I am sitting in my car. The engine is off, but the keys are still in the ignition, and I’m listening to the message left on my voicemail.
‘Hey sweety, I’m just ringing to give you an update on Nanna. Can you ring me back as soon as you get this, okay?’ There’s a pause, and then Aunty Jane finishes the message with an ‘I love you’ before she hangs up. Instinct makes my stomach drop. My grandmother has been in the hospital for the past few days; an issue of fluid on her lungs had made it a swift transition from a check-up at the GP to admission to Logan Hospital. If everything was fine, my aunty would have just sent a text message. This is something serious. Something bad. I’m dialling her number and hitting the call button.
‘Hey Aunty Jane, sorry I missed your call. I was driving to uni.’ A small fib. I had already parked when the phone started to ring; I was just too scared to answer.
‘That’s alright, honey.’
‘I’m just heading into the computer labs to finish up some assignments. What was it that you needed to tell me?’ I ask.
‘Nanna got her results back earlier today, and the doctors had found some growths.’
‘There’s some on her lungs and liver, and a few on her hip and spine.’ I take in a deep breath.
‘They think so,’ she says, thankfully knowing exactly what I was going to ask. ‘They’re doing a few more tests to see if it’s new cancers, or if it’s a recurrence that managed to spread.’
‘Okay.’ I look out through my windscreen and watch the traffic heading north along Kelvin Grove Road. The headlights of the cars blur. ‘Wha–what happens now?’
‘We have to wait, see how far its progressed first, and then they’ll come up with a treatment plan from there.’
‘Okay,’ I repeat. Another pause. ‘Well, just let me know when you find out.’
‘I will,’ she replies. ‘Are you going to be alright?’
‘I’ll be fine. I really need to go now.’
I flew down the highway, pushing the speedo as far my 1998 Ford Festiva could handle. I was running late. A mixture of over-exhaustion and late-November humidity meant that I’d had a restless nap between arriving home from the hospital and when I needed to be at the airport. I’d been the one to offer to pick up Aunty Jane when she arrived from Melbourne–the trip to Brisbane Domestic was less demanding from my house. I raced around and gathered my belongings. Her flight was set to land in forty minutes. It would take me forty-five to get there. I left close to midnight, however, which meant that the highway was practically deserted. I only had to contend with large, intimidating semi-trailer trucks that were racing to complete long interstate hauls. The company I had was myself and the radio, blasting music loudly, a drastic effort to keep myself awake.
I reached the airport in twenty-five.
‘That’s what I get for flying TigerAir, I guess,’ Aunty Jane grumbled in the car. Her flight, the last to land for the night, was delayed and held on the tarmac for twenty minutes.
‘Yeah, but you booked the flight at eight p.m. You were probably working with limited options,’ I reasoned. At least it gave us something mediocre to talk about. Something mundane and simple to distract us. But the closer we got to home, the harder it was to ignore the reason for her last minute trip up north. We became silent.
‘We’re allowed to visit him, you know?’ I look over at Aunty Jane, trying to gauge a reaction. ‘They told us that family can head into the ICU at any time to see him. I can keep driving to the hospital if you want?’ Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her open her mouth, as if to say something. But she hesitated and closed it again. She shook her head.
‘You look as tired as I feel. Let’s just head home. We’ll go there in the morning. All of us. Together.’
Instinct was telling me to keep driving, keep moving down the highway. Instead, I merged left into the turn-off lane. It was two-thirty in the morning when we arrived at my family home.
The next morning, we were all preparing to go to the hospital. I was in the bathroom, brushing my hair, while my mother and aunt were chatting at the dining table. The sharp trill of the phone echoed up the stairwell. The talking ceased. I walked out of the bathroom and saw my mother’s head disappear below the edge of the landing. I assumed my aunt was ahead of her. I was halfway down when my grandmother answered the phone.
‘Hello?’ Nanna answered. She listened, paused for a few seconds, and then slumped over. She didn’t say anything. We didn’t ask. We didn’t need to. We knew she’d just found out that her husband of forty-four years has passed away. We were expecting to receive this call at some point throughout the day. I just didn’t anticipate it to come at eight o’clock in the morning.
Nanna was swarmed by Mum and Aunty Jane, engulfing her with their hugs, a physical attempt to comfort. The emotions overwhelmed me. They looked over at me, expecting me to join in with their collective weeping and grieving, like something out of a Greek tragedy. It permeated the air, making it heavy and thick, and I suddenly felt claustrophobic. It was too performative. I felt my breathing restrict, my chest tighten. I should have kept going the night before. She didn’t get to say goodbye.
‘I’ll drive to the hospital.’ I turned away and left the room.
I stood in the hallway and let the sterile stench of disinfectant burn my nostrils. My hands shook. I felt like I was going to be sick. I wasn’t ready for this.
My mother was talking to the nurses, Aunty Jane standing beside her. Nanna didn’t want to come with us. ‘I don’t think I can,’ was all she said.
‘Thank you so much for taking care of him. We have no words to tell you how much we as a family appreciate it.’ They kept repeating it over and over again. The same phrases, just reworded.
‘We’re so grateful.’
‘You took great care of him.’
I could tell that neither my mother nor my aunty wanted to leave the nurses’ station. They were stalling, dragging the inevitable moment when they’d have to face reality. I didn’t see the point in delaying. I walked straight past everyone–Mum, Aunty Jane, the nurses–and into the room.
The curtain was drawn around his bed. I pulled it back gently, attempting to not make it rustle too noisily. Not that it would matter. I saw my grandfather lying there. If I hadn’t of known any better, I would have thought he was just sleeping. Even though his skin–which always had a rosy undertone to it–was now a pallid grey, he still looked the same.
When I would give him hugs, I would lean in and squeeze tight. His favourite jumper, navy blue, had the scent of stale tobacco, emphasised by his natural warmth. A warmth that was a comfort to me as a child, and it was still a comfort to me as a young adult. But when I reached out my hand and touched his face, he was cold. The full weight crushed my lungs. He was not going to wake up. Now, he was simply earthly remains. My Poppy was gone. I broke.
Mum and Aunty Jane had finally made their way into the room. I could feel their eyes on me, observing me in a moment of vulnerability.
‘Oh, Sarah–’ Mum began, walking over to me. I couldn’t breathe. I needed to escape. I needed to be alone.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Nope.’
I brushed them both off and walked straight out of the room.
I’m skipping over my original plan to head to the computer lab. I’m ignoring my assignment work. My mental energy has all but dissipated. I’m now sitting in a café on campus–a licenced one–nursing a Jameson on the rocks while googling survival rates of metastatic breast cancer. I’m learning that a diagnosis is essentially terminal. The purpose of treatment is more to prolong life expectancy than to beat the cancer. Average life expectancy is three years, dependant on the person and numerous other factors.
When Poppy died, it was over in five days. He’d fallen on Saturday; by the following Wednesday, he was gone. I’m remembering the conversations that happened at the funeral home. Poppy was to be cremated, and Nanna discussed her future plans with the funeral director.
‘I’ll keep his ashes. And, when my time comes, I want to be cremated as well so that our ashes can be spread together.’
Not even two years later, and I’m realising that moment will be sooner than I expected. I’m realising that my other grandparent is going to die. But it won’t be as quick. It won’t be as sudden or, in a morbid sense, easy. Whatever the treatment ends up being, eventually it’s going to stop working. The cancer will take her from us, deteriorating her body. A progressive, agonisingly slow process. It is giving us more time to say goodbye to her. Time to prepare ourselves. But will it make it easier?
I am sitting in my car. I’m struggling to find enough resolve to physically get out of the car and walk into the hospital, ignoring a desire to turn around and head home. I’m dawdling up the ramp towards the entrance while texting Aunty Jane, letting her know that I’m here. She’s walking out of the entrance just as I’m reaching it. We give each other a greeting hug, and I ask for updates.
‘Well, it’s not looking like she’ll need chemo right now. They’ve said there’s some cancer drugs she’ll be able to take straight away, and it should start fighting the tumours enough to keep it at bay for the moment,’ she tells me.
‘But she’ll need chemo at some point?’ I ask.
‘Eventually, yes.’ She shrugs. I nod, both as an acknowledgement and confirmation of my fears.
‘I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,’ I finally answer.
‘I’m just glad that I’m up here now. I can be around to help if needed,’ she says.
‘I’m glad you’re here too.’
Together, we walk into the hospital.
Sophie is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based writer in her final year of a BFA in Creative Writing. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, ranging from literary pieces to pop culture commentaries, and has previously been published in QUT Glass. Sophie is currently working on her first novel, a YA coming-of-age story.