You are not your illness.
The girls left a heady brew of perfume behind. I poured Etian some water and he was well enough to sit up in bed and sip it. He began coughing and his eyes watered, but he smiled even as I could see he was in pain.
I guess I added to it, with my harsh words. ‘Why do you do that? Make a mockery of our faith, the Jewish faith your father died for? Behave like a goyish king giving favours. That can cure by royal touch. And you make them bend their head for a blessing. Put your hand on unbelievers. This kind of piety is not part of our Jewish vocabulary.
‘Samuel, Samuel,’ he said. ‘You are jealous. And jealousy is a human trait we both know well. We both dined on in the camps. Did not our fathers and grandfathers hold out their hand in blessing, and seek to hide their children from the cruelty of the gas chamber?’
‘I thought I knew you, but there’s a Glasgow expression: “You’ve got above yourself”. They are not children. I don’t know how you get those prostitutes to act that way—all gooey!’
‘We are all children, Samuel.’
‘How do I make them? I don’t make them do anything—I listen. And Samuel, don’t you think you might have things around the wrong way? They bless me, with their presence, with their concern in the same way you do.’
A buxom young nurse bustled into the room. As she approached the bed, all business, I stood to the side, behind the chair.
‘You want me to leave?’ I asked her.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘This won’t take a jiffy. We’ll just take a blood sample, and get your treatment started…if you just roll up your sleeve, you might feel a little tickle.’
The syringe and sample bottles were in her hand. She was unwinding the cuff, ready to put it around his arm and inflate it.
Etian waved his left hand at her. ‘We’re finished with all that.’
The seriousness of the expression on her face made us both smile at one another.
‘End of life care,’ he said, and lifted his eyebrows and nodded.
The bottles in her hand clinked together, and all the air seemed to go out of her. But she brazened it out, while talking in a high-pitched voice as if to a child. ‘No more spewing. All you need to worry about now, is when you’re next meal is, and when you’re going to get hame?’
‘He’s not got a home,’ I spoke on his behalf.
‘Oh,’ we watched her frowning. ‘I could get you a social worker.’
‘Don’t bother,’ I said. ‘He’s coming to stay with us.’
She put a hand on my shoulder. The lightest squeeze and a tight smile.
‘No, I’m not,’ he struggled up out of the bed clothes. ‘Can you imagine me and your wife, your pregnant wife with morning sickness, fighting to be first to use the toilet in the morning? And me coughing and spewing and resting my head on the coolness of the sink before returning to spew some more?’
‘No,’ I admitted.
The nurse slipped away, while we argued.
‘Cancer makes you someone else,’ he said. ‘People change. Look at you differently. And keep their distance—afraid it’s contagious, I’m contagious. But you came to help, got closer. We’ve got closer— I’ve had so much of life. And I’m grateful. Life is for the living, Samuel, let go. I’ve got terminal cancer.’
I folded my arms. ‘Who said it was terminal?’
He wheezed into his hand and a spot of blood showed between his fingers. I looked around for something to wipe them with. A cardboard hat, used for sputum and some hankies.
‘You were the best of us,’ I cleaned between his fingers and helped him lie more comfortably.
‘Fear is contagious,’ I was conscious of how difficult he was finding it to breath and talk. ‘You remember Muselmann. And how we feared them? Conscious there was nothing between us running into the electrified wire and their passive acceptance of death.’
‘I remember them,’ I said.
‘No, you don’t, or you’d remember us locked together. Muselmann. Because that was us.’
He coughed and kept coughing. The blood between his fingers grew and I tried to prop him up. I looked for some kind of bell or buzzer, but I couldn’t think.
‘Shalom Samuel,’ he rasped, blood spouting onto the hospital corners.
I was shivering and frozen. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t catch my breath. Patients on both sides, watching me pass them.
‘Nurse!’ I was yelling. ‘Nurse!’
The rhythm of my feet slapped my ears like a schoolboy slipping and sliding on a wet floor. My head rung. And my heart marched ahead of me, racing, running. The ache in my chest grew spider arms and legs. And I was falling…falling into the wire.