My grandfather–step-grandfather, or whatever–died when I was too young to know him. We have photographs of him holding me at my Christening, where my parents look impossibly young and impossibly happy. He looks happy too, but he was desperately ill at the time and died before my sister came along two-and-a-half years later. Away from his photograph I can’t quite picture him in my mind’s eye, except to say his head was long, his hair was white and wild and he smiled at the little boy cradled in his arms. The illness that plagued him all his life claimed him only three years after his biological daughter died.
My grandmother remarried, in time. She married a man who’d long been her neighbour and family friend, and I’ve always harboured suspicion that this affair had begun before her previous marriage had ended.
I had my first kiss at my gran’s second wedding. We have photographic evidence. I was goaded into it by the photographer, sure, and I fear I might have been in some capacity related to the poor girl, but a kiss is a kiss and the embarrassment I felt over that single innocent peck on the cheek was enough to put me off girls ‘til I hit my teens. Something similar happened with the wedding buffet, which put me off cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks–though that’s an aversion that remains with me to this day.
Though she took only her new husband’s surname, for my sister and I, she might as well have taken his first name, too: ‘Granny Bob’, we called her. They moved to the pub-like house in which she still lives and bought a dog named Patch that was twice as big as me and not afraid to show its teeth. After Bob died, my gran was given new dog, a small Yorkshire terrier called Timmy, who’d been abandoned after his owners had died and needed someone to take care of him. He smelled awful, had a terrible habit of humping the kitchen table and died a year or two later.
I might have said this before but it doesn’t make it any less true: it’s as if death is all my grandmother’s ever known. Perhaps that’s why my mum could ignore her mother’s probable extra-marital affair so easily: she understood her mother was drowning in a sea of death and needed to cling to something–anything–in order to feel alive.
The older you get, the more Death comes to visit. This lesson has been driven home to me over the past few months: it seems every person I’ve spoken to recently has had a new death to report or a forthcoming funeral to attend. One of my mum’s close friends died; her sister, shocked by the news, had a heart attack and is still in hospital, recovering. A friend and relative my parents used to visit in Spain died of cancer; another relation–Big Sheila, a cousin the size of a house –collapsed and expired. Another of my mum’s friends lost her husband; still another saw her husband removed to hospital following a heart attack. My brother-in-law’s grandmother died and there are folks on Twitter, too, who’ve had family and friends die and would solemnly report as much from that No-Man’s Land between death and the funeral–the place where nobody’s sure what to do and nothing makes sense–in 140 characters of confusion and loss.
And still I remained untouched.
My grandmother fell ill before Christmas. She’d been mentally shaky for weeks and when her body followed suit she fell, caught her head on a table and kept it a secret, fearing what would happen if she told anyone.
Within days her condition worsened to the point where she could no longer hide it from her visitors. Though my idiot uncle and his idiot wife barely noticed anything wrong when they visited, the next morning her next-door neighbour found her standing, shaking and holding onto the kitchen sink, unable to move for fear of tumbling. He called an ambulance out for her and then, not really knowing who to turn to, he called me.
I’m useless in an emergency. I don’t know how to drive and it turns out that’s a pretty useful skill to have when your grandmother is seriously ill. I called for a taxi and took it in silence. I wasn’t able to tell the driver my gran’s exact address so he dropped me off at the top of the road and I ran the rest of the way, not knowing if there was still a finishing line worth reaching, not knowing if I was too late.
The next-door neighbour–David–called to me as I approached my grandmother’s driveway. From his front room window he told me there was a doctor examining her and that I shouldn’t go into her house in case she was in a state of undress. “In the mean time, come in and have a cup of tea,” he said.
David’s supposed to be the same age as my mum, but he looks a good decade older. I’d never met him before so I can’t comment on his usual appearance, but with his small, round head and copious wrinkles, that morning he looked like a particularly worried walnut. He was forever wringing his hands and bustling stiff-legged about his kitchen, and was somewhat perturbed when I refused to sit down, have a cup of tea or eat a biscuit.
But then, I had worries of my own.
In between fretting over the length of time the doctor had been in my grandmother’s house and calling him to see if I could go in and see her, he told me a little of his own life story in the manner of a man thankful to have a captive audience–which, being a lonely pensioner, he probably was. He told me all about his knees and how they didn’t work very well, how he’d had an operation to fix them and how they worked even worse after that. He told me about his days working at the dockyard, about the pension he’d received from it and how it wasn’t enough to live upon–not with his knees. He told me how he enjoyed riding his bicycle–in spite of his knees–how he checked in on my grandmother on a daily basis and how sometimes she couldn’t eat her food and passed her leftovers on to him.
He told me an awful lot about his knees, now I think about it.
And then the telephone rang and it was the doctor, and he said I could go over and see my gran, which I did.
The doctor was young and blasé, and spent much of his time on his iPhone talking first to his office, then to his girlfriend, fiancée or wife. When I asked if there was anything I could do to help he said I should go and make a cup of tea, which I recognised as medical code for “I need you out of the way but I don’t want you to feel useless”–which made me feel useless.
I don’t know my way around my gran’s kitchen. Like the rest of her house, it’s stuck in the past. I had to search out a box of matches to light the gas stove and when I did the flames nearly singed my fingers. I couldn’t find clean cups so I tried washing a mug that was in with the dirty dishes only to find it contained my gran’s gurning dentures. The second mug I picked up didn’t have any teeth in it, so I rinsed it and made a cuppa in that instead.
There wasn’t any milk in the fridge, but there was a carton in one of the cupboards. It was cool and I guessed that although my gran had obviously misplaced it there, she hadn’t misplaced it very long ago and that it was probably still good.
Once I’d returned–tea with dubious milk in hand–the doctor didn’t have much more to say. He tried to give my gran instructions on which pills to take and when, what to do when a second doctor would visit that afternoon and what to do if he didn’t. She wasn’t listening and took none of it in, but I scribbled notes down in the kitchen, just in case.
Then he left.
I’ve written before about what happened during that excruciatingly long afternoon: this is where my rant about daytime TV comes in. If you haven’t read it, it starts off with a torrent of abuse aimed at the elderly audience of The Alan Titchmarsh Show and ends up turning the whole thing on its head in a way I thought was really quite clever at the time. It’s misdirection, you see; it gets the reader feeling one way, then pulls out the rug and knocks him on his bottom.
When I wrote it I was sad and angry, but during the afternoon itself I was too scared to move, or breathe, even. I’d hold my breath and count off the seconds, and when I exhaled and said something to my gran I’d hope she would say something to me-anything-and stop gazing with deadened eyes at the people on the TV screen.
Occasionally she’d get up and forage for a television magazine that wasn’t there; though she had a seemingly complete collection of magazines dating back to Logie Baird’s death, the current issue of What’s On TV was missing. She went to clean the kitchen and she went to crap in the toilet and I shadowed her as she shuffled from room to room, trying to feel useful but failing.
Then my uncle and aunt showed up, yelled at each other for a while, yelled at her, yelled at her absent GP and settled down with a sweet tea and coffee to discuss the odour of my uncle’s ass.
I went home.
Soon after, I went to America. Though her condition veered from good to bad on a daily basis and I never stopped worrying, I flew away to spend Christmas with my wife and her family. It was a small affair; we swapped gifts and ate steak, got exceedingly drunk and played word games, and even though Cousin Nick, Cousin Sean, Cousin Casey and his wife Aunt Carol, sister-in-law Christine and Christine’s children weren’t there, we had a pretty good Christmas together.
Back home it had snowed and the steps leading to my parents’ house had become icy and treacherous. The hill that climbs from my childhood home became slippery, insurmountable, and though it’s traditional for my grandmother to visit my parents for Christmas dinner she stayed in her house, alone on Christmas Day.
When the weather cleared and the ice melted my parents visited her and took with them a plate of leftovers. We always consider it a victory when she eats something because she’s picky and rarely feeds herself. That day she ate pretty well.
Other days . . .
She’s become increasingly stubborn and I’m not sure if that’s down to her old age, illness, or both. Some days she’ll refuse to eat; others she complains she hasn’t been brought enough food. She puts her foot down when it comes to visiting the doctor like a petulant child refusing to have a shot. My dad recently retired from working in a hospital and says he’s known patients like her, who claim they’re confused when they aren’t, just so someone will come and take care of them. Sometimes he thinks she’s genuinely confused and others he thinks she’s feigning, but with her condition being so volatile, it’s difficult to tell.
If only we could. David ‘phoned me back in November; it’s January now and we’re still no closer to finding out what’s wrong with her. She’s been in and out of hospital and been given pills, and though she’s apparently healthier now than she’s been in weeks we still don’t know why she was shaking or why she collapsed.
And then there’s her arm. She has a lump on it that’s brown verging on black and is, without a shadow of a doubt, cancerous. The doctors have told us as much and promised to run biopsies on it, so we’ll know what we’re dealing with.
Thus far nothing’s come of it.
She’s scared – of course she is – but she refuses to have the necessary tests run on her. This isn’t the only lump on her body, either–it’s just the only one ever visible, as it protrudes from her sleeve. She pulls her cardigan cuff out to cover it when she catches someone looking and absent-mindedly rubs at it when she doesn’t.
Ever since her fall, my mum’s had to bathe her. She’s seen other black and angry lumps on her body and seen how they’ve swollen even over this short period of time. She tells my gran she needs to have tests run on her but my grandmother’s stubborn and refuses to listen.
“I want to die.”
Over the past year she’s taken to using this phrase as her opening gambit in any conversation.
“Hi Gran. I’m just ringing up to see how you are.”
She used to tell me that she couldn’t complain–though it’d be obvious from the tone of her voice that she wanted to. Now she says she wants to die.
The worst thing is, I think I understand how she feels.
My mum doesn’t. She cries and screams and shouts at her, and thinks she’s drumming sense into her mother when she does it, but she isn’t: she’s compounding her guilt but she isn’t changing her mind. The tears she sees spotting her mother’s cheeks aren’t tears of regret: she’s sad, but she’s sad because her daughter doesn’t understand how she feels. When my mum roars Can’t you see what you’re doing to us? Can’t you see how you’re making us feel by saying these things? she sees it all too well, and though she might fall quiet it’s only her mouth that stops moving, and not the dark thoughts that dwell within her.
Why shouldn’t she feel like that? When she’s passed through so much pain and death, why shouldn’t she want to die? She’s seen two husbands fall before her, watched their illnesses draw them out ‘til they were barely moving phantoms with body parts shutting down one after another ‘til their hearts struggled to beat, and gave in. She’s seen sudden death and she’s seen it slowed to a crawl, and now she feels her own mortality she wants to choose how it ends.
She knows how painful death can be.
She’s obstinate, yes, and she’s causing pain to those who love her the most, but God, how much pain must she endure before the end? There aren’t going to be any more bright days. As her body finally shuts down it must be a relief not to wake into a world where her daughter, two husbands, two dogs and too many others are dead.
I’m assuming she’s religious in some capacity. I’m assuming she believes in an afterlife and I’m assuming she believes the people she’s lost are waiting for her beyond the final curtain. And while I don’t want her to die I have to accept that though her cancer’s uncertain, the end is not, and she stands too close to it now to step away.
I don’t know how much longer my gran will live. I don’t really expect her to last until the end of 2011. It feels like certain machineries have been set in motion and all that remains is to watch this cog turn the next until the machine sputters and ceases. It’s a defeatist and nihilistic view to have, but for all the wonders modern medicine might perform my grandmother’s spirit has been broken, and there’s no cure, no band-aid, no fix nor magic potion that might repair it.
And I as her grandson, though I want to turn and hide and squeeze my eyes tight, must prepare for the worst.
When she’s gone–as one day she will be–once the funeral’s over and the wake begins we’ll raise up a toast and remark:
“What a hand she was dealt. What a life.“
This is a post about Death, future tense.
But Death, past tense? That’s still to come.