SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: DNR by Jim Skinner
Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub
The man sat at the side of his father’s hospital bed his eyes still damp and sore from crying.
Every so often he would whisper to his father: ‘I’m here, Dad. We are all here. Maggie and Mum.’
It had been a while since his father was able to faintly respond, or even indicate comprehension. But the man tried to convince himself that his dying father was taking it all in, even though he spoke the words so faintly, almost to himself.
The only sound his father made now was a shallow but audible breath, constant and unwavering. Only his head visible above the bed covers, staring at the ceiling, breathing steadily against the odds.
The only conversation about death that the man could recall having with his father was, he thought, in the kitchen at the house where he and his sister grew up.
He remembered as a boy asking him what happened when you died. His father replied that nothing happened when you died, that that was it, like a light switched off. One moment you’re alive the next you’re dead. There was no afterlife. No heaven, no hell.
The man recalled arguing with his father, saying that he couldn’t understand how your very soul or sense of self or whatever you call it could just go, end.
‘It just ends, that’s all’, he remembered him saying, almost casually, without emotion and with an almost serene acceptance of his lot.
His father was not one for ‘fuss’ of any kind, and certainly not of a kind that involved debating an issue at length and to no decisive conclusion.
As he smiled at the memory of his father, his gaze alighted on the words in large red capitals on a piece of card at the end of the bed: DO NOT RESUSCITATE.
Although the words were designed to convey feelings of compassion mixed with practicality, he could find no re-assurance in them. Several months ago, he had for the first time felt the weight of these three words.
At the time, he and his wife were visiting his ailing mother and father in their bungalow home. During the depressingly regular chat about ailments in general, his mum said: ‘Me and your father are ready to go’.
He was taken aback by this almost casual remark. In the car home, his wife said: ‘Your mum just means that she and your dad would not want to be put through any more pain and suffering by doctors trying to keep them alive following any serious medical… er... event’.
‘Event?’ he lightly mocked.
‘You know what I mean’, she said. ‘You know if dad had another stroke or something…’ She tailed off and the conversation died.
The next occasion he was required to consider DNR was just two days ago, when the doctor had ushered the man, his mother, and his sister out of the room where his father lay, to describe coldly but not unsympathetically his father’s prognosis and the decision the family had to take.
The doctor’s words flowed into the man’s head as the four of them crammed into the corridor. ‘Infection in the lungs’, ‘not responding to antibiotics’, ‘pneumonia’, ‘help with breathing’. The man felt the whole enormous subject of DNR, assisted suicide, whatever you care to call it, bearing down on him.
He looked first to his sister and found that she was looking at him for the answer. He then glanced down to where his mother was sitting, not wanting to catch her eye, fearing her response and not able to stop the lorry-load of grief that was on her horizon.
She sat slumped looking up at the man and the doctor, her expression helpless and lost. In a tiny voice she said something like ‘What do you think John? You and Maggie decide’. If she was once the joint instigator of this, she was now lost in its wake.
All treatment was stopped, his father was to be made comfortable and pain-free. The ‘special’ nurse assigned to his father’s care for the period between DNR and death preferred the term AND (Allow Natural Death). However you labelled the process, for the man it was just a case of waiting for the light to go out.
The man looked at his father’s death mask of a face and wondered whether the man inside the steadily breathing body lying on the bed also understood and accepted this.
‘This is what you want, isn’t it dad?’ the man whispered to himself. The breathing body seemed to be defiant, seemed to be fighting the DNR diktat.
‘One last chance’, it might have been saying, or ‘I survived poverty and war. I worked hard all my life. I will not give in’, exhaling these words to the rhythm of the shallow and constant breath.
His father’s obdurate body had survived a day and a night. The constant breath a little more shallow as each hour passed.
Approaching the second evening, his mother and sister left to find sleep.
The man maintained his vigil, stubbornly fighting off thoughts of leaving. In the early evening, two nurses ushered the man outside the room in order to make his father ‘more comfortable’.
When he returned, his father’s face had been washed and looked refreshed even in its deathly whiteness. He seemed to be lying more comfortably.
His sheets were neatly folded and his head a little raised so that he appeared to be watching his breaths float slowly up to the ceiling.
The man searched his memories for times when his father featured as a playmate, a storyteller, or a sage.
He continued to whisper these recollections to his father’s featureless breathing head. The man desperately wanted his father to know what a good dad he had been, how much he would miss him, how much he loved him.
His father’s forehead glistened from the nurses’ diligent washing. The man wiped away a small rivulet of water as it ran down from his father’s right eye like a tear.
The man checked his watch and looked once more at his father and reluctantly decided that he should go. Something in that open-mouthed face was telling him to go.
He sensed that his father had said his goodbyes and that now he wanted a few minutes of solitude and peace, to pass privately, to pass without the surrounding grief.
The man whispered goodbye and turned away. He had not even left the hospital grounds, when a second tear ran down his father’s cheek. This one unseen, and in total silence.
Jim Skinner is a retired solicitor who is currently working on a first novel. Jim was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 16 years ago, and his writing in DNR is typically self-reflective and poignant.