The Waiting Room by Sara Myles
Last week, I learned my friend Tash was dying. Not nearly-die like the first time, or almost-die like the one after that. No, this time she was actually really truly going to die. Battling various cancers over the past six years had taken its toll, and now there was nothing left to do but wait.
But I’m not the kind of gal that finds waiting easy, and I figured this year we’ve already done enough waiting, we’ve already spent enough time alone with our thoughts and our fears. And waiting for someone to die, for the lungs to stop inflating, for the heart to stop pumping, for the grief to hit. . . well, that requires something else of us entirely.
So me being me, I decided I wasn’t waiting around for anyone (not even you, e hoa). I thought about my fierce and funny friend, about our chats and the laughter that would be no more. I thought about her two daughters – at seven and ten years old, they will now become women without their mum. I thought about her husband and the empty passenger seat as he drives to town, the empty chair at the dinner table, the empty space in his bed. And then I wondered, if there’s nothing left to do but wait, then how could we stop the creeping dread of, you know. . . ?
I bloody hate waiting. I got busy instead.
I arrived at Tash’s house while she lay in the hospital, her husband and kids at her side. I found the spare key and let myself in (the abandoned shoes at the front door), I climbed the stairs (the note on the bottom step) and I went into the kitchen (the calendar, the photos).
I found the metal plug (the half-drunk cup of herbal tea) and I turned on the tap, slowly filling the sink with steamy water and frothing bubbles. The crusty dinner plates and breakfast bowls were stacked in disarray (half-eaten piece of toast) so I soaked and scrubbed, I rinsed and dried (World’s Best Mum). I sprayed and wiped and binned (an empty bottle of vitamins, wrinkled blueberries).
I cleaned away these tiny epitaphs to family life, to my friend (discarded bread tags) and I worked until that kitchen sparkled.
I moved my way through her house, being pulled along by an invisible string, by my love for her and by what I would want for my own family if. . . you know.
I found hangers for dresses and drawers for socks (clothes gathering dust). I put away Halloween costumes, rearranged soft toys and dusted shelves (a bookmark tucked between pages unfinished).
Then I thought of Tash being unable to tuck her kids in at night, so I opened the hall closet and I took out the softest, thickest flannelette sheets I could find and I put them on her daughters’ beds – the kind of sheets that would wrap them in the warmest of cuddles when Mum’s arms weren’t there to do the job. I folded and tucked and fluffed. And I know she was right there with me: we made those beds together, e hoa.
I found a love note on her daughter’s pillow (Love you, From Dad) and one back (Me too x). In fact, I found monuments to love all through that house (Get well soon, Mum! Happy birthday, darling!). Even the bills and the bank statements and the cards, all that bloody mail piling up on the bench – envelopes patiently waiting for fingers to grip the corner and tear beneath the flap. I thought, ‘here lies a pile of mail that someone else now has to open, but we can’t open it because it’s addressed to her and it’s not addressed to us’. I don’t know what to do with that.
I didn’t really understand the depth and breadth of words like determined and brave until I met Tash. Six years – that’s a long time to fight, eh? And did you know she was a fire fighter? Red Watch – she drove the big red trucks once upon a time, she kept her cool under pressure, she fought fires alongside men twice her size. Tash wore her heart at the fire’s centre and just got on with it.
Yep, our mate Tash came from a long line of fighters (cancer, not fire). The herbal tea / vitamin supplement / gluten-free / no-sugar / antioxidant-rich superfood brigade couldn’t fault how she lived her life, or her death for that matter.
And if there’s anything that 2020 has taught me, it’s this: amidst the wild roar of chaos, there is always space for grace.
Many who lost loved ones this year couldn’t say goodbye in the way they wanted. Tangi were cancelled, memorials postponed, and some even died alone. I am grateful I saw Tash at the end. I am grateful I’m in this family’s bubble. I am grateful for the perspective that death brings, as we hear of new community cases, as I worry about what the future holds. But that’s not on your radar now, is it, e hoa?
Then this morning we learned that Tash had died in the night. Her end-day was six years in the making, the long goodbye, and she fought it–wow, did she what! Right to the end. Despite our deepest wishes for this fierce and funny lady, she was knackered. And we were waiting, we tried to be ready (we weren’t).
And now that Tash is gone, like, really truly gone, the weight of this knowledge somehow amplifies all the other losses of this past year: lost work, lost income, lost opportunities, loss of travel and adventure, loss of comfort and confidence and connection. And when I find myself drawn into that desperate darkness, an arrhythmia takes over and I can’t breathe and I become consumed. This is Grief 2.0 with special sauce.
I drove past her house today and the pull of her front deck was magnetic. I rubbernecked the whole way down the street hoping to see a sign, something to draw me in, to give me permission to pop in and say hello (he tohu). Our friendship was cemented on that deck over countless cups of (herbal) tea and the friendship of our kids. This year, the pressing closeness of death, of life, has left me feeling both claustrophobic and cocooned all at once. Does this even make sense, e hoa?
And. . . and, when I take a moment, when I pause and blink and breathe, I realise there is grace amidst the chaos. When I take a moment, and my lungs inflate and my heart pumps, then I know that right here, right now, I am OK. And with Tash’s help, I have learned there are a thousand tiny beautiful ways we can look after each other and say, I love you. This has become my prayer.
That we should all come to know the comfort of changed sheets and washed dishes (opened mail / wiped crumbs). That we should find grace amidst the chaos (a smile, a song). That we may all come to know a fierce and funny love that just gets on with it.
Moe mai rā, e hoa.
(For Tash, with love).
he is surrounded by Karen McLean
Karen Mclean is a musician (Die Musikband, Onanon, among others), ex-academic, astronomer and amateur writer who is very grateful to live in Ōtepoti Dunedin. She loves writing, and has written a range of nearly-finished novels and poems, sharing them with friends who are fellow writers. You can find Onanon https://onanon.bandcamp.com/, and Die Musikband at https://diemusikband.bandcamp.com. Karen is also here: facebook.com/karenmc.
Sarah Myles is a Wellington-born writer currently living in Hawke’s Bay. Her first book, Towards the Mountain – A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on From Erebus, was shortlisted in the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Books Awards. Sarah was the recipient of a 2018 NZ Society of Authors mentorship, and has received an Honourable Mention in the Lilian Ida Smith Award for her work.