Finding Family

That particular time, I was admitted to hospital through the emergency room. I’d been battling a pseudo-obstruction, which is when my digestive system behaves like there is blockage, but there is none. Basically all the nerve messages that are supposed to make me poo, stop working. And the result is a painfully distended belly; a cocktail of treatments and medications. I have to go into hospital if the distention lasts more than four days. It’s all part of Dysautonomia, the diagnosis that seems to define so much of my life.

Apart from being painful and distressing, a pseudo-obstruction is mildly embarrassing. Firstly because I’m in for poo related reasons, so there’s a lot of discussion about bowels with the nurses and doctors, all within earshot of my ward-mates. Secondly, because I look like I missed my due date for delivering a hefty baby.  My belly gets so huge. So if I walk, I waddle. I rub that tummy a lot, because it is sore. And of course, people passing think it is cute to see a waddling pregnant lady pacing the hospital corridors.  I get lots of comments like ‘Not long now, love!’ and ‘hang in there!’.  If only they knew that the delivery I was so desperate for was poop baby!  I’m sure they wouldn’t find it so cute then.  Perhaps they’d run for cover!

This particular admission, the hospital was really short on beds. So because of a new policy, made in some administrator’s office, somewhere far from the ward, I was put in a room with three male patients. At first, I was too distressed to really notice.  I waddled my way off my bed as soon as possible and began to pace.  Locomotion is supposed to help, so I was getting mobile. Every time I passed by my neighbour’s bed, the old guy would make a low whistle, and wink.  I observed that he did this when any female was in the near vicinity, but somehow, that whistle just for me, made me feel the opposite of my big bellied waddle. I felt like someone could see the girl behind my diagnosis, the real me. It made me feel special.

That first night, lying in beds a few metres apart, a curtain between, we both tossed and turned.  I could tell he was in pain too, but I didn’t know why.  Then, around 4am, he whispered
“-are you awake?”
“Yes” I whispered back, “can I get you some help?”
“No,” he murmured “I just can’t sleep.  Want to talk?”.
So Tony and I talked until the nurses came to do change-over.  He had just had a tumour removed from his groin. He was worried. He was 68, his family were a long way away in Italy, and he was afraid of the future. I was half his age, supported by a loving family and dealing with a neurological condition that affected my autonomic nervous system.  He told me I was lucky. Lying there in pain as my abdomen continued to distend, I found it hard to agree.  But I said I did. It’s all relative, right?
I knew I was pleased that I didn’t have his problems to deal with. He sounded so sad and alone.

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In total, I spent a week in that room of men. There was snoring, wind passing, belching and cheerful enquiries as to whether my bowels had moved every time I returned from the bathroom. It had its ups and it’s downs, sharing a room with all those guys. And every night around 4am; chats with my friend Tony.  We talked about life.  We talked about being sick.  We talked about the things we loved and the lives we’d left outside the hospital, histories, regrets, the highlight reel. We became friends.

The next time he was in hospital was a few months later. He called me and asked me if I could come visit him there. He sounded fragile. I made my way up to the neurology ward. I arrived and within minutes his neurosurgeon walked into the room. He wanted to talk to Tony.
“Oh, good,” the surgeon said to me, “we’ve been waiting for you to get here”, I raised my eyebrows to Tony, ‘what for?’ I asked him with my eyes.
“Ah… you’re my support person” he said, looking down at his hands. I was shocked. I’d only met him in hospital recently… did he really not have anyone else in his life who knew him better than me?  Who cared for him more than I did? For the next ten minutes I held Tony’s hand and listened with horror as his neurosurgeon spelt out the awful truth.  They had not managed to remove the additional tumour they’d found in his head.  He had weeks, not months.  It was unlikely he’d manage an overseas trip to see his distant relatives. He should get his affairs in order.  The young neurosurgeon looked at me.  Nodded.  Held my gaze for a little longer than was comfortable, and asked Tony if he had any questions. When Tony had asked all he needed to, the surgeon turned toward me, saying to Tony, “…and your daughter?”.  I was floored. “I’m not-“ I began to say, but then I just shook my head.  “No questions”.

In the weeks that followed, Tony and I stayed in close contact. I visited him in the hospice as his time drew closer. It became clear to me that he truly had no real friends. He cried a lot. Cried that he wouldn’t be able to see his elderly mother one more time. Cried that his wealthy brother was too busy to fly over and see him. Cried with regrets for all the things in his life that hadn’t worked out. He asked me to write his life story, and so I did, sentence by painful sentence, as he rasped or slurred his words. The tumour was beginning to take his ease of speech; his fragmented final memories were pieced together by this random girl he’d met in the hospital.  I emailed it all to his brother, but got no reply.

The last time I saw him, I kissed him on the forehead as I said goodbye.
“Sleep well” I said.
“…wish you really had been my daughter”  he murmured back. I think I saw his good eye wink. I’m sure I heard a low whistle follow me out the door.  I smiled then.  And that night, he passed away.

I am lucky. He was right. Lucky our illnesses brought us together in the strangest of ways.  Lucky I had the chance to meet someone who made me feel like a girl who still had something to give, not just a sick person.  And lucky that I got to spend time with another human being through the darkest most dignified days of his waning life. I will never forget the things I learned from Tony.

Life is short. Luck is relative. And family can be found in the strangest of places.

10 thoughts on “Finding Family”

  1. How wonderful that this man met an angel with so much compassion, enough to be there for him in his darkest hours. So many lonely people out there with no one to talk to. Bless you Rachel for being the light in his world. <3

    1. It does make me sad that there are so many people who are so bereft of family. I wish there was a way of knowing who needs that kind of support. I wonder if the hospital chaplain would be the person to talk to?

  2. Oh Rachel.

    Thank you for being Tony’s family when he needed it most. What a gift for both of you.

    How sad to not get any response from his brother.

    You are amazing. I love your compassion for people.

  3. Wow. What an amazing connection to make. And wasn’t he the lucky one to connect with you – a person that could offer him so much, who could offer him what he needed. Not everyone would have been able to do that. I’m not convinced I would have been. x

    1. …it was hard, I won’t lie. I often didn’t want to visit, it wasn’t all winks and whistles. There were lots of difficult aspects. But I am glad I listened to my inner voice and did it anyway, I learned so much from him and from that experience.

  4. Oh Rachel, this is such a touching story. It made me cry with sadness at his loneliness and regret, but also that he got to experience some love and kindness in his final days and that someone bore witness to his life. We all need that I think. Someone to bear witness. Thank you for sharing and RIP Tony. xx

    1. I think that was the most important part. Just being able to show another human that they mattered, that they would be missed, that their story was worth recording.

  5. Rachel, that is amazing that you were able to offer Tony so much when you were so unwell yourself. Not many people are able to push past there own circumstances to be there for someone else, particularly when you know you are the only one. Hat off to you. Xx

  6. Wow Rachel what a beautiful gift of comfort you gave him. It’s hard to stop and look outward and recognise sometimes when people need our kindness. You are amazing! Rest in peace Tony xo

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