At the deathbed of a rich old man, his family observes his gradual decline.
Randolph Bannister has always been a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, but a few days ago, coming out of the anaesthetic after his last operation (a relatively simple procedure to relieve a bowel obstruction) he became nostalgic, apparently benign. If only he had been that easygoing when he raised them, perhaps life would have been … more enjoyable, although perhaps it would not have been so rich.
So think his various children, none of them children any more, except in the hopeless helpless way of being hostages to this parent, this tyrant. They have all shaped their lives to his wishes for so long that they are helpless in the face of his happy memories.
No, it wasn’t like that, they want to say, but dare not.
Anyway, it is just a phase, in a dying full of phases. Perhaps today is a new phase. There is something about the deportment of the medical team that seems to say so. The hustle and bustle of expensive medical attention has somewhat declined. There have been false alarms, at times, but now it has become accepted that the situation is imminently terminal, and this is not false and not apparently alarming. Drugs have been reduced to the simply palliative. What can be done has been done — symphonically, heroically, macabrely. Mr Randy Bannister has had excisions, stereotactically directed irradiations and seventeen different oncotherapeutic regimens. Organs have been swapped in. His blood has been replaced more than once in a complex exchange that made him for three months the soft wet centre of a haematology lab. Small third world children have given up tissues and juices for him. An international brigade of specialists have put their lives on hold for him. There is nothing they would rather do than squeeze another year of life out of the body of the famous mogul, but all vitality has been extracted. The remaining kidney (technically kidney number four in a series) is necrotising, and would have been removed already except that the patient would certainly not survive further surgery. As of this morning, there is a complete absence of liver function. Tick tock, tick tock.
Randy Randolph himself has apparently agreed that there is nothing more to be done. His lawyers and his doctors’ lawyers have agreed that they have heard that he has agreed that there is nothing more to be done.
His children can easily accept that there is nothing more to be done. They have been watching, with growing incredulity, the Frankensteinian progress of his medical care over the last two years, the longest two years of their lives.
Please let there be nothing more that can be done.
Yet: they cannot believe for one moment that their father would accept this fact. They have heard him say “I’ve had enough”, but they know that their father would never say that. He is no longer in his right mind, that is all those words can mean. But there is nothing to be done about that either. So no arguments there. There is nothing more that can be done for the great man, Mr Bannister.
The various pumps and lines continue to pump and transport. They have to be allowed to continue. Anything else would be torture. The man is still conscious, still able to speak on the exhalation phase of the respirator. The plan, which has scarcely been put into words, but which is understood by most of those present, is to increase doses of pain relief until all pain is definitively relieved.
Those present in the medical suite with Mr Randy Bannister near the time of his death:
Randolph’s eldest son, Michael, and his wife, Annaliese.
His eldest daughter, Hazel, and her husband, Gaston.
His third daughter, Tessa.
His fourth son, Ziggy, known as Alex.
His mistress, Zanetta.
His personal assistant, Corinne.
His fifth (which is to say current) wife, Astrid.
His greatgrandson Atticus, and Atticus’s carer, Li Na.
One of his accountants, and an old friend, Lonny.
One of his lawyers, Emily.
Mr Simon Winetrott, a senior partner in a major international law firm, attending to represent a coalition of shareholders.
Dr Henry Tzou, Palliative Care Specialist.
Dr Hilary Chou, Cardiologist.
Dr Nathan Hough, Oncologist.
Dr Mathew Ho, Palliative Care Registrar.
Dr Charlene Catchlove, Cardiology Registrar.
Dr Harlan Lovitch, Oncology Registrar.
Dr Ivan Petkovich, Resident Medical Officer.
Dr Peter Ivanic, Resident Medical Officer.
Dr Helen Chow, Intern.
Three nurses: Betty, Angela, Megan.
The nursing unit manager, Sandra.
Greg Platter, IT Specialist.
John Brown, Security Manager.
Cal Jefferson, Security Officer.
It would be worthwhile knowing more about all these people, as they are all destined to continue after the demise of Randy Randolph Bannister, and even the least of them will impress themselves upon the fates of the others in one way or another — perhaps delicately, like a soft brush applying watercolour, but in some instances with a redefining forcefulness, like the strokes of a sculptor’s chisel.
Not that all these people are gathered at the bedside — an impossibility even in the generous room commandeered for Randy in the luxurious private hospital that is hosting his last days. You have to imagine that here is Randy’s room, and outside the room a nurses’ station, and beyond that a waiting room and a consulting room, and beyond that a reception desk fronting yet another waiting area, not to mention a consort of bathrooms, a server room, an imaging booth, a kitchenette, a dispensary, and so on, all conveniently located where they will be most useful. You have to realise that the people listed above are scattered about this vast medical suite in an order appropriate to their station, coming and going (not Randolph, obviously) in the order dictated by propriety — except that Tessa, (third daughter, spoilt princess, forty-eight-year-old child) has no sense of the situation, and comes and goes as it suits her, causing all sorts of offence to which she is either oblivious or consciously pugnacious, and that Helen Chow (the intern) is able to intrude where not intended by standing, observant but unobserved, behind the shoulder of Dr Ho when he stands behind the shoulder of Dr Tzou.
Thus, during the long months of this final hospitalisation of the Bannister, security guard Cal Jefferson has at no time entered further than the reception desk, where he turns and faces the lift doors that might open to reveal unwanted guests. His manager, John Brown, spends most of his days in a little annex to the nurses’ station, except when he goes on security prowls to every boring corner of that floor of the building. Astrid (the current wife, don’t forget) spends most of her waking hours doggedly seated at Randy’s bedside, except when Michael or Hazel force her to retire out of feigned concern for her welfare, or when the lawyers or doctors or other professionals insist on some time alone with the great man. Zanetta (mistress) does very much the same thing, and probably for more or less the same reasons as Astrid. The others are constant visitors in a lesser degree, except for Megan (nurse, insignificant), who is on her first shift with Mr Bannister, having only passed the security interview the day before, Alex (Ziggy), who has only visited once before, and Atticus and Li Na, who are making their only visit, part of a cycle of greatgrandchildly visits organised by Randy’s niece, Bethany.
Bethany herself is not there that day, and neither are many others, too numerous to mention, who have come in the days before or who are planning fruitlessly to come in the days after. We should spare a thought, too, for the small crowd stuck on the ground floor of the hospital, unable to make their way past general reception to the private lifts, some instructed to wait, some instructed to depart but waiting nonetheless, in the cheerless comfort of the hospital halls, or purchasing insipid and expensive coffee in the cafeteria. They are like petitioners to a feudal lord, hoping for a payment, a dispensation, an interview, a picture, an apology, a bequest. They wait in vain.
To be precise, at the final hour, Randolph’s eldest son, Michael, and his wife, Annaliese, are seated on steel framed chairs lined up at Randy’s right hand. Michael is distressed by the monitor poised above his left ear, which whispers an insidious stream of syncopated pings. Against his will, his gaze returns persistently to the catheter taped into a distended vein on the back of his father’s hand. He seems only to be able to distract himself from this by finding other horrors: the bag of fluid hanging below the bed, the yellow crusts around his father’s nostrils, the beige edge of Zanetta’s slip showing below her skirt and above the waxen pallor of her crossed knees.
Zanetta is perched on the padded arm of a motorised hospital armchair on Randy’s left. She looks simultaneously victorious and uncomfortable, reaching out in an unnatural manner to place a white hand on the pillow next to Randy’s head. Astrid is seated in the chair, with a face like a woman smelling a bad smell. Zanetta has only just come in. She is asserting her right to greet Randy, but it is only a matter of time before Astrid will say something to drive her away.
On the other arm of the chair, great-grandson Atticus is held in place by his nanny, Li Na. He is six years old and could balance on his own, but the situation threatens to outrun his composure and he does not shrug off Li Na’s solicitous claws. The pretty woman in the chair began by greeting him sweetly, but turned sour when the other one came along. The room is full of people, and normally people make a fuss of him, but they are performing badly. The greatgrandfather is especially disappointing. Prompted by Li Na, Atticus speaks up:
Hello, great granpa, I hope you are getting better.
Holly? Holly? Is that you Holly?
The great grandfather’s eyes are watery and sightless.
Nobody seems to know and they do not care to find out.
Li Na says: Mr Bannister, it is your great grandson, Atticus.
It’s Atticus, says Annaliese (if the bloody nanny is going to speak, Annaliese is going to speak), and also Corinne (personal assistant, suffering acutely from relevance deprivation). Corinne stands at the foot of the bed with Dr Tzou and Dr Ho and Dr Chow and nurse Megan. Behind them sits Lonny (old friend, remember), trying to find his phone.
Next to Li Na, Hazel (eldest daughter) sits in another one of those uncomfortable steel frame chairs. Hazel can still feel the warmth of Gaston’s hands on her shoulders, but he has gone from behind her to find a toilet, so that concludes the bedside party. In fifteen minutes, most of them will rotate to the waiting room, and a fresh squad of wellwishers will creep in. Or perhaps Dr Tzou will make everyone go away. He considers it, but there is a necessary interval while they wait for the patient to finish speaking.
Randy Bannister’s mouth opens and closes soundlessly for a while. Alarmingly, he arches, tips his head back, and the tongue protudes during a dry cough.
Dr Hough shows Dr Tzou some figures. Consciousness is a bit of a miracle really. While this is true in general, what Dr Tzou is thinking is that in the case of Mr Bannister it is a miracle of miracles.
Dr Tzou waves the chart away and waits.
Come here, boy, Randolph says to the ceiling. Atticus leans forward, arms out obediently.
Come here Rastus.
Michael says: Rastus was our dog.
He sounds shocked. He is shocked. He would never have expected Randy to remember Rastus, a melancholic hound, desperate for any affection, who lived in a kennel next to the swimming pool pump. He remembers Rastus now, although he hasn’t thought of Rastus in years. Rastus belonged to the ancient time when Randy Bannister was more or less an ordinary businessman, no more successful than any other eastern suburbs entrepreneur.
That’s a boy Rastus.
Randy appears to be delirious. His hands stumble over the bedsheets, perhaps patting a dog.
Hazel is concerned. What have you given him?
Nothing in the last ten minutes.
What should you give him?
Go getchem! … Titzer! Titzer!
Astrid thrusts herself forward, elbowing Zanetta, who is forced to stand and then retreat slightly, if only to keep her balance.
Titzer was our bitzer, Astrid says. She hadn’t realised that Titzer meant anything to Randy.
Michael titters: Titzer!
But the thought also crosses his mind: why wasn’t Rastus good enough?
He might as well ask — he does ask — why dogs?
Randy is playing with his dogs. Not much of what he says is intelligible.
Good dog, come on boy.
Under the sheets, the stumps of his legs twitch back and forth.
Give him something! — this from Corinne, the person in the room showing the most emotional distress.
He’s not uncomfortable, Dr Tzou pronounces, intrigued.
Randy Bannister appears to be smiling as he plays with Rastus and Titzer. They are running about and coming back for pats on the head.
I’ve never seen him like this, Astrid says, and the others blurt out their agreement. What she means (what the others may mean also) is that she has never seen a look of innocent pleasure on Randolph’s face. Lonny puts down his phone and pushes up through the doctors to see.
Say goodbye to great granpa, Li Na says to Atticus, and she begins to pull him away, which is not difficult, as he wants to leave. He is near the door before the next thing happens.
Randy Bannister cries out in pain.
Intern Helen Chow (first do no harm) turns and herds Li Na and the boy out of the room.
Ow! Rastus! Down! Titzer! No!
Everyone else can see that the dogs have leapt onto Randolph and are tearing at his body. It is the most extraordinary pantomime, an electrifying performance. Terror and agony are in the Bannister’s eyes. Megan (nurse) and Dr Ho spring forward. Tzou shouts instructions and looks at his watch. A last thrashing-about takes place before anything can be done. There is nothing to be done. Tessa (third daughter) forces her way into the room.
What’s happening? Tessa calls out, but no-one turns to look at her. There might even be the slightest turning of backs to close out her last view of her Daddy.
Meanwhile, Randolph shakes his head. He is amazed, saddened, disbelieving. The pain of disembowelment is sharp but already fading. At the last his face takes on a bewildered look of horror.
No, Rastus; no, Titzer …
Michael finds himself standing over his father, staring into his father’s eyes as the last light fades out of them, and there is no connection there. There is nothing left but the incomprehensible smell of dog.