I touch your hand and feel the papery thinness of it. I give it a slight squeeze. Enough to let you know that I am still here.
It hasn’t been easy. The journey has been long and arduous. We have had to change trains twice. The wheelchair has not been easy to manipulate. Strangers have assisted me. They have looked at me with pity in their eyes. I have smiled back, and thanked them politely. You always told me to be polite, no matter what.
I keep vigil, even as dawn is breaking outside. I haven’t slept much. You have. Your mouth is slack in sleep. I lean over and wipe the thin dribble of saliva. I feel like touching every bit of you. From that broad forehead, to the thick brows that frame your beautiful grey eyes, to the slight stubble on your cheeks, to the scar just under your lip….I feel like imprinting every feature of yours onto my hands.
“Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”
It is a beautiful day in April, and we emerge to a shower of confetti. There are only a few friends to help us celebrate. No families…none that wanted to be here anyway. But we don’t need them.We have each other. Today and forever.
We go to the pub. Peter, your best man, makes his speech. It is funny and dry, and makes us laugh and weep. He ends with a toast to us.
“To Paul and Susan. A couple made for one another. Theirs is a true love story. Join me in raising a glass to many many happy years together.”
We smile at each other, and kiss lightly to cheers from our friends.
Our lovemaking is gentle. You are patient with me. It is my first time, and I am scared. You kiss me and tell me I am beautiful. Slowly, I shed my inhibitions, and start to enjoy your body, as well as mine. We sleep, curled together, our hands and legs entwined, our breath rising and falling in tandem.
I must have dropped off. For when I open my eyes, you are awake, and watching the beautiful scenery pass us by. There is a hint of sadness in your eyes, and my heart spasms involuntarily.
“Paul?”, your name comes out as a plea.
You turn to me and smile. It takes every ounce of my willpower to smile back at you.
“Did you sleep, my darling?”
You nod slowly.
“Good. We do have a long day ahead of us. I wonder how far the clinic is from the station? They said someone will be there to receive us. I hope they find us easily. I don’t want to be standing around in the cold. Are you cold, darling?” I stop my nervous babbling and get up to adjust the shawl on your knees. Your head bobs a thank you. I smell a whiff of urine, and know that you need changing. I wonder how I’ll manage that, here, on a moving train. Then I tell myself to get a grip, and get on with it.
You want to be in the delivery room with me. The midwife is quite shocked.
“But Mr Sampson, men don’t go in there!”
“Why ever not? It’s my baby as well. Besides, we have no one else. I cannot leave Susan on her own to do this.”
You reach out and grasp my hand, and immediately I feel calmer, although my body feels as though it is splitting in half.
Hour after agonising hour, you are there with me. When the baby finally arrives, you are the one to cut the umbilical cord. There is blood everywhere, and I cringe at the thought that you will never want me after this. I look up and see only wonder in your eyes. Cradling our daughter, you lean forward and kiss me softly on the lips.
“I love you, my brave brave girl”
The car that whisks us from the station to the clinic is well equipped. For the first time in a long time, I am able to relax. You look comfortable but slightly amused by the serious young man who has come to receive us. I catch your eye, and suppress a giggle. Naughty Paul! I know just what you’re thinking.
“Ummm, Alain? How long is the drive?”
“Madame, it will take us an hour. However, there are several amenities for you to enjoy. Newspapers, cold water, television.”
“Thank you. I think we are alright.”
We sit together in companionable silence. I stroke your hand from time to time. I feel the slight pressure of your fingers in mine. My vision suddenly blurs, and I blink rapidly to disperse the pooling tears.
I sit there in a mess. My hair is undone, the dishes are piled high in the sink, and the baby keeps crying and crying and crying. I cry alongside, helpless, frustrated and angry.
You come home from work, and start to tidy up. You change the baby, and give her supper. You put her to bed, and then hold me tight, rocking me, ” Sweetheart , it’s alright. You’re alright. It’s just the blues. You’ll get better.”
And I do. Slowly, with your help, I get better. I smile, I brush my hair, I play with the baby. We call her Amelia. She has your eyes and my smile and we love her.
We go for long walks on Sundays. We feed the ducks. I push the buggy, and you take our photos on your new camera. I arrange them in the album. Amelia’s first tooth, her first step,her first word. They are all recorded in there for posterity.
We try for more babies. But it never happens again.
“Just as well”, you say comfortingly, “My world is complete with my two lovely ladies.”
We have arrived at what seems like an enormous Chateau. Alain opens the door, and helps me out. There are two other staff settling you into your wheelchair. The reception desk is rather intimidating, and I look at you for reassurance. I am surprised at the slight smile on your face. You look as though…..as though you’re home.
We are shown to our room. It is spacious, and has a breathtaking view. There are brochures on the bedside table. All that we have perused before. But I pick one up nonetheless.
“Look Paul, they’ve given us one of the larger rooms. That’s good, isn’t it? Look at that view darling. Makes one believe there is a God.”
I sink to my knees. The enormity of what we are about to do hits me like a sledgehammer.
“Paul! Oh Darling! Is this the only way?”
I sob, crumpled on the floor, grief slicing through me in short, sharp strokes.
Finally, spent, I look up at the sorrow in your eyes. I collect myself. I kneel in front of you and whisper,
“I am sorry. So very very sorry. It will not happen again.”
I place my head on your lap, and weep softly.
Amelia is a strong willed girl, and we clash often. You are always playing the peacemaker. She is a rebel, and I fear for her as she dabbles in drink and drugs, and anonymous sex with strangers. I cannot understand where I have failed her. You worry too. I see it in the furrow between your brows.
But it is you she turns to every time. She hates me. She calls me weak and spineless. A woman who has always relied on a man. She is right. I have always relied on you. You are my anchor. I see nothing wrong in it, and she despises me for it.
“Oh for Goodness’ sake, Mother! Grow some balls!!”
We torment each other till she moves out. She goes to University, and we hear from her sporadically.
The house feels empty, and we miss the noise and chaos that inevitably follows in her wake. Slowly, we settle back into being just us.
You go back to flirting with me like you did when we were courting. We start to make love more often. I feel like we are once more surrounded by a golden glow.
Our last night together is spent in separate beds. I yearn to have your arms around me once more. To feel your heart beat as I snuggle in your embrace. That warm solid sound that has always spelt love and safety. It is not to be. You are too weak, and I cannot be that selfish.
I sense that you are not sleeping. I can sense you trying to absorb every sound, every sensation for the very last time. And not for the last time, I wish it was me instead of you.
I see the same film reel of our life, that is playing through your mind.
Us holding hands, us going to see our first movie together, the wedding band you saved up for, Amelia’s first teddy bear, a day spent at the beach, the gramophone record with our favourite song….. A lifetime that flashes by in the blink of an eye.
I turn restlessly. I can’t take it anymore. I get into bed with you. Your heartbeat quickens. I hold you, and warmth floods into my body. We fall asleep together.
You first collapse at Amelia’s wedding. The big, traditional wedding that neither of us had envisaged. We think it is the stress and you recover well.
Amelia comes to visit more often now. Arthur comes with her. You find him a dreadful, pompous bore, but are unfailingly polite. You can see that we compare unfavourably to the fashionable set they move in. But, all her hard edges have softened, and she is kinder to me than she has been in years. In some ways, we are closer than before, and you encourage it, never once encroaching upon this fragile bond we are attempting to forge.
There are signs that all is not well with you. A certain slowing down, a loss of appetite, memory lapses that you cover up with good humour.
When does the thought first enter your mind? I am too busy building bridges to notice.
‘The good death’. Is there such a thing? I stumble upon the papers accidentally. You brush it off. But it lingers, like an unpleasant smell.
“Susan”, you say to me, after a particularly bad attack, ” I never want to be a vegetable. I want to die with dignity. Promise me…..promise me…..”
I rail against you for wanting an escape clause. I promise that I will take care of you, like you have taken care of me. I promise to be there for you, no matter what. But it is not enough.
You start to contact organisations without my knowledge. People come to meet you. You sign papers. I start to get suspicious, and share my feelings with Amelia.
She is incensed beyond belief.
“Daddy, how could you be so selfish? Leave aside our feelings, do you not realise that what you are doing is illegal in this country? And Mother could end up behind bars for the rest of her life. Is that what you want for the woman you love?”
You withdraw from us. I cannot understand this coldness, this selfish side to you that I have never seen before. I fear I am losing you.
Our last morning, and we sit together on the lawns staring up at the majesty of the Alps that surround us. The paperwork is behind us now. They have asked you once more whether this is your decision and whether you still want to go through with it. You will be asked again before they administer the final dose. I know your answer already. You are ready. There is a calm about your person, a dignity that cloaks you like an invisible shroud.
I often wonder, if it had been me instead of you, would you have let me go quite as easily? This guilt is something I will have the rest of my life to reconcile with.
It is time. They wheel you back indoors.
I sit by your side, when they administer the lethal dose. Your eyes close, and your breathing gets shallow. It seems an eternity that I sit there, waiting for you to leave.
You are gone. Quietly, they lead me out of the room.
In France I have built a new life. The money that you had squirrelled away was enough to ensure a comfortable, if not lavish lifestyle. I speak a little French now. I have friends that I sit and share a glass of wine with, now and again. They ask me no questions and I am spared the agony of lying.
I still have no contact with Amelia. She could not forgive me. Which is fine. I cannot forgive myself either.
I laugh sometimes, but more often than not, I cry.
My days are spent waiting. Waiting to undertake that final journey. So that, if there is a God, I will see you someday, somewhere, again.