An Awful Burden

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Verbatim transcript:  Father Reece, St Patricks, Sydney, Australia

Background for Rolling Stone article:  “Ice Queen – Origins of an Icon”

 Yes, I’m happy to help you.  It was a long time ago though.  But I have a good memory for these things.  It’s the job.  And of course they got very famous, didn’t they?  Are you recording me?  What happens then?  Rolling Stone, fancy that.  Oh okay.  This is just background you say?  I’ll give you an email address.  I tweet now, too.

The husband, Ben, invited me to be with the family, but the two kids were hostile.  As soon as they saw the little crosses on my collar and knew I wasn’t a doctor or nurse they got agitated.

Not that I could blame them—they were young and this was a heartbreaking thing they were going through.  Ben looked very ill, though Dr Novarty said it wasn’t the effect of his illness, but from the stress of the last five months barely leaving his wife’s side.

The daughter was the most hostile, or rather I should say, she was hurting the most.  She took one look at my bible, limped over to the window and didn’t look at me or at her mother until the end.

The son was angry too, but he was busy trying to look after everyone else: His father, who I guessed was a shadow of his former self; and his sister, still convalescing from her own injuries.  There was no other family, so they were alone with this. 

Margaret had shown no signs of recovery.  Her physical injuries had healed but her brain injury was considered catastrophic.  The doctors had tried all manner of tests and they were reasonably sure she was brain dead and only being kept alive artificially.  Ben had wanted to wait, he wanted to give her time to come back he said, so we’d waited.

When Dr Novarty came into the room they all tensed.  It was time.  She made a point of speaking to each of them separately, though the daughter wouldn’t look at her, and then she turned to me.

She said, “Father, when you’re ready,” which was my signal to read last rites.

I was just about to start when the son said, “What happens if she doesn’t die?”

I told him that the last rites were essentially just a prayer and would do no harm if Margaret continued to breathe on her own.  People often ask this, it’s as though they think prayer alone has the power to kill someone.

I went through the prayer, keeping everything Ben had told me about Margaret foremost in my mind.  He’d said she was a talented writer, a wonderful mother, and a loving wife.  He’d told me how they met at a concert and how he’d romanced her and married her and never ever thought about returning home to the US again.

He said the kids were the centre of her life and how proud she had been of them.  He told me how they’d planned to build a house and take a holiday.  He told me ordinary things like how Margaret liked her eggs cooked and what her favourite movie was.  I let him talk for a good hour or more when we met; he was a man in need of love and care, with a tremendous hurdle in front of him.

He told me religion hadn’t been important in his life but that it was for Margaret.  How she’d never tried to force him to believe in God the way she did.  He told me he didn’t think he could believe in a God who would leave Margaret like this, that it was too cruel.  He’d apologised for that and said he understood if it made me angry or made me pity him.  I guess I did pity him; he had no comfort and no shelter from the storm.

The room was very quiet except for the shushing sound of the ventilator and the beeping of the heart monitor, and nothing about me being there was a comfort for them.

When I finished, Dr Novarty put her hand on Ben’s shoulder.  He was slumped in his chair and when she touched him he jumped like she’d shot him full of adrenaline.  The son had gone to stand by the bed.  He held his mother’s hand.

Dr Novarty told them that she would turn off the ventilator and remove the tubing and that if Margaret was able to breathe by herself, her body would know what to do.  She told them that once she did this she couldn’t undo it, and she asked Ben if he was sure this was what he wanted.

I watched while Ben went to his son and hugged him, the two of them roughly the same height and very alike.  He didn’t seem to have the same closeness with his daughter.  Such a tragedy for her to lose her mum.

The three of them clustered around the bedside and Ben said, “Maggie, we love you, but we need to let you go,” and he put his head down on Margaret’s shoulder and sobbed.  The son held his mother’s hand and patted his father’s back.  The daughter held her mother’s other hand. 

Dr Novarty released some straps around Margaret’s face and switched the ventilator off.  It made one last shushing sound.  Now there was just the beep of the heart monitor.

Margaret never took a breath and the heart monitor beeped once, twice and then three times in quick succession and fell silent.  I remember the look on the girl’s face, for just a moment she thought her mother was going to come back.

Dr Novarty and I stayed with the family until they were ready to leave the room.  She really is one of the most compassionate doctors I’ve ever worked with, though I know she professes not to believe in God either.

In the end, the only one who didn’t want to leave was the daughter.  She kept telling us all to go away and let her alone.  She was fierce about it.

We left her and outside Ben told me he was having trouble dealing with his daughter.  Well you could see that.  I thought losing both parents, even though her father was still alive, was an awful burden for a young girl.

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