“Rat, tat, tat, …Rat, tat, tat.”
Persy lay wide awake in the dark, listening to the sound of the spoon rattling against the bed frame. She knew who it was making the noise, but she willed with all her might that it would stop, that he would just give up and go back to sleep. But like every night for the past two years, the rattling didn’t stop. After she had lain there as long as she could, she forced herself to get up and walk to the other bedroom. She turned on the lamp to find her husband, Phil, lying there, among what looked like a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie. There were dozens of wires attached to his frail body, connecting him to all kinds of machinery to monitor every little change in his physiognomy. She looked with pity at the man, barely alive and on medicines and fluids.
“There you are, *cough* you little…*cough*. What took you so long, huh? Hand me *wheeze* the bedpan, I need to pee,” he said. She moved slowly towards his bed and placed the smelly pan underneath his spindly legs. Amongst all the stenches surrounding Phil: medicines, fluids, vomit, fresh linen; the smell of his urine was always there. She scrubbed the room, washed the sheets, opened the windows, but she just could not get that stench away. She sat down nearby and tried to drown the sound of him emptying his bladder by thinking about the wonderful life they had had two years back.
They had met at one of those dreadfully boring fundraisers for the NHS*. She was a recruit at the time, a part-time hospice nurse, and he was a young, well-established anaesthetic, about to become the head of his department. Their eyes had met across the hall and she had decided to go up and introduce herself. At the time she was only sucking up to him, but Phil had turned out to be extremely charming. They immediately struck a chord, and the whole night she listened to him in rapt attention. What followed later was a textbook romance: flowers and cards, dates and hugs, stolen kisses in the corridors, meeting the parents, and finally a proposal. They had married each other within five months of their first meeting.
And for the first few years, it had been absolute perfection. Granted, life at the NHS had been tough for them, what with the crazy hours and tight budgets, and a never ending stream of patients. But both of them were very enthusiastic about their work, and they loved to help people. It pained her when she saw terminally ill patients, suffering everyday with no hope in sight. They took many trips around the world as volunteers, where they had to make some tough choices, deciding who would receive care and who wouldn’t, but it was always worth the while. She made sure that she reduced their sorrow as much as she could.
It was after one of these trips that her whole life came apart. They were in a tiny village in Japan, and Phil had gorged on the sushi the villagers were feeding him. After their return, it began very slowly. Sometimes headaches or stomach cramps, then vomiting and diarrhea. Only when he had his first stroke did he consider getting a second opinion. The MRI revealed it to be a tapeworm infection, specifically, neurocysticercosis. There were large cysts in his brain and spinal cord, and a couple of them had even ruptured. A series of treatments, medicines, tests, reports, therapies, and even surgeries followed. Each time it took a deeper toll on Phil’s body, and even though he was out of danger, it had left him in this bedridden state.
“I’m done,” Phil said. Persy removed the pan underneath and inspected its contents nonchalantly, and then threw it all down the toilet. She flushed it out, along with all her hopes and dreams of a bright future. The man she once loved was utterly helpless and dependent on her. Their marriage was in shambles; they had no more friends or social life, she had to give up her job, and even their families had forsaken them. Money was tight, so she never went anywhere unless it was necessary, and all their savings were being used for Phil’s care. She replaced the pan and reached for the lights when Phil said, “I’m sorry for yelling at you, *cough* I didn’t mean to be so rude.” For a few seconds, her hand hovered, and then she flipped the switches. Two years, she thought. She lay down on her bed again. She was exhausted. She could not do this anymore.
She was still exhausted when she woke up again the next morning. Every muscle in her body screamed at her to keep still, but she had to use all her will power to move. Cooking, cleaning the house, taking care of Phil, changing sheets, medicines, cleaning him, feeding him, etc took up all morning. Some of her friends had even suggested earlier on that she should just leave him and start a new life, but she knew she could never do that. This was her profession, her calling in life. It wasn’t just about administering medicines or taking care of their needs, but being there for your patient, showing support and compassion. She had to make sure that their final days were spent with dignity and comfort. And not just that, she loved Phil. Well, at least used to love, until he was reduced to just a shadow of what he used to be.
This life she lived now, it was nothing she hadn’t done before. She never knew her mother, so her father was her whole world. He had contracted lung cancer when she was four, and she used to love taking care of him until the day he died. She hadn’t understood much about his passing until she was older, although she did remember crying for hours. She had thrown all her energy into taking care of him, sitting by his bed for hours.
“You’re really good at this,” he would say to her while she fed him soup. “You could be a great caregiver someday.”
And now, she was doing the same thing for Phil. When it was time, she would be there for him.
After cleaning up Phil’s vomit for the nth time, Persy left her house for an hour or so and stepped into her backyard. She grew many different kinds of plants here: tomatoes and chilies in one corner, herbs and saplings in another, and of course, Phil’s favorite long-stemmed white lilies. It was her only escape, an oasis in a vast desert. But today, she was distracted by the presence of a new neighbor. A man in a yellow t-shirt and khaki shorts was standing in the middle of the garden next door, lifting furniture into the house. When he spotted her, he smiled widely and walked over.
“Hello there, my name’s Manuel, but you can call me Manny. I’m moving in next door.”
“That’s nice”, she said and smiled softly.
“You’re a nurse, aren’t you? Yeah, the estate agent told me all about you and your husband. I thought it was good for me. At least I’ll know where to go if I need a band-aid, huh?” he said and roared in laughter. Persy didn’t smile this time.
“Oh well, it was nice to meet you,” he said.
Persy turned around and bent to snip up a few herbs for preparation. She felt that she was going to need it. Manny was still standing and smiling at her when she went inside, but immediately afterward his smile died.
It wasn’t the first time that people around had come up to her to ask for medical help. Many of her old friends at the hospital would suggest patients come talk to her. She only did consultations though, suggesting treatments or other doctors, or even just lending a comforting ear or hand, whichever was needed. It was good for her to know that people still needed her advice, and whatever little money it brought helped a long way. Even some of her older patients from the NHS would come to visit. Last year, when a 10-year-old boy, suffering from last-stage leukemia died, she had even gone to his funeral. It was heart-wrenching for everyone, but she knew that the boy was finally free from all the pain and discomfort he had gone through. She had made sure that he was as comfy as possible. That was her job.
A few hours later, she heard a frantic knock on her door. She had just finished feeding Phil, and most of it had been surrendered to the sheets rather than his stomach. With absolute frustration, she opened the door to find Manuel waving a bloody hand at her.
“My mother always warned me against these types of things. Do you think you could take a look at this?”
“Oh, of course,” Persy said.
She inspected his hand.
“The cut looks deep. What were you doing when this happened?”
“Oh, just trying to put up a mirror. I smashed my hand right through it.”
“Why did you smash the mirror? This looks very deep, almost purposeful.”
Manny was silent and did not reply.
“Wait here, I’ll get my kit and dress the wound. But you will have to get checked at the hospital again.”
After he left, Persy was still confused.
The next morning Manny appeared at her door again. This time he had a bunch of lilies in his hand.
“This is for you. I noticed the lilies in your yard yesterday and thought you might like them. As a thank you and a sorry.”
“My husband likes them more than me. But what are you sorry for?”
“For troubling you yesterday, and not even explaining properly. I was arguing with my girlfriend and well….uh….”
“Understood. How’s your hand now?”
“I did everything as per your instructions. May I come inside? I wanted to ask you something.” he said, trying to skirt past her.
“Huh, no!” she almost screamed. ” I, uh, I mean not now. I’m expecting someone and, uh, it’s, uh, it’s not a good time.”
“Oh okay. But I need to properly thank you for your help. How about dinner tonight? My place?”
“Oh no, I don’t go out and I can’t leave Phil.”
“No problem, I’ll come over then. I’ll bring all the food and everything.”
“Oh, uh, I don’t know…”
“Oh come on, please.”
“Ok. Come by at six.”
When he finally left, Persy closed the door and heaved a sigh of relief. She has to do things quickly now. There was not much time left.
Manny arrived on time. Persy was ready to meet him, wearing the cleanest clothes she could find. She introduced him to Phil, but he was already drowsy with sleep and couldn’t talk much. They sat at the dining table and dug into the Chinese fare; Kung pao chicken, dumplings, wontons and noodle soup, along with red wine Manny had brought. As they ate, they talked non-stop about their own lives. Manny turned out to be a police inspector.
“Wow, I can’t decide now whose job is more depressing, yours or mine?”
“Mine, hands down”, Persy said.
“Do you know how many low-lives I meet every day? You would be surprised what people get up to. At least you’re respected in your job. Everyone just spits at police officers.”
“I guess you’re right then,” Persy laughed and spilled a little wine on herself.
“Are you ok? I think you’ve had enough wine.”
“No no, I’m all right. I guess the most depressing part of our job is the ability to not help people at all. People think we’re heroes saving lives everywhere. But really, we deal more with death than life. Death is our real job.” Persy was getting flustered now. She began to sway a little.
“That’s, uh, that’s great. Here, why don’t you lay down? I think you look pale.”
“No, I, uh, I need to check on Phil.”
“No, no he’s all right. You rest your head over here.”
Persy relaxed in his arms and laid down on the couch. She was feeling a little drowsy, maybe a little too drowsy. Was there something in the wine? But her thoughts blurred into each other and she fell asleep. She did hear something else though.
“It’s time to get to work. Search the whole place!”
Anxiety and panic greeted her when she woke up the next morning. She looked around in a daze, trying to get her bearings. There was a severe pounding in her head, and her arms and legs felt heavy.
Of course, it was the wine!
She remembered everything now.
She rushed towards him, and there he lay, as usual, looking as decrepit as ever. She approached him cautiously and placed a hand on his shoulder. Phil opened his eyes slightly.
“There you are”, he said slowly. “I think it’s almost done. I…”
But a bout of coughing stopped him mid-sentence.
“It’s ok, it’s ok. You don’t need to say anything. I’m right here.” She held his hand tightly.
“Did the policeman get everything?”
“Yes, I think he did. He probably will be here soon.”
“You do remember why we’re doing this, right?”
Large tears rolled down Persy’s cheeks.
“It’s our path to freedom,” she said and sobbed.
Heavy footsteps surrounded her and in an instant, there were policemen everywhere. It was Manuel who spoke first.
“Nurse Persy Andrews, you are under arrest. You have been charged with the murder of twenty patients under your care, using an unknown drug. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be used against you in a courtroom…….”
But Persy had already faded them out. Phil’s hand had gone cold.
As she trudged in the cold gray morning light towards the huge iron gates, she thought of the first time she had done it for her father. She was only little, but she knew that he was suffering immensely. Every breath he took was sheer agony, and even though she tried to make him as comfortable as possible, she knew it was not enough. Nothing, not even the harshest of pills could take away the pain. And then he showed her something. A small vial of liquid, colourless and odourless. He showed her everything, how to prepare it, and which plants to grow. One bunch was lethal enough, untraceable in the bloodstream. It would always look like a natural death. He called it his path to freedom. All she had to do was inject it into the IV. And he would have his peace. Of course, she would be happy to do anything to take his pain away.
She walked past the familiar rows of perfectly trimmed hedges and slabs of marble, clutching Phil’s favorite white lilies in one hand while adjusting her woolen scarf. It was difficult with the handcuffs around her wrists, but she knew she had done the right thing. All those people had begged her. All they wanted was to be free from their pain, to be free of the misery that their life was. And that was her job, her calling in life. To make sure that her patients were comfortable, till the very end.
As she placed the lilies on Phil’s grave, Inspector Manuel called from behind.
“Are these for me?”
Persy smiled a little and said, “Not this time.”
They walked back the way they had come, and the Inspector was getting a little antsy.
“What is it?” Persy asked.
“It’s nothing, it’s, uh, I don’t understand. The first time you were suspected was after that boy’s autopsy revealed a slight anomaly. The rest were all a hunch. But all the evidence we found in your home, the medicine lab, all the reports….I mean, it was just too easy. What happened?”
Persy sighed, and then said, “Don’t you see? It’s my turn to be free now.”
Euthanasia is still a very highly debatable topic around the world. While in countries like Switzerland and Belgium it is completely legal, in many countries like the United Kingdom, active euthanasia is illegal. In India, only patients who are dependent on life support are allowed to be removed from it, with the permission of family members, if there is no chance of any revival. Governments are still on the fence about whether taking life like this should be considered or not.
P.S. Persy is short for Persephone, the goddess of the underworld.
NHS- National Health Service