HANNAH BURDETT – NORTH WEST
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS
It happened how it always seems to happen. Jack was on his motorbike one day and an inattentive driver didn’t notice him approaching from behind. The car came just a little too close, and that was enough to send his bike skidding. His mother was the one to call me. It was one of those moments, like 9/11 or Princess Diana’s death. I was on a break at work, avoiding a sleazy customer who had stared at my breasts whilst I took his order. The smell of tobacco and stale tequila lingered around him, hidden by breath mints. The sickly-sweet smell had made my head spin. My phone started buzzing in my apron, and I winced when I saw it was his mother calling.
“Julie? It’s Carol.” I went to reply, but she continued without a pause. “I think you’d better sit down.”
“What’s happened?” I asked, on edge.
“It’s Jack. He’s had a crash on his motorbike. He was taken to hospital; there’s doctors rushing about but no one will tell us anything. They won’t let us see him, so you might as well-”
“I’ll talk to my manager.” I cut her off and hung up the phone. I knew she didn’t want me there – but he did. I went inside to find my manager.
“Frank, Jack’s had an accident, he’s in hospital.”
“What? Julie, I’m so sorry.”
“Is it okay if I leave early to see him?”
“Of course – take tomorrow too. Just let me know when you know what’s going on. I hope everything’s okay.”
“Thanks.” I said, and rushed to get my coat and bag. I left the restaurant and started running, heading for the taxi rank a couple of streets from where I work. I’d used them when Chris couldn’t come pick me up on his motorbike. He did most days though – he was supposed to that day. I opened the door and stumbled inside.
“I need a taxi to the hospital, as soon as possible please.” I managed, and burst into tears. They didn’t ask questions, but had a taxi ready for me almost immediately. I was handed some tissues and bundled into the passenger seat. I remember that journey so clearly. I didn’t know if he was going to be alive or dead by time I got there. Over and over in my head, I went through a hundred different things I could say to him. How do you say goodbye?
It’s been two years and I still don’t know how to answer that question. If anything, it’s only become more difficult. The Doctors told us that if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, the impact would have killed him instantly. Sometimes I wonder if that wouldn’t have been a mercy. After a few days it became apparent that he was unlikely to wake up any time soon. At that point, an unfortunate Doctor was set the task of explaining it to the next of kin. Jack’s mother has never been fond of me, but when we were called into the consultation room that day she was too distressed to object to my presence. Greg, Jack’s father, sat between us and held our hands; for which I shall always be grateful.
The doctor told us that Jack had been officially diagnosed with a disorder of consciousness, of which there are several kinds. Jack had chronic comatose, and was unable to respond normally to any of the usual stimuli, such as sound, light and pain. Two areas of the brain are required to maintain consciousness; the cerebral cortex and the Reticular Activating System. As Jack was unconscious, it was likely that there was at least partial damage to one of those areas. We were told that if he woke up, he could be brain damaged. He was still able to breathe, so he wasn’t hooked up to a ventilator, but there was one nearby; just in case. The next step now that he was stable, the doctor said, was to start performing CT scans and responsiveness tests to look for any signs of consciousness. As we left the room, Carol looked me right in the eye and smiled. Her hand wavered for a moment, and then she placed it on my arm. I’d never seen her look scared. For some reason she decided to include me that day. If it had been Greg in a coma, she would want to know as much as his parents. I pitied her that day, and I still do. Losing a loved one is undeniably devastating, but losing a child is the most heart-breaking of all. No mother wants to outlive her son.
The doctors still test Jack regularly, and every time I visit I receive a quick update, but never anything of significance. His brain shows signs of activity, so we know he isn’t entirely brain dead, but it’s impossible to know what damage has been done unless he wakes up. I’m sat by his bed at the moment, watching his chest rise and fall. It’s like watching someone sleep; he doesn’t look dead, but he doesn’t respond to anything. All of Jack’s treatment and care is provided by the NHS for free, much to the relief of his parents. I know that they’d struggle to keep up the payments otherwise, but what’s money compared to the life of your only son? I was amazed at first by how much it costs to keep a coma patient alive. How many other lives could have been saved with that money?
I am reminded of a thought experiment in ethics. A runaway train is speeding down the tracks towards five people tied up, unable to move. You are watching it whilst standing next to a lever that when pulled will switch the train to a different track. On the other track, however, is another person tied up, and the train will hit them if you pull the lever. What do you do? Is it more ethical to save the five people and let one person die, or to not pull the lever and therefore not be a catalyst for someone’s death? If you don’t pull the lever, are you responsible for the five deaths? Does it make a difference if the one person is a loved one? There are so many awful scenarios like that; dreamt up by tormented philosophers who think they have the answers. Sometimes, society thinks it has an answer; we’re told what is least damaging outcome and expected to agree. Damage limitation, as it were. Important people are been paid a lot of money to make these decisions. That’s all well and good when you’re speculating from dusty lecture halls and grand government offices, but if the choice was yours – if you were forced to make a decision there and then – what would you do?
I try to force my mind away from these questions. Prioritising human life is unfathomably difficult, but these questions exist for a reason; sometimes you have to make a decision. Jack and I hadn’t married yet, so I don’t get any say. It’s awful, but I’m so fucking glad that it’s not my decision. I’m just a bystander to his life now, watching him trapped in a perpetual state of nothingness. A living vegetable. He’s stuck in a moment, and I’m stuck with him. My eyes glance up at the clock frequently; there’s still over an hour left until visiting hours end, but I’ll inevitably leave before then. Watching a coma patient isn’t exactly enthralling. I hear the door behind me opening, and turn to see Jack’s parents making their way inside. They’ve crammed things into a big bag, and his Dad is struggling to manoeuvre through the door. I turn and smile, but don’t say anything.
“Hello, dear.” Carol says politely. They unfold a couple of the visitor’s chairs and sit across from me on the other side of the hospital bed. Carol looks over at her husband, who starts rummaging around in the bag. She smiles at me uncomfortably as she waits for him. “We haven’t seen you here for a while, Julie. It’s a shame.”
“Yeah. It’s just difficult for me to get here, I guess. I work during visiting hours, mostly.”
“Surely your manager will give you some time off?”
I don’t know what to say.
“Maybe. Yeah.” Frank was really accommodating at first, but my job is shift-work, and he needs someone who can be available any time. The job market is so bad I knew he’d easily find someone to replace me, and I could be out of work for God knows how long. To tell the truth, it was a relief. I hate being in the hospital. Jack is on a ward with other coma patients, and whenever I come the atmosphere is one of death.
Everything is quiet, not a sharp silence, but a puffy, bloated bubble. The kind of silence that follows a weary sigh. It’s as if time doesn’t exist here; we’re all just waiting. Jack would hate being here too. He was intrigued by the whole world, and wanted to find out as much about it as possible. I loved dating him; I got to see the world as he did.
One morning, when we’d been dating for a year or so, he phoned me up as I was making my morning cup of tea.
“Are you busy today?” He asked immediately.
“No. Do you want to come over?” I said.
“I’ve got another idea. Meet me at the station.” He wouldn’t tell me any more than that, so I threw some comfy clothes on and packed a day bag before heading out of my flat. I got to the station in about half an hour, after hopping on the bus that goes down my road. I looked around and spotted him quickly; we smiled at each other. He walked over and I noticed orange train tickets in his hand.
“Here’s your ticket. The next train’s in five minutes, so we should head to the platform.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, puzzled. He nodded at the ticket, and I looked down. “Edinburgh?”
The train came and that was it; we were heading towards the border. I’m surprised to find that I remember that moment in the station more clearly than anything else that happened that day.
Across the hospital bed, Greg has pulled today’s newspaper out of the bag and is handing it to his wife. She looks at him and smiles, unfolding it as she does. Without looking up, she says, “Greg, don’t you think it would be nice to see Julie here more often?”
Greg looks at me, and I look down to avoid eye contact. “I’m sure she’s very busy, Carol.” He says carefully.
“Of course, but everyone has things to do. I just think there are some things you should make time for.” I dare to look up, and Greg is pulling an apologetic face.
“Carol, dear. That’s enough. Why don’t you read to him now, eh?”
“I’m just saying-” She begins, but is interrupted by Greg.
“I said enough, Carol.” She looks up at this and her eyes bore into his. He looks away, nonplussed. I don’t look to see if she’s looking at me, but I can feel it. I hear her turn the pages of the newspaper, and then she begins reading aloud.
That’s another thing I remember; arguing. The Christmas shopping arguments were some of the worst. I just used to get so stressed out. He would always ask me to get presents for his family, and I hated it.
“You’re related to them, for God’s sake! You’re supposed to know what they like.” I said.
“Yeah, I know, but I’m rubbish at buying presents. Just get them some socks, or bath products or something. Alcohol is always a good one.”
“Why don’t we go shopping together then?” He pulled a sulky face, and brought out the puppy eyes.
“Oh no you don’t. Acting like a seven-year-old is not going to make me shop for you.”
“Please?” I raised an eyebrow, my face unmoving. He moved closer, nuzzling my face and pecking my cheek. “Pretty please?” He says again. I sigh and push him away.
“No, Jack. Would you just bloody grow up for once?” He sits up and his face drops.
“I’m just trying to have a bit of fun. I know you get stressed about Christmas.”
“You adding to my list doesn’t help! It’s not my responsibility.”
“I know that. You’re just much better at this than I am.”
“I’m sick of you never taking responsibility for anything!” I was furious by then.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He looked so annoyed.
“I’m always the one to do everything! I do the shopping, I balance our money and make sure the bills are paid, I practically organise both of our schedules and you can’t even remember to fill the bloody bike up with petrol!”
“I don’t ask you to do those things! I don’t want to live by a fucking schedule, Julie. You don’t realise how bloody controlling you can be.”
“I just wish you would live like an actual adult, sometimes! There are some things that just have to be done at a certain time, and I can’t trust you to do anything.”
“You never give me the chance.” He said.
“Well perhaps I’ll leave you, and then you’ll be forced to do it.” I snapped.
“That’s not funny.” His voice was cold. We were both quiet for a long moment. I tried to calm myself down, taking deep breaths.
“Shall we go together?” He suggests tentatively. I pulled a face, trying to decide if it would be more annoying to have him there or to brave shopping alone. We went together, in the end. I was already pissed off, though, and after a couple of hours I was ready to give up. We took refuge in the nearest coffee shop and sat in the outdoor seating area. I was too angry to talk to him, but the noise of the crowd blocked out the silence. I took a sip of my coffee as soon as we sat down, grateful for the caffeine, but it was too hot and I burnt my tongue; hissing in pain.
“You alright?” Jack asked.
“I’m fine.” I said; my voice could have cut through ice. I couldn’t look at him, but I saw his outline stand and leave the table. ‘Now I’ve done it’ I thought to myself. I put my head in my hands. A few moments later I felt the table move, and looked up to see Jack sitting back down. He was smiling, and had some little milk pots in his hand. People who lose loved ones always tell you that you regret the arguments; that they become trivial. It’s time wasted that you could’ve have spent appreciating them. I don’t regret them; the arguments Jack and I had somehow made it real. It made me feel safe. We were imperfect; I knew his faults and he knew mine, and we loved each other anyway. The milk pot moments in the coffee shops reminded me that he loved me.
Carol has moved on to another article now, something about a new tax they’ve just introduced. I’m always silent when I visit. I used to talk; the doctors said the data surrounding whether patients could hear you was inconclusive. They told us it was worth trying, though. When something like this happens, people look for miracles. I think it helps the families more than the patients. The ‘next of kin’. His family won’t turn off the life support; they believe whole-heartedly that he will wake up. Perhaps he will, but after two years of nothing I’ve lost hope. I wouldn’t know what to do if he did. Carol’s right; I don’t visit as much as I used to. I’m stuck in a purgatory between the life we had and the life I’ve been forced to shape without him. As time passes, those two lives become more and more distant. Sometimes, I think I’m visiting just to stop myself feeling guilty, which then makes me feel guilty, of course. It’s not that I don’t love him; I’m just forgetting what loving him feels like. The memory is there in theory, but love is something you experience, not remember. It’s like riding a bike; once you’ve learnt, you know you can do it. You can’t explain how, you just do. When you haven’t ridden for a while, though, you start worrying that you’ll have forgotten and you won’t be able to any more.
I’m not in love with anyone else, either. Sometimes I’d like to be. I still work in that restaurant, and sometimes a customer will ask if I’m single. How do I answer that? When I’m curled up in the bed we used to share and the darkness creeps around me, I miss the feeling of another body next to mine. I roll over and expect him to move with me. It’s moments like those, when I least expect it, that I can remember him most clearly. The things I remember are strange too; I’d struggle to tell you what we did for our first anniversary, but I remember when we stayed in bed all day and watched every Star Wars film. I’m glad for the memories I have, but after two years I’m starting to forget. I know this happens to everyone, but you make new memories to replace the ones that are lost. If Jack never wakes up, we’ll never have any new memories together, and that thought tears me apart.
More than anything I want him to wake up. I truly do. But I have to face up to the possibility that he won’t. I’ve had two years to mourn for him, and I should be ready to move on. Except he isn’t dead; he could still wake up. The chances of that happening are almost hopelessly low, and even if he does he might not wake up as the Jack that I knew. He might not even remember me. I find myself confronted with choosing between him and myself, and it racks me with guilt. Love is supposed to be putting the people you love before yourself. Jack isn’t just my significant other, he’s significant full stop. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had. Yet I know that if I continue to put him before myself and he never wakes up, I’m going to end up wasting my life. The only way I can move on is to let him go. I’m sick of turning down dates and putting my life on standby. If you love someone, you just want them to be happy. Well, it works both ways.