September 2016 Winner

Dancing through Darkness

Kevin Doyle

In spite of everything, she still had the cigarette tip resting on the base of her lip with the ash hanging on. She stood over the sink straining the brassica vegetables, gazing out onto her long wide garden through the kitchen window. Her eyes narrowed at the flash of afternoon sun. The steam rose from the sink, causing her eyes to squint into the inhalation of odourless, boiling vapour. I was reminded of the swinging thurible entrenched with burning incense that will be used at her funeral, according to google, in less than twelve months. Her pencil case with tubes was stuck onto her midriff and to break the haunting pain amongst the family I asked my mother-in-law for a HB pencil.

The black Michael Jackson gloves always came out at some stage during chemotherapy to combat the numbing freeze that took hold of her hands and didn’t let go until the chemo poison left her body.

‘At least I’m not itchy and yellow anymore, I’m just turning into a skinny bitch, my dream figure.’

Despite her courageous humour, a black cloud covered my heart as I looked into her yellowing eyes and gaunt cheekbones. Was it only last year she celebrated her fiftieth birthday? I felt a sharp pain, a selfish pain that my year in Australia was cut short.

Three days from Sydney, the wife and I were feeling the effects of travelling via Southeast Asia. I was a former shadow of myself, my muscle mass built up over time from training in the gym all but gone, my physique now reminiscent of Fido Dido, the 7up man. I also had a pot belly owing to the undisciplined delightfully delicious carbohydrate choices I had made. Our aching legs and backs settled into the mattress that had to be made of rocks in central Bangkok, the receptionist’s voice ringing in my ears, ‘No window in room, insects come through, bite bite. Air conditioner broken. Apologies, buy fan. Wind on face.’ In a sweat daze, dehydrated or hungry, I couldn’t decide which side to lie on, my left ear was fully awake as I caught glimpses of the phone call between my wife and her mother. I rubbed her spinning headache away with my thumb, curling it around her forehead until she fully wept herself to sleep. The mother-in-law had got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. This wasn’t the new beginning we had planned.

We both moved into my mother-in-law’s for four months before we eventually found our own place. She pulled me up on my lazy manly ways and didn’t think twice about letting me know it wasn’t ok to wipe the mirror with my grubby hands after a shower to see myself in the mirror shaving. Or, abandoning my boxers in the bathroom was unhygienic and it wasn’t ok either to leave my porridge bowl with the sticky oats on the side for someone else to clean. It just wasn’t correct she’d say, she wasn’t running a cleaning service. She was divorced ten years now, not used to the mess us men like to leave behind. But it wasn’t all about pointing out my true ape-like features. She could dance.

Sitting in our normal seats one night watching television, Dirty Dancing’s “Time of my Life” came on MTV. I could see her head move up and down to the beat.

‘Nobody leaves baby in the corner, get up out of that,’ I said.

After the first refusal, I brought my mother-in-law up to her feet and gently clasped her frail skinny hands in my palms. Her hair nearly all gone, I looked into her smile and I could see the young lady who would have owned the dance floor a year ago. Moving around the room, I spun her around and brought her into my zone again and we danced till the end of the song. My wife, her daughter, a couple of days shy of her twenty-eighth birthday, cried behind her iPad, continuing to search ‘health foods for cancer.’

Her Jack Russell grew into my greatest distraction during that time. I’m convinced that little creature evoked every good emotion inside everybody during the death sentence period. She couldn’t walk Daisy. Cancer had cemented her to the corner chair in the living room. Walking man’s greatest manipulators in the local park, her dog friends would come up and ask how she was. My subconscious mind would utter the terrifying word ‘dying’, the real world words conjured up something a little more productive. Daisy, the small little narcissist with a coat of snow, would poke her wet button nose up against my bedroom door and head butt her way into the room and expect to be walked straight away. I always caved into her self-important demands. She’d lead the way and by the time we got to the park her tongue would be hanging out to the left nearly touching the shoots of grass rising to meet it and when her beady eyes engaged with mine, I’d bend down on my knees and count down from three and let her off. She’d say hello in her own dog way to the birds, the oak trees and she’d witness a full sky instead of the walls and ceilings she had come far too accustomed to over the past few months. Just before we’d go back to the house, I’d run my fingers through her soft fur and reassure her, everything would be ok.

Visiting my mother-in-law a month after moving out of the house, she was found collapsed on the ground in her dressing grown with pegs in each hand and resting on the pile of clothes she was intending to hang out. The pain in her back and sides and around her whole body was spreading and she screamed for her daughter to get her to the doctor’s to stop the knifelike sensations. This was the moment I knew she would never step foot in her own home ever again.

*****

The warm whoosh of anti-bacterial handwash and the smell of metal at the air-conditioned sliding doors front entrance to the hospital always, without fail, made me shudder. The patients in their pyjamas puffing on their cigarettes in the no smoking zone would make me snigger. Once I’d get further into the hospital the snigger would turn to grief and I always regretted my arrogant judgement when seeing what these patients had to go back into. Let them have their fun. She would hang around the canteen rather than be on the ward and have to face off with her new friends, the others on death row. In her wheelchair, the skeleton sight of life disappearing before my eyes, she would eat little bits of the nutritionally devalued food and sip on tea. The morphine had control of her now and was hiding the real agony of the situation. Family visited regularly, but she was getting tired of all the attention. Tired of cancer. Just plain tired.

When the phone call came, I was doing a sales call in a shopping centre one and a half hours away. My brother-in-law didn’t need to say much, ‘it’s time’ was enough. Running down the escalator, in flight mode, I jumped into my car and sped to the hospital. On the ward, I couldn’t see any colour in anyone’s face but clearly visible was the pure sorrow wrenched across each and every one of their hearts. My mother-in-law, the previous day, said she would let everyone know about a hospice. She must have decided she was doing this by her own rules. Close friends and extended family members went into her single room with tears clenched to their faces as they kept their head down and patted each other on the back and then got out of the discomfort zone, squeezing white tissues as a stress reliever-pleading for the elevator to hurry up. Walking into the room, her breathing reminded me of the first time I ever got winded on a football pitch. It’s a peculiar sound, the noise of death, loud and with a rhythm and rhyme to it, make no mistake about that. At one stage, she sat bolt upright and pleaded something under the influence of massive amounts of drugs, all she wanted was a hug from her daughter and son. The day crept into night and darkness fell on this November night. The family stayed with her for every moment, while the others, me included, stayed in another room full of uncomfortable chairs and a rotten silence. A nurse popped her head into the room I was in and let us know, ‘it’s time.’ The family opened up the doors. Their cheeks were blotched and swollen and there was raw red stinging bags under their eyes. It was over. I hugged my wife the way I squeeze a cut lemon, holding on tight for that last bit of citrus, its bitter taste lingering a long time after. I went into the room and held my mother-in-law’s lifeless hand. I bowed my head. Closed, my eyes. Remembering. Our dance.