Notes From A Bedside
My friend will never leave this bed she is lying in. There is a guttural, clogging sound as she breathes in and out through her mouth. Her eyes are closed in a deep sleep, made comfortable through the intervention of a soothing cocktail of drugs which daily become stronger.
She is dying.
She knew it would come to this. This friend of mine, she is a fucking pragmatist. The ‘pragmatism’ coming from her sharp, keen intellect. The ‘fucking’ coming from her approach to life – to hell with the carnival of politeness, just say what you bloody mean. For fuck’s sake.
It was this, I realise, that drew us close. The great comfort of being around someone who unremittingly tells you what she thinks, which in turn liberated me to return the favour.
Gay men and gay women can easily live life in opposite corners of the outer-tent. We have in common the experience of being excluded, which does not necessarily add up to being united.
It was music that brought Bernie and I together. We sang in the same gay choir, inhabited the same space for some hours every Tuesday. By dint of familiarity, we grew slowly, very slowly, to know each other well.
The absence of sexual tension or rivalry brings simplicity to adult relations. When a man and a woman like each other independent of attraction, a clarifying calm falls on the land. Friendship that emerges is perhaps less urgent, requiring of more time and care – but it is also more stable. It only endures when both parties fully wish it to be so.
A wine-growing friend once explained the joy of growing grapes on arid soil. The roots in a dry terroir must work harder, reach deeper – which results in a more complex, richer and more prized fruit. This in turn delivers a finer wine. Bernie would have liked the analogy. She was a lady who liked the finest grapes, always so generous in her interest in getting the right people in the room to share the cases she might impulsively purchase online.
Some months back, when the cancer had reached its second phase, I asked her how she was feeling and thinking about this calamity in her early 60s.
‘It makes me want to curate more carefully’, she said. ‘Do the things I want to do with the people I want to be with. It makes me want to have fun’.
The first conversation of substance I remember with her was perhaps 14 years previous. We happened to be sitting side by side at a choir gathering, and I was going through a phase wondering about having kids. This was that liminal period when I began to see that having children was not just for straight people with straight trajectories; that the desire to have a child was human, irrespective of orientation.
Bernie and her partner Ann had two kids – boys then in their teens – so I asked her for her advice.
‘Do it’, she said. ‘If it’s important to you, get on and do it’.
This, I discovered was the leitmotif of her life, for she was a woman who set out to get things done. She delegated. She organised. She bossed. And she pulled things over the line. It was a mode that she had adopted when she lived in London as a social worker, where she and Ann found each other and common cause as radical lesbian feminists. They fought for women and for children, and especially for their rights in crisis.
We are in the Beacon Hospital now, and the sound of the city rumbles through the open windows. It is a beautiful May day, and Dublin Bay, Bernie’s home, is laid out before us.
She lies still in her bed, and I go to hold her hand.
We are in silence. Ann is there, and Daragh, their son; and Deborah, the most loyal friend a woman could wish to have. I had breezed in for a quick visit. But I spontaneously realise it will be my last.
The silence persists. I stare at my friend and feel the gentle warm touch of her pale skin.
‘Share the thought?’, suggests Debs.
‘Bernie’s one of the most important mentors in my life’, I say. It is the first time I’ve used such a word to describe who she is to me. How I have learnt from her high standards, her effing and blinding, her deep social conscience, her generosity, her impatience with inaction.
Several times in the last two years I have told her that I love her. This, in the end, is a gift that cancer yields us: the opportunity to say our piece.
But I am feeling agitated now. I realise I have never thanked her for her living example. Thanked her for that mentoring.
It’s so fucking galling that we cannot know all that lies within love, until we are faced with its leaving.
[Note: Bernadette Manning died two years ago today, on the 26th May 2018. She was a dear, beloved friend and a great Irishwoman.]