Hold My Hand

By David Christopher Johnston

Part One: Last Day

You were here on Tuesday.

It was a cold morning. The sky brilliant blue. The sun peeped in through a crack in the curtains, bouncing light off a glass vase to create an iridescent pattern on the wall. I watched the dazzling display as I shook off sleep. 

I got dressed, then sat in the chair beside your bed and placed my hand on yours. ‘Good morning Margaret, my love.’

You looked worse than yesterday, your breathing raspy and strained. I brushed your hair as the cheerful chatter of birds in the backyard fluttered in through the open window. The distant sound of a lawnmower balanced on the periphery of my conscious.

My mind wandered back to the first time we met: the February Ball in 1949. How beautiful you looked in your long, yellow dress as we danced the night away; it breaks my heart that we will never dance again.

The carer arrived at ten and called the GP. When the doctor eventually arrived an hour later, she examined you briefly then spoke to me in the kitchen.
‘I’m afraid it won’t be long now, Colin,’ she said. ‘You may want to sit with Margaret and say your goodbyes.’

‘I always sit with her,’ I grumbled, turning away to hide the tears rolling down my cheeks.

I thanked the doctor for her help and kept a brave face until she left. When she was gone, I stood by the kitchen sink and sobbed ugly, helpless sobs.

The clock struck midday but I had no appetite. I gave you some water, brushed your hair and spoke to you of happier times. Memorising every detail, sketching every perfection, painting a picture of your beauty to keep behind my eyes for eternity. Moments passed, minutes became hours, the final grains of sand flowed steadily into the bottom of our hourglass, never to return.

A leaf from the orchid on the windowsill – the one the grandchildren bought for your birthday – fell in a clumsy tumble onto your bed. I’d forgotten to water it (you always took care of those things) and the pretty, purple flowers edged with white were shrivelled and dying in the hot sun. It’s my fault, my mind is a mess. I made a mental note to take it off the windowsill later.

I yelled at the carer that afternoon: he didn’t do anything wrong (I was just sad). You would have been upset with me; told me it wasn’t his fault that you were ill. I know that. I apologised but he just smiled and said not to worry – yet I still felt terrible.

As the sun went down behind the trees, we listened to Nat King Cole and I sang our favourite song. The birds sang with me, an avian symphony celebrating the closing of the day. When we were younger, I remember singing together filled with the confidence of youth and the knowledge that we would live forever. Love forever. Your voice was so beautiful; I would do anything to hear you sing again.

I talked to you about our life: the day we first met, the adventures we had, the world we saw and the family we made together. In my heart, I had always retained a fools hope that you would wake one day from this nightmare and everything would be fine. You would call out my name, smile your beautiful smile and ask me to pop the kettle on. All the pain forgotten in an instant. But in my mind, I always knew you wouldn’t get better; I knew the nightmare was my own. It’s so sad to see you this way my sweet, northern rose. I don’t know what I am going to do without you.

After dark, I closed the curtains and sat beside you. The floor was littered with crumpled orchid leaves. I held your hand, kissed your cheek and lay my head next to yours. 

‘Goodnight Margaret, my love,’ I said. I dreamt of the first time we met.

On Wednesday, you were gone.

 

Part Two: Hold My Hand

The days seemed longer without you, each one taking me further away from your smile, your smell, your love.

The house was busier than it had been for decades, the living room filled with our children and grandchildren, who came to give comfort (and receive it). We talked about you constantly in those days, laughing and crying in equal measure. Stories of a life so loved, each one bringing you back to me (if only for a moment). But although our home was full I remained infinitely alone without you, stranded on a rock in a stormy sea. Waves crashed on all sides, drowning out the whispers of condolence and commiseration. My eyes glanced repeatedly towards your picture on the wall, watching over me.

The funeral was a blur, like cataracts of the mind. They played your favourite song and one of the grandchildren gave a speech, but I don’t remember what they said. I tried not to cry, to be strong, but I couldn’t help it. You would have told me to stop being daft.

Your family from up north were there, too: sisters, nieces and nephews I hadn’t seen for years. It was a lovely turnout, testament to your kindness and the joy you brought to so many. But as the day drained into night the faces flittered away, back to their lives, taking their grief with them. And when the kids left, leaving me alone, I sat in my chair and talked to your photo until I fell asleep, wishing you would talk back to me.

Minutes turned to hours, to days, to months. The TV was on but I only had eyes for you. I enjoyed long, one-way conversations with your photo, closing my eyes to imagine your voice in my ear. Every time I fell asleep I dreamt of you, so I slept more and more; an old man seeking solace in the splendour of what used to be. Waking up became the worst part of my day.

The family still visited but not as often as I would have liked. They had their own lives to lead, their own memories to make. I cherished every moment with them, determined not to waste a second, but when they left I felt like I had lost you all over again.

Life continued on at a frenetic pace, far too fast for an old codger like me. You became a Great Grandma, twice over: a boisterous, happy boy who was always so excited to see me, and a beautiful baby girl who stared at me with unabashed curiosity. It made me sad that you would never hold them, or sing to them, so I did my best to love them for the both of us. I would sit on the floor and pretend to be a dinosaur, trying to hide the pain in my joints, and they would giggle and race around the room with careless abandon, making me feel young again. Happy again. Afterwards, I would fall asleep in my chair for hours, utterly exhausted, but it was worth it to see the joy on their sweet little faces.

As time tiptoed by, my memory faltered. I would make a cup of tea and then leave it on the side for hours, wondering where I had put it; I would forget to get dressed and sit all day in my pyjamas; I would forget the grandchildren’s names. But my memories of you never wavered. Our wonderful life together shone clearly through the confusion like a lighthouse in the fog. I’d talk about you to the carers as they prepared my dinner and they would listen attentively and say, ‘She was a lovely woman, Colin.’

‘I know,’ I would smile.

I often wondered if they were the same carers who looked after you in your final days, but I never asked because I had a nagging feeling I’d asked the same thing countless times before.

When my body grew weak I spent my days in bed, in our bedroom where we spent twenty thousand nights. I couldn’t remember if it was two, five or ten years since our last day together. The carer moved your picture from the living room wall and placed it on the bedside table, so you could watch over me. I would lie and stare at it for hours, waiting (hoping) for my body to give in. I was weak. Old. Tired. Ready. 

There were many visitors but I didn’t recognise faces anymore, and when they held my hand I told them I loved them, hoping they could hear. I’d led a long and happy life with you by my side. The kids were happy, the grandchildren too, and I was grateful for every second I had spent with them. I had done the best that I knew how; regret was for the living. So when I closed my eyes for the last time I didn’t feel scared, just grateful. And in that final breath I felt a hand squeeze tight around mine — a hand that felt like yours.

~

THE END

 

 

Copyright © 2023 David Christopher Johnston.

David Christopher Johnston hereby asserts and gives notice of his right under s.77 and s.78 of the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work of fiction. All moral rights are asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this work of fiction may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author. This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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