'Next To Nothing', by Brendan Maclean

Photograph courtesy Brendan Maclean

Shivering, peering through his long tanned legs to the shoreline, I stood in the chilled shallow water. The whitewash hit my back and I was knocked forward. Taking in a large mouthful of ocean, salty and overwhelming, I thrashed and coughed it out and cried. I remember then hearing the sound of my own voice screaming, and then two arms lifted me up to a large smiling face when I heard a deeper voice say, “You won’t fall down if you watch it coming.”

“Eh! He looks funny without his cap on,” a passerby said of my grandfather, so we fixed it on him and switched off the bathroom light, he’d hated it.

“What are they pumping into him?” I asked.

“That’ll just be oxygen,” Dad replied.

“Shouldn’t they be giving him water too?”

“Nah. Doesn’t need that now.”

To be honest, there was something easier about this, with Granddad in a catatonic state. Easier than our family dinners at which we hardly said a word:

“What was on telly today Poppy?” Fascinating.

“Where did you used to deliver the bread?”

Or perhaps the only time I felt more mate than grandson:

“Another wine?” He’d decline. “Come on, one more!”

There’s a pride that comes with making a grandfather laugh, but that required risk and effort, and I’m a coward. Part of me hoped he would hurry up and die, before waking to ask if I was still seeing that friend in Melbourne.

My father, Mark, had driven four hours back from the coast, having taken a single evening off to attend a friend’s birthday party. My aunt, Cam, having not had a holiday in just as long, was on a plane back to Sydney from Queensland within an hour of receiving the news.

My grandfather, Duncan or Poppy, had a stroke in his sleep and was found by the nursing home night staff, eyes rolling in his head, mouth agape.

Over the course of the day, each of us took turns projecting upon him reactions to our words. A wriggling finger or a spasm in his foot was proof enough he was conscious, but this was a comfort lie, like telling yourself it’s fine to smoke the entire pack because they’re menthols. His eyes were open but he saw nothing.

Poppy’s death would be the first significant ending of my life. It would take place four and a half hours after we arrived. Not long in the grand scheme, though, with his passing described as “inevitable" but “unplaceable” time passed in flux. One hour skipped by in a few beats while others waned and struggled like an ancient elephant being swallowed by quicksand. We opened a window. We closed the window. We turned on the TV. We turned it off.

Poppy’s death would be the first significant ending of my life.

My sister, Danni or Danielle-but-no-one-ever-calls-me-that Maclean, picked me up from home soon after she got the call. We pulled in at McDonald’s on the way, but didn’t really talk about what was about to happen. I told her about some guy who was still in my bed and had refused to leave. She was quietly panicking about a university exam. She swore endlessly on the drive. Danni, as a teenager, had once kicked our step-dad so hard in the shins that she split his leg open and he had to get stitches. She’d never been good at these kind of things.

It was at this point Danni decided to hold a kind of lecture. Standing by the head of the hospital bed with her notebook and reading glasses on, she started jovially asking Poppy a series of questions and inviting him to explain his answers to the rest of class.

“That’s right, Poppy! Salinisation does mean there is too much sodium in the soil. Well done.”

I’d always played the grown up better than her, but today my game was off. Maybe it was the glasses? I’d never seen her in them. It gave her an effortless sense of authority and allowed her that fabulous motion bespectacled teachers often apply: biting the stem of their accessory mid-quandary, to then purposefully jut it out of their mouth, pinning the answer in the air to punctuate a notion of, “Yes! That! That is the answer.”

Somewhere between her driving to the hospital while I had no license, and her studying agriculture while I attempted to remove leftover eyeliner, I didn’t feel very adult at all.

After the lesson concluded, Dad leaned over to Poppy and said something off-putting. Well – and let me get this right – it wasn’t so much what he said, but his tone. You see, what little was said was spoken with such muted calm that had someone walked in at just that moment they might have believed nothing whatsoever was wrong. That, in fact, we were all simply waiting to eat recently delivered Thai and my aunt was holding us up.

“Hang on Dad, Cam will be here soon.”

It might seem odd to say, but it was only then, when my Dad called this other man “Dad”, that it struck me that the dying human on the table was indeed my father’s father. And it made me wonder: now that his branch was at the top of the mortal family tree would some new heavy responsibility land on his shoulders? Or perhaps quite the opposite? Perhaps one particular uncomfortable weight would be lifted –without my father’s hands having to strain underneath it as support or pull up its pants or dispose of another bottle of its unidentified yellow liquid from under the bed.

Cam arrived half an hour later, wearing black opaque glasses that failed to do their job. She hugged each one of us: passing by Sarah to hold my father (her brother) first, my sister second, then myself and finally returning to Sarah. She then took her place by the bed, completing the small chain of the Maclean family.

“Hey mate,” she whispered to Poppy.

Had she not attended Poppy’s final hours I’m not sure anyone would have said anything at all.

Sarah is my stepmother. An anxious talker who can often be counted on to fill silences with facts, plans or advice. I think it’s nerves, and whether psychosomatic or otherwise, it often makes her physically or emotionally sick. I wondered how acutely the thought of being the only one present not to be born with the surname of the man dying pressed on her. She took “Maclean” from my father over a decade ago, but wasn’t the first woman to do so. I’ve never called her my mother but as a boy I remember calling her “My Sarah”. She cared for my granddad with love and respect. When he moved into my dad’s house years before, Sarah would clean the messes he’d make in the lounge room, wash his clothes and offer to cook for him every night though he always refused, opting instead for Meals on Wheels – stubborn bastard. I was glad she was there today; we Macleans aren’t exactly known for our conversation in crisis. Had she not attended Poppy’s final hours I’m not sure anyone would have said anything at all.

His breath slowed over the course of the day. The gurgling stopped after an injection, which the nurse said was “purely for our own comfort”.

Photograph courtesy Brendan Maclean

Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, forty-five seconds, a minute between breaths.

As hours passed our legs began to wobble and buckle from standing. We leaned on each other for comfort. Shoulders meeting, heads bowing down. Cam squeezed my hand under the bed and I fixed my posture. We stayed standing despite the plastic seats on offer. It was all we could do to share his discomfort, and he was uncomfortable. He was in so much pain and had been for so long: sores and infections and surgeries to fix things caused by other surgeries caused by laziness and beer and a general sense that all he had needed to do had been done.

We hovered tight over his once gargantuan body like an archway, swaying with the nodding of his brow. It was rhythmic, a dance. We were dancers choreographed to the very heavy beats of his breath. We pressed inwards and down, staring, waiting for breath to arrive. We were reeled in by each new inhalation only to be thrown by his desperate exhalation. Tossed away and heaved towards him once more… pushed… drawn… repelled then drawn closer… and closer… and then… then…

“Let go mate. It’s alright. You can let go,” said Cam,

Then.

Poppy died within an hour of my aunt arriving, maybe a little more, but not much. Someone said later it would’ve been around his bedtime.

Dad hit a small button on the wall, it didn’t stir any great reaction or alarm. The lack of action or doctors rushing in shouting, “Clear!” and “Stat!” and zapping him with electricity or pumping him with adrenaline was a kind of bitter anti-climax. When he did die, it was without theatre or emergency, just a silent push of a glowing orange dot.

Each of us praised the late Duncan for his brave fight and thanked him for waiting. Sarah reached out her hand out and said, “A true gentleman.” It was awkward, but everything was.

A young nurse in an black uniform eventually entered.

“Hello Sister,” my father said.

She touched Poppy’s neck, then his wrist. “He’s gone.”

She put her hand in front of his mouth and then took it away.

“He’s gone,” she repeated and then added, “I’m sorry.”

The nurse pulled the bed sheet to his chin and left the room. I thought she did her job perfectly, her voice warm and gentle with an official tone one might require when marking the end of a person’s entire life.

It was like talking to a dog that you love but know doesn’t understand you.

It was surprising how much we kept talking to him after, but it felt natural. It was like talking to a dog that you love but know doesn’t understand you. The only difference, I suppose, is Poppy once did. I remember saying, “I’m just gonna use your bathroom Poppy. Hope you don’t mind!” And if I think about it, he probably would have minded if he was there. But that’s just it, isn’t it? He wasn’t there anymore.

Danni needed to go study.

Sarah offered to drive me home.

Dad called to let his mother know.

Cam stayed until the nurse came to change Poppy’s pyjamas.

I tried to think of something thoughtful to say but came up empty. I approached the bed and bent over to hug him. The compression forced a strange wheeze to escape from his body, like a wine bladder being exhausted of its final dregs. It was embarrassing and I was startled, but Cam and Danni laughed and so did Dad, so eventually I laughed too and I wasn’t embarrassed anymore.

“Sorry mate.”

Releasing his body I rested a hand on one of his big arms.

“Um… ”

I held on a moment longer. His arm felt like wet clay, stripped of colour and heat: the arm of a man who once steered horses through dirt streets and lifted supplies to warplanes, that stirred the vats of a beloved local bakery, embraced lovers, guarded companions and, securely with the other, cradled two children with utter adoration and two grandchildren with pride. The arm of a man who waved goodbye to a wife he would never stop caring for and hello to countless friends who cared for him in return – friends who would not forget him, friends who would soon laugh and smile once again, telling his stories and remembering him well.

I let go.

“Bye Poppy. Thank you.”

Brendan Maclean is a musician, actor, and radio announcer.