The Heavy Hours by Paul Massey

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories | Tell Your Own Story
Paul Massey

Paul Massey

My brother rang from the hospital and told me I should come. They had given Dad a strong sedative, a liquid Cosh and the chances of him seeing the morning were slim. My Father was dying. Taken ill on Christmas day. He had a chest infection which under normal circumstances isn’t fatal but when you add COPD into the mix he never really stood a chance.  Neither all the antibiotics in the world nor all the nebulizers would save him. He was in a private room where my brother now stood, phone in hand delivering the bad news. He had taken the afternoon shift so to speak and now it was my turn to take the night shift, which I knew was a death watch. My final hours with Dad.

I got stopped at every red light on the drive to the hospital and cursed and swore out loud. Tonight of all nights, really? F**k this; I didn’t have the patience to wait. My Dad was running out of time. The road was deserted so I drove through the next two sets of lights, pulled into the hospital car park and ran into the building.  My footsteps echoed along the empty hospital corridor as the lights above me flickered with every step. I detected the Lodoform disinfectant, the familiar hospital smell. I sneered at the little white Christmas tree by the nurses’ station that twinkled in the low light with its silver flash of tinsel covering its artificial limbs. The Christmas cards full of joy and well wishes that hung behind and lined the workstation pierced my heart. The nurses nodded solemnly and all stopped their busy night to give a sympathetic smile. I could feel the prickle of tears in my eyes as I passed them. The reality and outcome of the night was clear to everyone and it broke my heart.

My Father was a butcher and ran his own business for over forty years before he retired. A real butcher shop, with sawdust on the floor and an old style cash register; you had to count the change for a customer using good old maths. Sides of beef, pork and lamb hung in the shop and I used to watch as he hoisted them on his broad shoulders and dismantled them with his knife. ‘Hands of a surgeon’ he’d say smiling in his white coat. Fresh fish on Fridays. He’d joke with the customers that he was out all night in Howth with his fishing rod… The ‘Blue rinse brigade’ as he called them fondly, migrated in after ten Mass every day.  He’d chat and ask how they were as he deftly wrapped their meat.

‘Is this a nice bit now you’re giving me?’ they’d ask.

‘You’d get your photo taken with that’ or ‘You’d get up in the middle of the night to eat that’ he’d say smiling. He was a charmer. A true blue as they say. Born and raised in Cabra. A big man with black hair and a twinkle in his eye. Handsome back in the day too according to my Mam; he did look quite dapper in a tux she’d say to us whenever she looked over old photos.

His hand was pale and limp as I held it; the scars from cuts a reminder of his past strength and life. The hands that hugged me, helped me and clipped me around the ear were no longer in use. The nurses had taken his dentures out and his sunken jaw made him look older than he actually was. He was eighty four but looked well over one hundred. The only movement came from his chest. It heaved under the white blanket as the exertions of his heart and lungs strained under the burden to pump blood and carry the diminishing oxygen supply around his body. The wheeze and crackle from his lungs as he tried to breathe was torture to hear. The monitor gave a reading of his pulse and heart rate and beeped every minute.

My brother removed his headphones when he saw me, the sound hissing from them as he put them on the chair beside the bed and stood beside me. We hadn’t fought or argued in years but I was annoyed that he felt relaxed enough to gaze at the empty darkness through the window listening to music. I thought he could be more attentive. He on the other hand thought I should f**k off. He had been here all day, he said. He watched the nurse administer the sedative he said. He knew this was the end for Dad, he said. I asked how he would’ve have felt had Dad slipped away while he listened to music as he gazed into nothingness. He looked at me; f**k off.

I love my younger brother and my younger sister and it’s easy to forget we all had different relationships, different memories, and different bonds with Dad. I was the eldest so he was harder on me especially when he had a few drinks. I could tell how bad the night was going to be by how long he took getting the key in the front door or by the length of time it took him to get from the front door to the kitchen. I was the protector of my mother; the shield for my younger siblings. They had a happy childhood, unaware of how Dad changed when he drank. They were blissfully ignorant and I was glad. When Dad retired he had a heart attack. After he recovered my parents got separated and when I was in my thirties they reconciled. Time heals all wounds. He never drank again and I experienced what Mam had known when she first met and married him. He was kind and caring, considerate and generous. A quick-witted and funny man who always gave good council. Whenever my brother, or I, had been dumped by a girl we’d get the ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ line and a pat on the shoulder. When my sister had the same issue he wanted to know the lads name and address. He loved us and we loved him. I put my arm around my brother as we stood together and he cried as we watched our father dying.

At some stage during the night everything became so dark and claustrophobic I considered putting a pillow over my Dads face he was struggling so much. The room became smaller it seemed; the light in the corner fading. The blackness of the night invaded the room like a menacing cloak hiding something terrible. I felt I had died and they forgot to bury me. These were the heavy hours.

I wished I was Jesus. I wished when I touched Dad I could take away all his pain and his eyes would open. I wanted to be Superman. I wanted to fly around the earth at light speed; change the Earth’s rotation so I could reverse time. I didn’t want to see him like this. The nurse had reassured me he was in no pain when she came to check on me. She came to check on me. ME!! All the nurses on the ward were thinking of me, she said while I worked my vigil. My heart was breaking. I begged for sunlight; something, anything to pierce the black night.  It’s always darkest before the dawn.

I spent the night in the armchair beside Dad and I learned the rhythm of his breathing. I could close my eyes and we’d breathe together. I wanted him to have my lungs and oxygen. I felt guilty breathing beside him. We spent the night like that until his breathing became shallower and started to slow. His chest didn’t rise as much and I knew what was taking place. I stroked his arm, kissed him and told him I loved him as many times as I could. I told him he was a great dad and husband as many times as I could. I told him that I was with him and wasn’t going to leave him as many times as I could. I told him he wasn’t alone as many times as I could. All the things I should have said when he was alive poured from me and I believed he could hear me. His chest rose and fell one last time. His body fell silent. My watch was over. I had held my breath in the final moment and exhaled, realising I was the only one in the room who was breathing. I sat in the armchair and watched a rose colour spread across the sky as the sun began to rise. The birth of a new day; the first without Dad.

(c) Paul Massey

About the author

I’m Paul Massey and I live in Dublin. I have five children so writing can be sporadic at the best of times! My wife is my inspiration, always telling me I should write my ideas down so this is for her.

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