I pulled into my estate carpark one day last winter, just ahead of a metallic blue minicab. I parked, and my friend and I walked towards my front door. Not quite there, we heard a shout.
"Can you help me?"
"Are you talking to us?"
The minicab driver was bending over something on the ground. He was, indeed, talking to us. His lady passenger had collapsed and he was struggling with her weight, holding her head and shoulders away from the cold concrete but unable to raise her up any further. The lady looked like she was in her early 70s. Her beige sweater was stained with something that was also crusted around her mouth. She was ashen and unconscious.
Hoping we could make her a little more comfortable, and warmer, we tried to lift her back into the car. But she was heavy and the car seat was too high off the ground. We couldn't do it. She started to regain consciousness, and to moan in protest at being jostled about. We set her back down, still keeping her head away from the ground. A neighbour came out with a blanket and the minicab driver dialled 999.
"She's just coming back from the hospital" said the neighbour with the blanket. "She's been in and out of there since Christmas. Her husband died. Are you alright darling? You're alright now. She's got a son, but I don't know his name. Can you tell me your son's name, sweetheart? What about his number?"
The driver was speaking to the emergency services, and the woman kept saying that she wanted to get up. We tried again to lift her, but there was no way she could stand. She had no strength in her legs, no balance, and she was far too heavy for us to support her. Once again we laid her down on the cold, grey concrete.
"Yes, she's breathing" said the minicab driver into his phone. I felt a flash of horror at the idea that she might stop breathing. What would I do? Would I have the courage to lay my mouth on her mouth?
"I'm going to die" said the lady.
"No you're not" said the neighbour.
An ambulance was on its way. The lady was increasingly angry and confused. She wanted to get up, to get up, but there was nothing we could do. We spoke soothingly to her, asked her to stay still just for the time being, told her she could get up in a moment, that she'd be OK soon.
"I'm going to die" she said. "I'm going to die."
"You're not going to die" I said.
"Don't be silly" said the neighbour. "Of course you're not going to die."
"You'll be fine" said my friend. "Just take it easy. You'll be fine."
"I'm going to die".
An ambulance arrived in the close. "I'm going to die" she said, over and over again. She didn't give us a number and we couldn't call her son. "You're not going to die" said the paramedic. "No one is going to die".
Everyone was wrong. Except the lady. She knew.
We didn't see it happen. The paramedics lifted her into the ambulance, and me and my friend went inside, where we warmed up with hot drinks and settled in to workshopping a screenplay for the next few hours, feet pressed against the radiator. A day or so later, I met my neighbour out in the carpark. She told me that the lady had gone into cardiac arrest in the ambulance, and that the paramedics had been unable to revive her.
"I think she'd given up" said the neighbour. "After her husband died, she didn't want to live any more. We saw her son. He said thank you for being there. He didn't make it in time."
"She knew" I said. "She knew she was going to die."
How did she know? What did she see or feel that gave her that utter conviction that her time was up? She kept insisting on it, and we just kept arguing with her, telling her she was going to be fine, trying to calm and comfort her.Wouldn't it have been better if one of us had acknowledged what she was saying? I wish now that I could have said "I believe you, yes, you're going to die. It's OK. We're here. You're not alone. Don't be scared."
There's not much else to this story. My path intersected, briefly, with the path of a lady who knew she was going to die. Who was really only moments away from the end. Almost a privilege, to have been so close to death.