Hello dear readers.
Today’s post is a little bit different. I hope you don’t mind. Today I would like to write about my grandmother.
My lovely little grandparents, Ken and Minnie.
My grandmother, Minnie, was the sweetest, shyest, kindest, classiest little lady. She never thought much of herself, never thought she was attractive or particularly interesting, but she was all those things, and more. She was quietly amusing and she never complained when my sister and I played hairdressers and insisted on tying her perfect white bob into lots of ridiculous ponytails.
The story I would like to tell today, I wrote in the 14 hours while I waited for my darling little grandmother to leave this earth. On Friday, it will be ten years to the day.
Now, I love you, my lovely readers, and I didn’t want to send you off into your weekends pondering death. I mean, that’s a bit of a downer, isn’t it? So I have published my story today instead. But it’s ok. We’ll all shuffle off our mortal coils eventually, After all, death is life. And this was my experience.
I was woken up suddenly this morning. I didn’t have time to have a shower. Didn’t do my hair or put in any earrings. I was ready in ten minutes. Bleary eyed, I jumped in the car with my mum. We didn’t talk much on the way there. We gritted our teeth; clenched our jaws, so as not to betray a twitch of the mouth, a tremor of the voice.
My Aunty should have been in the car too. She should have caught her flight to be with us last night, but she had a Spanish lesson. Then book club. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s too inconvenient for me to arrive in the evening. I’ll see you in the morning, about 11am.’
By then, we couldn’t pick her up from the airport. We couldn’t leave the side of my grandmother’s bed in case she should leave while we were away.
Later, after she died, the cousins would arrive. The uncle we hadn’t spoken to in four years. I hadn’t seen them since my grandfather’s funeral. During the incantations, my uncle had the opportunity to show off his impeccable knowledge of Hebrew. He raced my dad through the mourners’ prayer. The words poured effortlessly from his mouth, propelled by flecks of spit. Not once did he stumble over the guttural sounds, the complicated words. He crossed the finish line triumphant and looked around to see whom he had impressed. My dad was still stuttering through the final paragraph. No one looked at my uncle. Immediately after the prayers, my cousin flew back home, so she wouldn’t miss her school dance.
Now, I’m at the Old People’s Home, where my grandmother lives. I stroke her forehead and watch her breathe. She looked the same as my grandfather had at this stage. Sunken and small, she barely makes a dent in the bed. ‘I love you,’ I whisper. ‘I don’t think I’ve told you enough in the last few years.’
So many times I had visited her with my mother and sat next to her as she stared emptily, through me. ‘Do you know who I am,’ I would say to her, with the enthusiastic, patronising tone of one talking to an infant. ‘No,’ she’d reply. So I’d sit there dumbly, blinking, chewing my lip. I never knew what to say after that.
My Aunty’s arrival: signalled by her gold bangles, like wind-chimes. She breezes through the door all jingle-jangles and air kisses, oblivious to her misplaced frivolity.
‘So darling,’ she gushes. ‘How are you? I had such an enjoyable flight. The cabin crew were simply lovely! One of the hostesses was South American and we had a conversation in Spanish! Imagine that! Anyway. Do you like my new trousers? They’re imitation Fendi! Now, where’s your mother?’
My mum comes back into the room. We sit next to my grandmother and talk about her, about how shy and sweet and funny she was. My aunty talks about her new sunglasses. ‘Gucci! Half price. Half price! Isn’t that fabulous?’
We buy sandwiches and juice from the kiosk. Sit around my little grandmother and eat in silence without appetite. There is a lull in the conversation as we listen to her strange, hurried breathing, slowly deflating until there is no air left.
I never really knew whether or not people had souls until I saw both my grandparents die, saw their bone structure collapse, mouth open, unmoving, as though the life was pouring out.
With every moment there is less, and less of her. Gone is the grandmother who took us to the butterfly farm and who loved to read to us and take us to the pictures. The grandmother who so lovingly yanked the brush through our hair when we were small and rubbed our backs vigorously with a scratchy towel till it was red and stinging when we got out of the bath, then kissed us, blew raspberries on our cheek and we shrieked with laughter.
My grandmother hasn’t eaten or drunk anything in eight days. Her mechanisms are slowly failing. She’s had dementia for six years now. The first time it struck we were so confused – her sudden bursts of anger, where she had once been so gentle and calm. My grandfather was sure someone was stealing things from the house as they slept, until we started finding things in the rubbish bin – clothes, watches, vases; things we had given her over years. She would creep around the house in the dark in her nightdress, ‘rearranging’, then slip back into bed to the gentle music of her husband’s snoring, and by morning, she would forget. But against all odds, it was she who kept breathing, she who outlived her husband so vivacious, charismatic and haunted by Germany, 1938. He died four years ago, one night in September. I was there for that one too.
Her muscles have already started contracting. Her entire body is closing in on herself as though she is ready to be born. So helpless. Life sucks us in one end, and we emerge backwards out the other – live the beginning again before we vanish.
I visited her last week and I held her hand. There was surprising strength in it. She didn’t know who I was. After I left, it was strange. I could still feel her hand gripping mine and I continued holding it, my fist in my pocket until I got home.
Different nurses stick their heads in the door every so often. They come into the room, fuss momentarily around my grandmother, make light banter and we smile back at them and thank them for their help and we marvel that a woman ninety-five years old who in the course of her life suffered a smorgasbord of ailments and has not consumed any food or drink for over a week is still breathing. Occasionally she yawns. So peaceful. Like a baby.
On the mantelpiece, in a weathered wooden frame is a photo of my grandfather taken two weeks before he died. The way it is positioned, it looks as though he is looking directly at my sweet little grandmother. The picture was taken in June, on a cool, sunny day. The sun is shining in his face. I imagine that when the time comes, my grandmother will get out of bed, put in her teeth, brush her hair and step into the photo with my grandfather. Then, they can stand in the sun and wait for the rest of us. I wish I were in the sun, in a green, open space, not in this room with the speckled lino floor, harsh fluorescent lighting, cream walls and a shelf full of frozen family moments, holding a silent vigil.
When my aunty visits, she rearranges the photos so that her family is at the front. I change it back when she leaves.
‘Her pulse is slowing down,’ says a nurse.
The cousins are coming for the funeral. It’s pointless really because my grandmother won’t care if they’re there or not by then. They never visited her when she was alive.
I’ve been waiting now, for twelve hours. An unsettling dusk is beginning to form the backdrop of this sombre scene. A charcoal blanket devours the trees. I draw the curtains as if I could somehow shut out the darkness, halt the flow of time, but the atmosphere is heavy with it. The clock ticks stubbornly, next to the bed.
Crying comes in a wave, like a yawn. Sometimes unexpected, impossible to suppress. You can try, but your face contorts, your throat aches, the tears squeeze through your eyes no matter how hard you squint. Your nose starts running, and the sniffing is followed by the vocal accompaniment: a wail, a choking sob.
It’s approaching midnight. More than fourteen hours have crept away and I haven’t even noticed the hands moving on the clock. The shifts have changed too. It’s the strangest feeling, waiting. Waiting for something so intangible and not knowing when the it will cease; not knowing when the person you’re waiting for will decide its time to fly away, leaving a barrage of memories in their wake. It’s surreal. Suspended animation. People spend so much time worrying about things. About acquiring things. About wealth. But everyone ends up the same way. An entire life can be condensed into one room.
My parents and aunty will stay the night. I am driven home. The dog has been by himself for hours – he isn’t used to it. He will be snuffling under the door, getting restless, fretting. I kiss my grandmother goodbye. I wonder if we’ll all still be waiting by morning.
I walk into the house to be greeted by excited yelping, tail wagging, the scratch-tapping of doggie claws skidding across the polished floorboards. I sit on the floor against the kitchen cupboard and I wail until I can hardly breathe, doubled over with the exertion of it all. My stomach aches. My face feels swollen and tight. It worries my dog. He puts his head down and hides under the table.
I finally fall asleep. It is a deep sleep, groggy with dry tears, a shadowy fog. My body is heavy with the dread of knowing that when I do wake up, I will be faced with an irrevocable sense of loss.
At 5:36am I am pulled from my dreams gently, sucked, as though in rewind, from the shrouds of sleep. I open my eyes wondering how it is that I woke up so suddenly, so knowingly. At that exact moment my mum calls me. ‘She’s gone. It was peaceful. She took three last breaths and that was it. I was beside her. She woke me up too.’
My Dad picks me up so I can wait with the family while the formalities take place. My grandmother is lying in bed, just as I left her. It’s distressing seeing someone lying so still. I keep expecting to see the bedclothes move, see the rise and fall of her chest. She is unrecognisable without life. I don’t cry this time. I feel calm because I know that the woman lying in front of me is not my grandmother, merely a shell of someone who once was.
The day of the funeral arrives two days later. The sun is shining weakly through the clouds, but all I can see is the grave landscape, the monuments, the stones, whispering of those who were.
The prayers begin. They lower my little grandmother into the hole, in her very small coffin. My sweet little grandmother.
It is the most appalling sound, shoveled earth hitting wood. Every time those great clumps of dirt land on top of the coffin and I hear the dull thud, it is as though I’m being punched in the stomach. Again. And again. But I don’t cry. I know my grandmother isn’t really in the ground. The burial is merely a convention, a tradition. I saw her before she was buried. She had already gone. One day I’ll find out where.
Ears are assailed by condolences. Cards fight for their place in the mailbox, pour under the door. For seven days people come over, deliver food, words of comfort: “I wish you a long life. How are you? Are you ok? Long life. How are you? How are you coping? I wish you a long life. I wish you a long life.”
I get tired of saying, “Thank you. Fine thanks. Yes thanks. Thank you. I’m surviving. Getting there. Thank you. Thank you.” It’s exhausting.
Some people don’t know what to say at all. They stutter, ‘well it’s sad, yes, but she had a long life, a good innings,’ as though that makes it better somehow. But how easy it is to say that when it’s not your mother, not your grandmother. It doesn’t matter if someone is eighteen or ninety-eight or one hundred and eight. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known someone for one year or a hundred. It doesn’t hurt any less when they go. All that is left are photos, memories, clothes, and their brush, with strands of their hair still caught in the bristles.
One day you will vanish, I will vanish; like a sad magic trick to which no-one knows the secret. Then we will see the world from a different angle, watch the throngs arriving and leaving, appearing and disappearing, and we will wait for them. We will know.