The words were muttered in agony from a skeletal old man, propped up on white pillows in a hospital bed with a blanket half-wrapped around his thin legs. He had frazzled, balding hair with circular glasses. His body was arched to the side and his striped pajama top had been left open, exposing his chest. I was in the bed opposite the dying man with my arm linked to a glucose-and-insulin drip machine. I had experienced an Addisonian Crisis a few days before, a proper life-and-near-death drama, and I was in no state to console my fellow patient. I just watched him.Read more: “This is no life. No life at all.”
The nurses turned the lights down later that evening and I could hear them chatting down the corridor. There was a glow emitting from the main ward entrance and soon the usual after dark noises, so typical in a hospital at night: raised voices in the distance, snoring, the hideous beep of bedside machines, alarm buttons sounding endlessly, someone calling ‘nurse’ feebly and the low din of traffic moving on the road outside, in a normal world that seemed out of reach.
Suddenly the frail man tumbled out of his bed sideways and crashed loudly onto the floor. It was a horrible thud and he lay there, motionless. I reached my undripped arm out and sounded the call button by my bed. The alarm went on, and on, and on – joining the chorus of call buttons from other rooms nearby. The nurses were being kept understandably busy: reassuring and caring for patients. It took them a long time to respond. My roommate was so underweight that it took two of them little effort to pick him up, moving him back to his bed. The next morning, his family visited and clucked around his huddled form, as he lay there silently.
The next evening, I heard his death rattle. A guttural, rasping, deep wet breathing sound. It was incomparably harrowing. A cacophony of unrelenting longa notes, which reached through my aural senses and buried in my mind. The irony struck me – that the last gasps of life seemed so endless. I fell asleep exhausted.
I woke up early the next morning to find the nurses marching around the ward room, quickly pulling the bed curtains closed. I couldn’t escape the sounds as they prepared the other patient’s body, chatting as they performed the necessary medical ablutions. I chewed rubbery toast with little appetite and heard one of them joke about finding it hard to ‘tape his mouth shut’. Tape was unwound as though they were wrapping gifts. I heard a trolley arrive. And then the curtains were pulled back and the bed opposite was empty – ready for the next patient.
Nurses do an amazing job and I can understand why these events seem so commonplace to them – they have experienced it so many times. But for my younger self, it was a galling experience. It was the man’s comment though, which turned out to be some of his last words, that I will never forget: “This is no life. No life at all.” I wonder what he meant. How did he define ‘life’? Presumably he meant being out of that bed and somewhere else. But ‘the bed’ awaits all of us, in some form or other.
And the man had been right: his last 12 hours weren’t ‘life at all’. What is ‘life’, then? If it’s not being propped up on a bed with a blanket – how do we define it? I find the Bible helpful: ‘Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.’
Christ himself is the key to overcoming decay, and our experience of death: ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.’ He said it himself: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’
It can feel very hard to remember these truths when we’re in a critical situation in hospital. Yet Jesus sees us and Jesus suffered. As a ‘man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’, he knew what it felt like when there was ‘no life at all’. The power of the resurrection inherent in him as the God Man, ‘God with us’, still gives us hope. And hope is what we cling to:-
‘Not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved; but hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he can already see? But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it patiently.’
‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
‘Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.’