she spoke to me with her straightforward attitude and the vagueness of a stranger I felt the knots in my stomach untwisting and the fears I had locked away rising to take centre place in my jumbled thoughts.

“Do you ever wonder where your God is sometimes?” I said one night. We both lay in the darkness but I knew she was awake. “Do you ever want to ask him why? Why bad things happen…“

“…to good people?” she cut in. “And no I don’t question it. My faith is all I need.”

I thought of my Mum crying, my little sister, the children I would never have, the grand children I would never have. It all made me awash with sickness. But I knew what the worst fear I had was. I just didn’t want to say it.

She died on a Tuesday. I woke to her empty bed neatly made on my right. Death makes sure it leaves no trace of its presence. I felt sadder than I’d felt all year. Later on a nurse brought round her red umbrella, she had left it for me. Attached to the slim handle was a post-it note. It read:

You fear that soon you will be gone, and that you won’t be remembered. But you should know that it is okay to be scared. For 15 years I have carried this red umbrella with me, through rain and shine. Whenever I feel my faith slipping, it reminds me that no matter how invisible I feel, God can always see me. Even if you see no God. He sees you, you will not be forgotten.

And I realised we are all just competitors in one big race trying to shout high and loud with our tiny voices: “I have lived. I was here.”

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