When doctors deliver bad news, they travel in packs. They sweep into the ward, in groups of three or four, to relay test results, to tell you that your course of treatment has been unsuccessful, that some measure of you is too low or too high. They parcel out time: Six months, three months, two.
You know that you’ve been sick for a long time when you start receiving mail on the ward. Every piece of mail is either about money or my body. I read a demand for the repayment of my student loan — I laugh for the first time since my diagnosis. You won’t be getting another penny from me. Not a thing. You fuckers.
Ivy is here, stationed next to me. She is silent, supportive, transparent. She stayed all night when I first arrived. Now she only comes when the sun is out.
The nurse takes my blood and exchanges it for a receipt that they staple to the end of my bed. Things are progressing as the doctors predicted.
I haven’t been outside since I arrived. I haven’t had a bath since I arrived. I can smell myself on the sheets, even though they were cleaned yesterday. I’m proud of it — my smell. I want people to know what a body in decline smells like. It is a protest. Against the sterility I am surrounded by. I’ll die smelling like a human, not a petri dish.
The beds on the ward are arranged like six dots on the face of a dice. When I was first admitted, there were three women in the row of beds opposite mine. They were strangers, but quickly developed a strange friendship — offering advice and words of encouragement.
The loud woman in the middle helped the elderly woman on the right with the plastic lid on her pot of jelly every afternoon. She was so grateful that it never ceased to move me.
The young woman on left had cut her own arms open. She spoke the language of despair with a fluency that you only hear in wards and waiting rooms.
When the doctors told me I wasn’t getting better, the whole ward went silent. Everyone listened as they mixed medical jargon and greeting card platitudes.
A diagnosis belongs in the holy trinity of good gossip. Divorce. Diagnosis. Death. The neighbourhoods between these D’s are where the best conversations live.
Here’s what they don’t tell you about being permanently sick. You are a dependent. You will never be able to define yourself against society — as a rebel — as someone who can live on their own terms. Because your existence depends on the pills and potions that are patented and produced by the companies and conglomerates. You are a consumer as a matter of survival.
Before Ivy is allowed to visit, the nurse demands that I shower. There is a sign in the ward that tells patients that they must wear socks at all times. Shuffling barefoot across the ward is forbidden. I have become so submissive that I follow this command to the letter, returning from my shower with soaking wet socks that leave puddle-prints all the way back to my bed.
Later, from behind my drawn curtain, I hear a mop being led across the floor. It pleases me that my submission has transformed into an unintended rebellion.
Ivy kisses my arm in the same place over and over. I realise that I would already be dead if it weren’t for her affection.
The night of the diagnosis, I tried to hang myself with my shoelaces.
“Better,” I thought, “to leave the world now before becoming a burden to it.”
There was no point. It hurt too much and I’ve always been scared by pain. Ivy stopped me. I can’t remember if it was her or the thought of her that pulled me back.
I cried loudly all night, not caring who heard. A nurse arrived to check on me, to see what he could do. He asked me questions but I only responded with the hunchback shudder of a foetal weeper. He told me,
“I’m not very good with this sort of thing.”
I felt sorry for him.
“What then,” I thought, “is the sort of thing you’re good at?”
A pack of doctors arrive on the ward. There are three of them. I can’t tell if they are the same group as before. They surround my bed from each available side, while the one at my feet speaks. She tells me that I’m stable. That the sickness won’t get any better but, for the time being, it won’t get any worse. They tell me that I’ll be discharged once they are confident I know how to treat myself at home.
One nurse teaches me how to test my blood. Another tells me what medicine to take, in what order and at what time of day. I want to tell them that they don’t understand. I am sick. Don’t they realise I can’t be trusted to do this on my own?
I am told that I must never take an excessive amount of my midday medicine, as an overdose could kill me. It is reassuring to know that, built into my treatment, there is a tidy escape clause.
I leave the ward on a Tuesday. Ivy isn’t there. I take a taxi from the entrance of the hospital. The driver asks me what I was in for. I tell him. He doesn’t speak to me for the rest of the journey.
When I open my front door, a new pile of mail spreads out like a deck of cards. I stare at my name and address, repeated across the packages and envelopes, and I wonder — after I die, whenever that is — how long will it be before my last letter is delivered? What will it say? Who will read it?
I hope that it is sternly written.
Joshua Stupple is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and the recipient of the British GQ Student Writing Prize for Creative Non-Fiction. He has been published in GQ and the London Review of Books. He also writes plays.