Acheron – Chapter 8
The registrar adjusted the horn-rimmed spectacles on his pointy nose. He looked tired and dispirited.
‘Your daughter is strong. A fighter. So she may yet pull through, but you need to be prepared for the worst, I’m afraid. The next few hours will be critical. I’m so sorry I can’t be of more comfort.’
We stood in the corridor outside the ICU in Alexandra District Hospital: Áine’s parents, my parents and I. A little, grey-faced group of bone-weary people.
Áine had been admitted suffering from hypothermia and respiratory failure as a consequence of near-drowning. She was leading the Doyles’ stranded cow to safety when the torrent tore her away, to be washed up against a fallen tree trunk two kilometres downstream of the farm.
Heart failure was a constant worry in the first twenty-four hours.
She soon developed bacterial pneumonia in both lungs from breathing in the filthy floodwaters; it was not unexpected. Powerful antibiotics were added to her drip. For forty-eight hours mechanical ventilation kept her alive when her lungs couldn’t do the job. It was horrible to see that obscene tube down her throat, her head thrust back at surely too violent an angle?
Even worse: her brain had likely been deprived of oxygen while she was in the floodwaters and there was a chance of irreversible brain damage.
The hours merged into days, the days into weeks. Áine was moved from ICU to the acute ward. We took turns at her bedside, Colm, Dearbhla and I. Wan, anxious, trying to be brave for each other. Colm was shrunken, bent, crushed.
Dad or Uncle Andy arrived at intervals to bring clean clothes, other necessities and to coax one or another of us back to the winery for a few hours’ respite, maybe even a little sleep in a proper bed. The Doyles were to treat our home as theirs. Schoolmates and teachers sent flowers, cards. Roddy and Aurora came by after school. We hugged, cried.
Hopeless, grey, uneventful weeks they were. I read to her from our favourites: Lord of the Rings, Catcher in the Rye, Dylan Thomas. I remember turning the pages, but I have no idea what words my mouth formed.
When I ran out of energy to read, or when it all seemed so hopeless, I would just sit and clasp her hand, staring at the opposite wall.
On the twentieth day, I’m told it was, I was holding her hand, half-asleep, when I felt a faint pressure on my fingers. Just the feeblest little squeeze. I jolted awake, thought I’d dreamed it. Then, a few minutes later, there it was again. I yelled for the nurse.
Colm and Dearbhla rushed in, but nothing more occurred. The doctor said her heart rate was steady and her breathing was stronger. She seemed to have a little colour back in her cheeks, or was that just wishful thinking?
On the twenty-third day, she opened her eyes a little, struggled to focus, looked at me. ‘Pan … daft bugger …’ she murmured. Smiling faintly, she drifted off to sleep.
I can’t write. My eyes well with tears and I’m sobbing, bawling.
Footsteps behind me. My wife’s hands are resting on my shoulders. ‘Shhh, shhh … It’s alright, love. It’s alright, ye daft wee bugger.’ She snuggles her cheek against my head, kisses my forehead.
I rest my head against my Áine’s breast and listen to the soft, steady, strong beat of her heart.
So, that’s the end of ‘Acheron’. Thanks for reading!
Although the places mentioned in the story are real, the persons are of course wholly fictitious. There were no catastrophic floods in the Acheron Valley (North Central Victoria) during the period of this story, as far as I know.
The Acheron River lies in Taungurung Country. I pay my respects to the Taungurung People of the Kulin Alliance, their Elders past, present and emerging.