2020C First place: Ernie

Category C: First Place (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition

Author: Rainie Zenith

Title: Ernie

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My lover is dying.

We met late, both forty-two, both Elvis diehards, both into hiking through spectacular scenery in remote locations. The Inca Trail was endless shambolic staircases, an acute episode of food poisoning, and the coming together of two akin spirits. The priceless reward for such a brutal trek was not the breathtaking abandoned citadel of Machu Picchu, but the unparalleled joyful finality of discovering one’s soulmate.

We would go on to explore the planet together, trekking its tallest peaks hand in hand, from Tanzania to Tibet. We devoted hours of the working week to running and biking in preparation for the extreme elevations we would encounter during our annual high altitude expeditions. He and I crafted aerobic capacities to rival that of any Olympian; our bodies specialised in the ultra-efficient oxygenation of red blood cells.

How mercilessly ironic for him to be dying due to the failure of his lungs to provide him with sufficient oxygen.

My lover is dying of acute respiratory distress.

My lover, the man whose embrace evokes in me both a comforting familiarity like a ticking clock to a weaned pup, and a stoking of the flames of passion as though our romance were freshly forged. I know the coordinates of his every last crease and mole, could scrunch my eyes and trace his outline in precise detail, have learnt by heart the exact sag of his stomach, bulge of his biceps, sharp lines of his shinbones.

His body is not new, but we all know where beauty lies, and to this beholder it is a work of art encasing his precious soul; together they manifest as my fiercely cherished life partner.

Our love is not new either, yet it remains a vibrant shade of magenta. Never did it pale to pink, or worse yet, fade away entirely.

My lover is my heaven, my haven, my home.

My lover is dying in the hospital, alone. 

Prior to this surreal era, we traversed a good portion of the globe together, though a number of further-flung destinations  – Reykjavik, Tenerife, Rapa Nui – are yet to be struck off the bucket list. They shall remain forever unstruck; what was once a potential future is now a wistful fantasy doomed to the confines of my grief-stricken imagination.

It was rare for either of us to travel alone, but with my mother’s recent ailing health, we agreed it was best I stay home while my lover journeyed to London to meet his newest nephew.

We weren’t to know he would be swept up in the middle of a pandemic and struggle to catch a return flight. We weren’t to know that upon landing he would commence a fortnight of hotel quarantine only to be diagnosed with coronavirus four days in. We weren’t to know his dry cough would deteriorate into a wet one and he would be hospitalised one week later.

My ardent anticipation of a joyful reunion crumbled to ashes on a forgotten hearth, bone-cold and empty.

The hospital is only fifteen kilometres from home, but it may as well be on Mars. I cannot go there, cannot see him, cannot touch him. I hadn’t seen him in two months, since he kissed me farewell at the airport with star-sprinkled eyes, eager to meet the new baby, reunite with his brother, discover more of London; to go, do, live.

Then I got the call, far too early in the day. I was still in bed, still sleeping on my own side even if my lover was not there to occupy the other. By keeping out of his space I could somehow pretend that he was in it, right where he belonged.

They had commenced palliative care, the nurse said. They didn’t expect him to see the other side of the weekend, she said.

His side of the bed would remain empty forever.

Its vastness was suddenly overwhelming, and I jettisoned myself from beneath the warm covers to collapse on the hardwood floor.

The nurse’s voice continued to flow. I was invited to come to the hospital and see him.

To see him!

I arrived almost before she had hung up.

My phone, my watch, my glasses were to be left in the car. My temperature was to be normal, my flu vaccination to be current, my name to be signed at the bottom of a lengthy disclaimer form. A nurse would supervise my donning of the required protective equipment, beginning with a white mask for my face and a net to restrain my hair. My first attempt at putting on the mask was deemed incorrect, and I was compelled to toss it into an overflowing bin and start over with a new one. Then sanitise my hands. Put on surgical booties to cover my shoes. Then sanitise my hands. Put on full body smock, sanitise hands. Then on with a plastic face shield and two pairs of latex gloves for good measure. I was done up like an astronaut, ready to enter an alien land.

The nurse led me through plastic-sheeted halls to my lover’s ward, told me I had exactly fifteen minutes, and warned me I may find the experience confronting. I was bursting out of my skin to see him, yet I was also apprehensive. This was the last time I would ever get to spend with him. This was so special, so bittersweet, so momentous; I wanted nothing to go wrong. I stepped through the doorway.

My lover was lying on a hospital bed. I was allowed no closer than one and a half metres.

His eyes were open.

His skin was grey.

His head, my lover’s sweet darling head, lolled to one side at an awkward angle.

He is on morphine, the nurse told me.

The man who held my heart was reduced to this broken, pitiful being before me. The man I had chosen to share my life with was slipping through the veil between this world and the next. The man in whose eyes I had always sought and found reassurance was trembling and feverish, and I could not comfort him. There was to be no touching, no proximity of any kind.

I spoke to him lovingly, soothingly, repeatedly, then as he failed to respond, urgently. Hidden beneath a mask and gown, I called to him, eyes welling upon the realisation.

He did not recognise me.

His breath was a rattlesnake, and when it burst into a fit of coughing the nurse whisked me from the room, allowing re-entry only once his breathing had stabilised.

I gazed forlornly at what was left of the man I loved, a crippled shell and woozy mind no longer fit to house his noble soul. The one with whom I had lain a thousand times was departing his earthbound vessel, was beyond my reach, beyond even my voice.

“It’s time to go,” the nurse said.

I could barely choke out a final farewell.

“Goodbye, my love.”

I don’t know if he heard me.

We should have been attending my niece’s wedding in Adelaide in December. Her mother, my sister, lost her husband two years ago, to a long battle with a brain tumour. She had to watch him slowly wither and decay over a period of many months. She was at his side from the time of diagnosis right through to the time of relinquishing her job to bathe, feed and wipe him like a baby. When he was finally dealt the mercy of death, she was at his bedside, playing him a soft score of his favourite tunes, stroking, soothing, whispering goodbye.

Would anyone play the King’s records for my lover, a soundtrack to his egress?

As I sit at home, numb with not knowing, my lover is erupting in pink secretions from the blood cells leaking into his airways. I crave news of his condition, yet dread it. He is drowning in his own fluids.

I miss him. I don’t think I can live without him.

We should have been celebrating his birthday with sponge cake in September, planting the garden with tomatoes in October, toasting our anniversary with moscato in November.

Instead, he is dying.

The two decades we spent in a divine state of oneness feel like an eternity, for I cannot remember what my life was like prior to his entering it. An eternity that was not long enough, however, as I dread to imagine a life without him, having known him, loved him, cherished him every day for the past twenty years.

How grateful I am for each priceless minute he and I were blessed with one another’s company. From those budding moments high in the Andes through to mundane evenings in living room silence, from the long Sunday afternoons of exuberant lovemaking to the hurried little good-bye pecks on the way out the door on work mornings; I am thankful for it all.

The manner in which this joy has all ended leaves me like the ruin of a war-torn city, lovelorn for its ill-fated citizens whose memories stalk the streets in the absence of their earthly bodies.

We all must one day die; certain knowledge of this is the penalty for being born human. While a premature emptying of the hourglass feels as though one has been shortchanged, no-one can know when their final grains of time will pass.

I am not bitter that the man I love more than I ever thought possible must depart this world so soon. But I am devastated I cannot be with him when he does.

 

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Last updated: 04 December 2020