"Let it go for a while," said Fem when the alarm rang again from Mrs. Johanna (Hannie) Raven's room.
I flicked my women's magazine closed, that a bit early in the season displayed colorful spreads for Easter brunches that my parents would be quick to condemn, and got ready to get up.
Fem shot me a withering look. "She just wants to get turned over again onto her other leg, Steph."
I began: "She's in pain. She can't sleep when she's lying on her fractured leg."
"We're on our way," Fem said over the intercom.
"What?" It sounded awkward, softly. "Will you be here in eight?"
"A few minutes, Mrs. Raven," I hollered, not opening my magazine again.
Fem's index finger was red-rimmed with bright nail polish that hadn’t come off; she liked to paint her nails when she was free. She pointed that accusing finger at the screen for concentration and resumed counting her hours. The laptop shone like a clam in the darkness that seemed especially cheerless this time of year, though it held a promise yet. Blackness sidled up around the windows of our nursing home, in which our reflections floated around, disproportioned and enlarged, like divers in an aquarium. Rain spat on the black clay in fields that had been frozen fast in the unusually harsh preceding weeks. As gusts lashed the double glass, inaudible to us, we were snug inside our rescue pod where we cared for people who were temporarily too incapacitated to receive care at home. Outside, the dregs of winter raged over the modest houses of the village of Krabbendijke in the southern part of the Netherlands, of which the majority happened to be orthodox Christians, for which the hulking complex of the nursing home, newly built and with wood accents in an upbeat mint and white, serving the entire region, was one of the major economic providers.
Fem, come to the end of her counting, smacked her mug of herbal tea down on the table. "I have another two night shifts this month, can you believe it? I hate it, especially with Mrs. Raven around. Wished she would go already."
I hoped that too. I had a vision of the recovered Mrs. Raven sitting in her wheelchair, reading her newspaper on the balcony of her swag apartment in town, just as spring would finally break and golden rain buds introduced themselves over her railing.
"We can swap," I offered. I didn't mind the night shifts. Nights were usually dead quiet in the nursing home as most of the residents snored through them until the morning, and no one was getting on your back. It was a lot more comfortable than at home, where Mother nudged my younger siblings to turn in so that she then could splash noisily in the bath, belting out bubbles of hymns. After that was done, she would impose her terry-cloth bear shape, reeking of black currant liqueur and chamomile cleanser, into one of our beds, where she pressed us to her breast, accompanied by declarations of love, for her family, and for God, who had made her life miserable despite blessing her with us wonderful intelligent kids, and while I never pushed her away, her scalding presence made it impossible for me to sleep.
I mean, almost no one bothered me in the home.
Fem's dimples sank so deep they ate her molars and any remaining cuteness. "Those shifts are with you, dozy. Someone up the ladder decided we are a match."
I dreaded that might refer to our team leader Yacintha, to whom I had explained at our last evaluation talk that Fem intimidated me. But instead of plugging deeper into the point, she told me that making an effort to get along with Fem would build my character. I came away with that meeting as if Yacintha thought I was a weakling. Well, I already knew that.
At 3:15 A.M. we got going. Fem and I opened the door to Mrs. Raven's room, gingerly in case she would be asleep and not to wake the other inhabitants in the other rooms along the same hallway. Naturally, she was awake. I turned up the light and found her jittery and shaky from exhaustion, a bundle of bones and very little flesh in the tangle of bedclothes. I lifted her sheet and thin blanket and loosened the catheter wrapped around her bandaged foot, out of which a few toes peeked, white and curled like cooked shrimp. Her ribcage barely moved. She was so slender that she reminded me of a rag doll that you can manipulate into any position you like.
Fem was standing back during this. "How can we help you, Mrs. Raven?" she asked, her mouth flat as if she were holding a needle between her lips. "You really need to sleep. Didn't you tell me your son was coming soon to visit? Don't you think you need to be fit to see him?"
Mrs. Raven seemed to carefully consider this. "I'm in pain," she said. She spoke polite Dutch, not like us who spoke with a tinge of dialect. "I need to be turned onto my other side again. I just can't stay on this side anymore. I'm sorry."
Fem started to argue with her, that the doctor had ordered her to be turned every four hours. "You've been on your right side only for one and a half hours," she pointed out, pursing her lips prissily.
Mrs. Raven lifted and tilted her grey head. "My leg, my back, my hip, it's driving me mad. Please turn me over. I can stay a bit longer on my left side."
"Stay on your left side for the rest of the night then," said Fem, violently yanking her tray table sideways. "Don't think we're coming back for you until the morning."
Mrs. Raven wasn't visibly taken aback by my colleague's harsh words, but with her teary blue eyes and her sunken cheeks her expression wasn’t the happiest anyhow. I would have to talk to Fem after this, I thought to myself. This was no attitude, although we had had a confrontation before, concerning another patient, who complained that Fem pushed her food down her throat when she didn't eat fast enough. But that had misfired. When I had to be firm with her, I started to shake, and then doubt myself, and as a result I always took a step back before Fem's seemingly blithe and effortless violence. When Fem refused to comb a lady's hair, because she said she didn't have any visitors to prettify herself for, I had complained to Yacintha, but that changed nothing either. Fem continued being aggressive and nasty, although never to me. In the end I had to apologize that I had been making too much of the problem, which wasn't a problem, but a result of the circumstances in the home, as Fem put it. Yacintha, disappointingly, underscored that same point. We had to care for many people and it was wearing. Although I knew Fem had a difficult life, what with her fiancé who had left her with a kid, after which her family ostracized her, still I couldn’t figure out why she would take it out on our patients. She needed the job even more than me, didn't she? Suppose Mrs. Raven would complain, although that wasn’t likely. I looked down at her frail form and grasped that her voice wouldn't be leaving this room anytime soon. But with other clients then, or if their families complained—if they had family that looked out for them—would management still let it go?
We began the tricky operation of turning Mrs. Raven. First we pulled out all the white pillows that were propped under her head and the light-blue pads between her legs, to protect the post-operation wounds on her shattered right leg, that was leaking with pink and sometimes yellow infection fluid, which left dark stains on the bandages. While Mrs. Raven was lying passively like a shot deer, we stood on both sides of her bed and I, being the screw jack, pulled on the sheet on which she lay, while Fem saw to it that she was kept steady and didn't tumble off the other side of the mattress. Then I turned her gently onto her left side, with her knees in a ninety-degree angle, and stuffed all the pillows back.
"Are you comfortable like this?" I asked, bending over so she could hear and see me well. But it was also the personal contact that I relished, which we were encouraged to cultivate, if time allowed. And the night shift allowed it.
Mrs. Raven nodded. "I think it should do," she said.
"Do you want any hot milk to try to ease you into sleep?"
"I'm afraid that's not going to work," she said. The slightest smile appeared on her lips. "I need something stronger. Much much stronger."
Fem said, looking up from the ledger: "You've already got your max medicines for the night, Ma'am. We can't get you any more. You know that, don't you?"
I smoothed the muslin napkin, to intercept her saliva, under her left cheek. It felt like a caress. Then I became aware that she was still staring up at me.
"I'll get you your milk," I said.
My boat shoes squeaked on the linoleum in the hallway that was dark and subdued. The basket with foil-wrapped eggs, red and blue and gold, on the countertop in the communal kitchen reminded me of the jolly Easter brunches in the magazine I had been perusing. I smiled when I remembered the piles of turquoise and yellow-colored eggs, finger sandwiches with soft cheese and pesto, and the smiling families taking part in the feast. Thinking of how a bedridden patient like Mrs. Raven wouldn't be able to be with her family, in her own environment, could bring me to the verge of tears. I was sure she was the kind of person, liberal and having only private faith, who put up a cute twig tree that in my family was called an abomination—together with the decorated eggs and bunnies, needless to say. Those last were only for consumption; no decoration needed.
As I walked back to the room holding the warm feeding cup I felt in a strange mood, best described perhaps as festive. Perhaps the hot milk was only a small thing and nothing like an Easter family celebration, but our job consisted of many small things—call them favors. In the end, I wanted to believe, they might just amount to something. If we gave Mrs. Raven affection, she wouldn't get better, but it gave her and us a more positive feeling. Not that I believed in positive feelings; my prayers were for real cure. Ah yes, I thought, my thoughts darkening, on my walk back through the dark hallway, with only my own steps echoing; I still had to speak to Fem about how she handled our patients. Why did she have to be so hard on Mrs. Raven who was easily our most helpless ward?
I found Fem behind her laptop again, this time checking Mrs. Raven's medicine.
Nervously, I began telling her: "Mrs. Raven doesn't like hot milk. It reminds her of when she was small and her parents forced her to drink unpasteurized milk every night. She said those were the post-war years and they didn't have lemonade then. Was she joking, you reck…?"
Fem interrupted me: "I don't get why you're so hot on Mrs. Raven, Stephie, it's as clear as lollipops that she doesn't like anything here and we can never please her. Whatever I do, I always get moaning and more moaning. For example, you saw those chocolate eggs, they have been lying there since yesterday. She says they're of inferior make, with a low cocoa percentage. What, does she think she is superior? In the state she's in? I hate that old sow. Wished she were gone already."
I took a deep breath. Now here was my chance of saying something more forceful, defend my view of things. "Well, I understand her," I began saying. "She just wants to go home, be with her children for the holiday. Isn't her son coming from abroad? Do you know when he's supposed to be here?"
I stared at Fem's back and I imagined she caught my hulking silhouette behind her reflecting in the laptop and, had she turned round, in the glittering black windows. I saw she had already prepared herself another cup of her charmed herbal tea, which was supposed to help her with her diet, and her new figure, she believed, would fetch her a new husband.
Fem finally did turn round to me. "You don't get it, do you? Your adorable oldie has filed for euthanasia and her son is coming to assist her."
My mouth fell open and tears welled to my eyes. "H-how? How do you know that?" I asked. "But she has only broken her leg."
"Since you are such a studier," Fem said with supreme sarcasm, "you may have stumbled upon the medical report from Admiraal de Ruyter Hospital where the trauma surgeon made a special note of the condition of her bone."
"I know," I said, shrugging, although I was only guessing. "It's broken in two places, that's what you mean? She's got a new metal plate along the length of her leg. Dr Gruyten explained to us that it would take time to heal and it…"
"It's not going to heal," said Fem.
"Why not?" I knew vaguely that there were situations, to do with osteoarthritis, arthrosis, osteoporosis and such nasty afflictions, that older people got. But it had never occurred to me that a person couldn't get better from them. And then, what did it mean when a person didn't get better? Fem seemed to know. It bothered me that she knew what it meant for Mrs. Raven and I didn't get it. I had heard the word euthanasia, but somehow, because I was principled against it and I was sure it was ungodly, it didn’t register.
Fem looked at me while her eyes were almost falling shut. She yawned. "Because," she said.
And that answer I did understand. Because. Things happened because the Lord wanted them, and that was that. He made my mother a spinning drunk, my father a blind adjudicator of rules, and Fem a vicious bitch. There wasn't much you could do against it. Defend yourself.
Mrs. Raven didn’t howl that morning at 6 A.M. when she called us, but there was a queer whimpering coming from her throat. I went there alone, since Fem didn’t get up. In fact, she didn't even open her eyes. She sat hunching in the only desk chair that had an armrest, and in that uncomfortable position, jawbone in hand, seemed to be trying to conjure up some sleep.
I tipped the light up again in Mrs. Raven's room. Outside, it was still pitch-black. When I picked up the milk cup, which had fallen on its side, I heard the whimper coming on, after a dry click.
"Hello, Mrs. Raven?" I said.
She scraped her throat a few times. "I can't find my paracetamol," she said. "The tray table is too high."
"Let me just clean up this mess first," I said and got a rag from the other, practically unused half of her room, that contained a sink and cupboards. Her wheelchair, which she had used before her fall, took up part of the room. In those first days, Yacintha had forced her to use her lunches in the sitting room, strapped in her wheelchair.
I came back with the rag and began to wipe. Due to the cup's smart spout, not much milk had spilt. I wiped the TV guide clean. Mrs. Raven read the VPRO's, the atheist, liberal broadcasting organization that created programs showcasing intellectual blasphemers who took themselves more seriously than God—that is what my father said. We didn't have TV at home, although a friend had once shown me a sketch from a satirical show on her phone that I just had to see, she said, but I couldn’t understand what the laugh was. I put the guide aside and its incomprehensible cover that showed a man in jeans taking a selfie with a soldier in WO II gear. It said, "Nicolaas on the warpath." All TV was nonsense, said Father. I had come to learn and respect, here at the nursing home, which did not adhere to any denomination, that there was a world of thought behind all kinds of alternative ideas and theories, but who had time for all that? Even with some schooling, I was still the dumb jack, but in my good moments I felt necessary. I picked up the saucer with the two chocolate eggs, which dripped with a trail of milk.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Raven said, "I didn’t mean to make a mess. The pill has to lie exactly behind the rim of the table. You see." She floated her hand. "Everything has to stand in a way that prevents them from rolling about, you see." Her talon fingers felt over the edge of the tray table. "The cup has to go between here. The glasses have to be next to them. The telephone. The remote control. And the pill receptor between them, see, held in place."
"I understand," I said. The little plastic cup had rolled to the back. "You were looking for this." I felt myself fluster when Mrs. Raven squinted her right eye to look at it.
"It's empty," she said. It sounded factual but I began to tremble.
"Yes," I said, trying to meet her hollow eye in the half dark, "I'm afraid so."
"Well, can I have more?"
"You'll have to wait until the morning," I said. I had spoken too softly for her to hear. "In the morning," I said loudly.
She raised her white head more. "Isn't it morning?" she asked. I thought I heard mocking.
"No, it's not. You’ve got, I mean, we've got at least two more hours until the morning team comes. They'll change your bandages and then you'll get all your medicine."
I wished I had Fem here. She would know what to say, even if it would be too rude for my taste, but she would say something that would, let's say, give Mrs. Raven enough of a reason to stop asking questions. Questions were of course welcome, it was just that I didn’t know how to answer them. Suddenly I got the urge to bolt from the room, race to Fem in the brightly lit office, and bellow that Mrs. Raven was impossible. I could just see her perk up; she'd receive me with open arms, I was certain of that. Instead I stayed. I had been trained for these situations; unfortunately, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say. I groped for a cue. If I said that Dr. Gruyten had instructed us to not exceed the allocated painkillers, then she got her answer, but what authority would I have then? But if I said she couldn’t have more than her daily dosage, I'd have to explain that she was at risk of killing herself. That subject, I thought, I had to avoid.
"Ah, you're no good either," murmured the voice of Mrs. Raven.
"I need to be turned again," said Mrs. Raven. Her voice was more highly pitched, a little bit like a drunk, when she added: "I am so uncomfortable. I just can't be in this position anymore."
I flinched. "I can't turn you alone. I'll see what I can do for you." It was exactly the reply I hadn't wanted to give, because it was dishonest.
Groggy because of the lack of sleep, and also because I still hadn't been able to get my word in about Fem's rudeness to Mrs. Raven, I went into the team meeting. We were in the sitting room of our wing, because at this hour no one was up yet and there were no visitors. We drank coffee, Fem her herbal tea. After the long night, I deserved a chocolate egg and carefully chose one with a yellow wrapper from the basket in the middle of the table. I hoped it was white chocolate but it was butterscotch, which wasn't my favourite due to the hard pieces of sugar inside that scraped my tongue.
Dr. Tomina Gruyten came in and everyone's attention went to her when she took a seat. She was affable but long-winded. I didn’t like her that much. It was as if her long eyelids forced her to look down, which made her appear skittish. She opened a binder in front of her but didn’t look at the page. Instead, she took a long breath before she told us that Mrs. Raven's chances at recuperation were close to zero percent and that she was sorry to tell us that she had successfully closed off the application to terminate her life, with the second independent physician, sent by the SCEN of the Support and Consultation with Euthanasia in the Netherlands, having seen her and confirmed her case justified and without reasonable hope. There were some gasps from the staff. I had trouble sitting there and listening to the rest of what she told us. Dr. Gruyten added that if it was difficult for us to care for her, she understood. I don’t know whether she said that for our benefit. What I didn't get was how she could seem so unaffected. How did she feel when placing a lethal drip? I felt awful when I imagined how Mrs. Raven would be lying there and she gave her arm to Dr. Gruyten to be put to sleep, and then receive the substance that would stop her heart. Would there be any family to hold her hand, maybe only the other hand that didn't have the tubes running down its length, because they were also scared?
"If you'd like to talk with me more about this subject of euthanasia, come to my room between four and five," she said. "I'm sorry we couldn't tell you earlier. I decided that you all would be notified when we knew where we were standing. We didn’t want to rumours to go round."
I thought of how Fem had already known, because she had hacked into the doctor's web pages. Should I tell anyone about that?
"Stephanie?" Dr. Gruyten asked.
I lifted my head. "What?" I said sheepishly.
"I just want to make sure you understand that Mrs. Raven deserves the best care?"
"Oh," I said. "I can’t this afternoon. I have school." After a nap, I was supposed to do the groceries. My mother was in bed after a bout of drinking, but officially she had the flu. Dr. Gruyten continued looking at me. "I intend to give Mrs. Raven the same excellent care as before, I mean before I knew she was going to die. Wanted to die."
Dr. Gruyten gave me a slight nod. It wasn’t what I needed at that moment; I wished someone would notice that I went the extra mile.
It was getting light outside and the staff around the table became visibly more lively. Hands that had been nursing hot mugs, stretched out and, under muffled giggling, chocolate eggs from the basket were tossed and passed around. All those sucking mouths created a fake sense of comfort.
I noticed that Fem had been fidgeting. Suddenly she blew up, addressing Dr. Gruyten: "Now that we're all allowed to know that she's dying, which was clear to anyone with eyes in their head, I hope you'll consider being less conservative with the painkillers. I say, make her quiet. She's being a torment for the team."
There was silence; the sucking sound had stopped.
Fem looked round at the colleagues. I didn’t see any eager faces ready to admit that they found Mrs. Raven bothersome. Towering next to Dr. Gruyten, Yacintha, a new shade of purple-brown in her hair, furtively glanced at me.
"She's been asking for pain relief, all the time." Fem spoke in a monotonous voice, sounding tired. "She's got a pain here, a pain there. She doesn't sleep a wink. Why not start her on morphine already? You know, she called us six times through the night."
"Five times actually." I had said it before I realized that might be stupid.
"Six times," said Fem. "Stephanie loves Mrs. Raven so much that she doesn't mind it when she is called to her room, and for what, for nothing at all. Because she dropped her phone, for god's sakes, which she doesn’t even know how to operate. And tonight she asked again for painkillers, although we had already told her that her dose was finished."
"It was five times. And twice you let me go alone."
"It was for nothing at all. Trivial stuff. Mere attention seeking."
"I'd like to see you, helpless in a bed, and you can't sleep from the pain."
"I'm embarrassed for you two," said Yacintha. "I know you're both upset, but cut it out now."
"I'm not upset," said Fem. "I'm perfectly calm. As far as I'm concerned, go ahead and kill her."
Dr. Gruyten's eyelids were down and her face was inscrutable as she ignored Fem's barb, and said: "Just to remind you, I make the medical decisions here. And I will increase her sedation and start her on regular morphine. You will give her morphine whenever she asks for it, up to six times a day, each time 5 mg. The reason I haven’t given it to her earlier is because Mrs. Raven maintained she was allergic to morphine. With the help of her son, I was able to convince her."
Yacintha chimed in: "I am glad we are able to provide comfort care of the highest level with such a competent team."
Fem said: "Dead but comfortable."
Dr. Gruyten again didn't react, and I respected her for that. To my dismay, the other team members were whispering and smirking. The last of the chocolate was swallowed. I knew they were laughing at Fem, as much as at me, maybe more, but that didn’t help. It was still humiliating to know that they reserved their special derision for the night shifters. We weren't the top of the crop, but the lowest, at the bottom of the hierarchy. I felt completely alone.
In the hallway, on my way to get my coat, I walked miserably one step behind Fem, when a good-looking man scooted around the corner, moving much faster than the average person. He took off his puffy bicycle mitten to shake Fem's hand.
"How are you, Bastiaan?" she asked.
He introduced himself to me. "Bastiaan Raven."
"This is my loyal sidekick Stephanie."
He nodded to me. I was the kind of person you nodded to, but I was okay with that.
I wanted to keep walking, but Fem hung on. Only then I realized that she knew him already. I strained to be involved in their small talk, but Fem handled it on her own.
"How is my mother?" Bastiaan asked, baring his teeth politely as if he asked about how a child was doing in school.
"She is well under the circumstances. A slight temperature, but nothing to worry about. She eats well, she drinks well and she urinates well."
"Oh okay," he said.
I found no resemblance between him and Mrs. Raven. He seemed a positive figure, easy to smile.
I noticed he was sweating. His cheeks were shiny, and there was a layer of moisture in his neck that was suntanned.
"You are dressed like you're in Austria. It must be a lot colder there," Fem said, smiling collusively.
Austria, I wondered, what did that have to do with anything?
"Actually not," answered Bastiaan, as if he'd been asked a normal question. "Up on the mountain it can be chilly, but this time of year is sunny. My students peel off their suits during lunch and bask in their bathing suits."
"You don't do that then?" asked Fem, her eyes roving over his upper body.
"Not in front of my students. You've got to at least present them a semblance of respectability. I find that works best."
Fem cracked up and cried: "Yeah. Sure does!"
I didn’t understand what she got so excited about. I was ashamed of her, but Bastiaan seemed to take to her.
All week I was busy trying to work through the impending loss of Mrs. Raven—I should say her planned death. Whatever I did, I couldn’t get used to the idea that she had her appointment with death exactly at 5 P.M. on Friday afternoon, after Dr. Gruyten would finish her consultations.
I imagined I saw right through her. When Mrs. Raven was bitchy, and I had to admit that she wasn't always friendly, it didn't bother me. It wasn't personal; it was her pain. She scolded me when she couldn't read her newspaper because she was unable to hold it, or when the remote control skidded away. There were a thousand things that worked against her. But she did have friends and family for visits, I heard, and many dropped by in the last week. The team wouldn’t stop talking about how good it was that Mrs. Raven had visitors, and Mrs. Raven told me she was exhausted having to entertain all those people. If she realized they wanted to say goodbye to her, she didn’t find it worthy of mention. She grew less tired of her son, although she did send him away before dinner. The team couldn’t stop talking about Bastiaan Raven. Apparently the attractive ski instructor, who lived in Austria, had made a few hearts aflutter. Fem said he was devastating; he was an avalanche. So eager was she to start up with him, that on Tuesday, when we were working during the day, I caught her running around with an extra cup of coffee, and she made sure the volunteer who fetched fish from the fishmonger brought an extra baked fish for Bastiaan's lunch. She stopped Bastiaan for chitchat on his way to the loo. During lunch time she marched into Mrs. Raven's room asking whether her visitor was interested in the leftovers from lunch—and that was after the fish. I didn't make much of him myself, besides agreeing that he looked like an insurance poster. He was too old for me.
Later that day, when Yacintha and I were turning Mrs. Raven onto her other side, he told us anecdotes about the people he taught who broke their legs on the ski slopes.
"Those folks who splint a limb in the snow are far worse off than you," he told his mum, who kept peering at the window that was nicely filled with potted plants and a few bulbs; there was a sense of wonder about her that I hadn't seen before.
"Why?" she said.
Bastiaan approached the bed, where he brought the bed back to its height with the remote control. He grinned at me when he said: "Because they're having their holidays ruined."
I thought to myself how Fem would have loved that joke, because it had just the right degree of insensitivity. A strange noise made me look down: Mrs. Raven was chortling.
The next evening, on Wednesday, just two days short of Mrs. Raven's planned euthanasia, a sudden fever attacked her. Perhaps a stroke, Dr. Gruyten later would say. Perhaps she had one already on Sunday, when she fell asleep spontaneously after her morning visitor went away.
Seeing that Dr. Gruyten had ramped up her morphine to six times a day, we weren't especially alarmed that she drifted in and out of sleep for hours on end. Bastiaan had retired back to town early, dashing off in his puffer jacket and biking mittens, because he couldn’t communicate with her. Her cleaning lady had come during teatime and had remarked that she felt that Mrs. Raven, though recognizing her, hadn’t felt lucid.
"I think you should come," I told Fem that night, buzzing her on her personal device.
She began protesting. I could just see her behind her laptop, hacking away. I stayed firm. In the end she came, and for once she had nothing to say besides the practical stuff.
During the next hours, I sat with Mrs. Raven, who was finally asleep. From her unnatural breathing, brittle and halting, I knew it wasn't normal sleep. I administered her dosage of morphine at 4 A.M.
When Fem scuttled in the next time, I was holding Mrs. Raven's hand. Fem's lips were flat again; I recognized them from her other times she was driven by the need for vengeance.
"Do you think we should phone Bastiaan?"
She squinted at her watch, and I could see the cogs and bolts working in her brain.
"It's too early," she said. She sat down on the other side of the bed, and started swiping through her phone.
I got so tired that once or twice I almost contacted the sandpapery hand on my cheek. In reality, that hand was soft and giving. Her breaths came further apart, until at last they became such an impossibly big gulp, I was afraid she would take in the whole room with her, swallow me, my family, our home and our church and all those creeds and beliefs she'd rather not associate with. I had no illusions she was moving to a place of rest. A woman of quality like Mrs. Raven did not believe in that, and if she had, she would have found the place sub-standard. But of one thing I was glad: with a bit of luck, her son wouldn’t have to see her die, or worse, had to witness being helped to go when she was fully conscious. As far as I understood, no one else in her circle of friends or family had volunteered to be present. Thank the Lord it hadn’t come to that.
"We do have to call Bastiaan now. She's going," I said.
Fem hardly stirred.
Then suddenly I was straining to hear another breath, but there hadn't been one for a minute or so. I held Mrs. Raven's warm fingers, thinking this must be the cutoff moment, but the only thing I knew was that everything was still the same, although I felt no longer afraid.
Fem got up to leave the room. "Cheerio, old bag," I thought I heard her say.
Her son came early that morning to make the arrangements. Dr. Gruyten had instructed him to wait for the coroner, who had to examine her, as Mrs. Raven's death wasn’t natural. After all, she had been hospitalized with a broken leg and people don't usually die from that.
We showed Bastiaan, who hadn't shaved, into the room. He remained standing and rifled through the drawers of her tray table. Then he picked up the feeder cup half filled with milk, and peered in it as if it were a telescope. He seemed helpless like a boy, trying to orient himself in a new world.
Fem said, lying through her teeth: "We made your mum hot milk sometimes. To make her bones strong."
Bastiaan said: "She said that to me when she forced me to drink milk. I suspect she even believed it. She was born in the hunger winter, you know." He eyed me, but I wasn’t sure which winter he was referring to. I looked around the curtain at the magnolia tree in the courtyard, still hardly showing any buds. It was raining softly. Easter was around the corner. "She had terrible teeth as well as marshmallow bones. Only those in her skull were as hard and stubborn as ingrown toenails. I loathe milk myself. I used to pour it out in the potted plants."
He muttered a few more things that went through me like an early spring shower. Finally he sat down.