Thursday 16 March 2023

Death Duties by Linda Flynn, water in a crystal glass

                                               20th March, 2020

Nothing in life prepares us for death.

            “Open the window to let the soul escape,” calls Dad’s carer. I shake my head, but do it anyway, figuring it’s about as useful as the crystal she’s hung up by the curtains to catch negative energy. Shrill bird song sweeps into the room, swirling with his stertorous breathing. The garden is showing a mocking enthusiasm for spring-time with billowing blossom and sharp green leaves ready to unfurl. His frail body stirs a little under his brown blanket, so I fuss at tucking him in.

            My rib cage rises and falls in time with his, as though this will assist his breathing. He raises his arm as though clawing at a handful of air.

            “Dad,” I murmur, “listen to the birds outside.” I wince at how ineffectual that sounds, when he can identify all of them by their songs. “Mum’s favourite –  blue tits are on the feeder outside,” I add, looking for a flicker of his eyelids, but the shutters remain down, closing him off from the world.

            I don’t feel equal to the task, the decisions. When I phoned the GP surgery the receptionist wearily assured me, “If you’re worried you must send him to hospital. The staff there can most effectively and responsibly take care of his needs now.”

            “But he hates hospitals!”

            “Medical intervention might become necessary.”

            “His doctor, why won’t he come out to visit?”

            “Doctors won’t,” she told me smoothly, “when an elderly patient is at the end of life stage.”

            “Surely no-one needs a doctor more than when they are dying!” My voice rose into thin air.

            “The hospitals are full,” sighed the paramedic after examining my father. “Staff have to make difficult decisions and there’s not enough equipment for the elderly. They can’t allow visitors in. He would spend a lot of time alone, which is how he would die.”

            I look at the diminished figure lying in the bed, with wispy hair, his mouth forming words that I can’t interpret. When did he become so fragile? This once powerful, even intimidating man, who had followed a strong sense of direction all his life. But left no dying wishes.

                        I open the patio door and allow a rush of air in. A framed photo tumbles onto his bed. As I return it to the shelf, another life opens up: the fizz of champagne, laughter and sea breeze, as my parents celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary. When my mother died, he sunk into himself, his robustness collapsed and he became a haunted shadow.

            In his garden I take great gulping breaths of air. I refill the water in the bird feeder and pick some early daffodils to go in jam jars. Dad loves nature, so I try to bring it into his room. Lately his mind has been wandering down the lanes of his childhood, the tiny cottage with peaty smoke out of the chimney, curtains fluttering in front of the forest and primroses lining a rocky path.

            The echo of a distant siren pulls me up. My father would have been at the hospital by now, with calm, efficiently strong arms laying him out on a stretcher. He would have been left in a sage green ward which smelt of antiseptic.

            How do you stay strong enough to let go of the person who protected you all your life?

            Then I remember a piece of advice from Dad’s carer, “You must give him permission to die.”

            I lean forward in the armchair and stroke my father’s hands, the same ones that had built, designed and mended; now the skin is as thin and dry as an autumn leaf.

            Our breathing is synchronised. “Dad,” I whisper, “you don’t need to worry about us, we’re fine.” I brush my tears off the bed cover and take a deep breath. “It’s time for you to meet Mum again. The family is doing well. We all value the security that you have given us. You’ve made us strong.” I swallow. “We can manage, everyone is happy.” I can’t help looking at the white line where my ring used to be. “We all love you, but you no longer need to protect us.” He didn’t stir.

            A moment later, he shuddered, followed by four sharp gasps and a grimace. I realise that I have stopped breathing too. There’s a heavy stillness.

            I force myself to stand, ready to find the carer. As I do so, I see a movement in my peripheral vision. A blue tit has flown in through the window and landed on his bed. It looks straight at me. A ray of sunlight slants through the clouds refracting off the swaying prism by the curtains. It sprays the walls, ceiling and bedspread in shimmering arcs of blues, purples, yellows and greens. The bird spreads its wings as though bathing in the rainbow of iridescent light. It flutters in a fan hovering over my father, lifts upwards and flies outside.

            When I return with the carer she checks his body for any signs of life and pronounces him gone. Outside two blue tits fly off, unfettered and free.

            I nod in heavy acknowledgement.

About the author

Linda Flynn has had books published for children and teenagers, six with the Heinemann  Fiction Project, as well as over thirty short stories, mainly written for adults. In addition, she has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including theatre reviews. Her anthology of short stories, I Knew it in the Bath was released in September 2022 with Bridge House. She can be found at:

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