The carved oak door closed as the youngest son left the room, and the old man was at last alone with his wife in the room that had held their marriage bed for over forty years, the bed in which he now lay, knowing he had passed his last night on earth. A man of power and influence, he had been used to the trappings of wealth but the opulence in this room – all the opulence in the world – would not stave off the inevitable. His breathing was shallow; his time was near.
‘It is hard to say goodbye to the children,’ he whispered, ‘but it is even harder to say goodbye to you.’
She looked deep into his eyes trying, trying desperately to give him the strength to hold on. She kissed his fingers and the palm of his hand, as she had done so often on so many other, much happier, more intimate occasions.
More intimate? What could be more intimate than being the one he’d chosen to spend his last moments with?
‘Have the arrangements been made?’ he asked, knowing that they would have been taken care of, just as the rest of his life had been taken care of. All his days he’d had people to do things for him, to cater for his wants and needs. Who would do this last task for him? No-one. Dying is something one can only do for oneself.
‘All is in order,’ she said, stroking his head. ‘I wish it were not. I would give my soul for it not to be necessary. Oh, my love, how will I live without you?’
He smiled lovingly. ‘The family will look after you. They are good sons and daughters. You have raised them well.’
‘They are not you. They do not love me as you do. Do not know me as you do. Cannot see me as you do.’
Tears spilled from her eyes.
He wiped her cheek gently, caressing her parchment skin as if it were the finest silk. ‘Oh, my darling, you are so very beautiful. More beautiful with every passing year. My heart breaks to leave you, because you have made me so very, very happy. You have been my strength, my rock, my only love…’
She took his hand again, and the knowledge that he could no longer feel her touch pierced her like a dagger. She buried her face in the deep velvet bedcover and howled her anguish. She pressed his hand hard to her lips time and again, keening and crying and kissing until her skin was tender and sore and there were no more tears.
She knew what she must do.
Trembling, she took the gold ring from his finger, laid his arms across his chest and kissed his forehead gently.
‘Goodbye, my love,’ she whispered, and left the room.
Closing the door behind her, she looked into the tear-stained faces of their children and grandchildren.
‘It is over,’ she said, giving the ring to her eldest son. ‘Take this. Tell the cardinals that the Pope is dead.’