Last month, my uncle discovered that he had cancer, and he went in for an operation which he was told had a 20% survival rate. Being very fit and healthy, he was confident about the outcome. He woke from the operation and told the nurses he felt “blissful”. But by the time the family and I arrived at his hospital in Leeds, he was in a coma.
He was allowed two visitors at a time, so I mostly accompanied my grandmother, his mother, to sit at his bedside. It seemed to us that, though he was lying still with his eyes closed, there was a difference in his face between one time and another; as though sometimes he was asleep and dreaming, and sometimes he was listening and aware.
I therefore made a point of speaking to him. I greeted him when we arrived, told him who we were and who was waiting for him in the waiting room. I told him what tests the doctors were doing on him and why, and when we left him I said goodbye and told him when we would be back. His other visitors spoke to him too. His mother held his hand and stroked it gently, telling him she loved him and would visit him every day.
I brought in my book to read to him during these daily visits. It was the biography of the naturalist Gerald Durrell, my childhood hero and role model. I have no idea what my uncle thought of him, but I hoped that the colourful images of Gerald’s childhood in India, and of his experiences with exotic animals, might be pleasant for someone stuck in a hospital bed. I felt it must be dull to be lying there hour after hour, day after day.
The doctors and nurses working in the ward began to find reasons to carry out tasks near my uncle’s bed when I visited. After a while, they began asking me when the next chapter would be read out. I liked this: having so many specialists close by meant they would immediately notice changes in my uncle’s health. Reading to him made him safe.
But in the end, safety was not enough to see him through. My uncle was not one of the 20% who survive the Whipple operation. He died with a head full of happy plans, blissful emotions, and perhaps some images of a small boy in India who had pet bears.