“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
It happened slowly. That’s the worst kind. When my time on this Earth is up, I want it to be over and done with. I don’t want to have my life warp into one I no longer have control over. One where my control and senses are stolen from me, where I can no longer function independently. One spent in a hospital bed. When I go, I want it to be quick. Being eaten by a tiger would be pretty terrifying, but it would make for a fantastic story. My future imaginary grandchildren would be the coolest kids in the playground. I’d take saving a cat from a burning building, too, or maybe having some kind of spaceship malfunction and getting sucked out into the lethal atmosphere of some planet far away. Once my time here is up, I don’t want to stay any longer than I have to. Not because losing control of your life sucks in itself, but because of how hard it is for others to watch, and not be able to do a thing about it.
My nan passed away last week. It’s taken me a few days to find the words to put to paper, and I’m still not sure I have them, but after life in every sense of the word stopped on Tuesday night (and a couple of days becoming a bit of a solitary wanderer), I’m finally able to get something down. I’m thirty next year, and I guess in a sense I’ve been extremely fortunate that by this age, I’ve only ever lost one person—my grandad; “Guggs,” as I’d called him, and I was too young to really feel the magnitude of what it meant. I remember it happened around the same time as my first cat died, and I remember with great clarity how much that affected me. With my grandad, I remember him going into hospital, and making him a card with the silhouette of a cat on it. He never got it. He never came out. I vaguely remember deciding at eleven years old that even then, I knew if I went to the funeral, never having been to one, that I’d fall into a pit of despair and tears from which I feared I’d never escape. My parents had decided my brother was too young to even ask, and I don’t remember what we did or who we stayed with during it, and I don’t remember much after that.
No, losing someone as an adult is a first for me. Although my reaction was to fall into just as big a pit of despair as I would have twenty years ago. My nan was a huge part of my life. When I was young, I spent most of my time with her. We lived in a cul-de-sac, houses surrounding “the green”; my parents’ house was on one side, my nan’s on another, and my other grandparents’ on the other. We were all thirty seconds away from each other at any given time. I have so many memories of time spent at her house. I remember when she build the aviary and started raising quails and budgies in the back garden. Choosing a budgie, a bright yellow one, whom she named Sparky and taught to say things like “who’s a good boy,” “Where’s Emily?” and “cuppa tea, Charlie darling?” The bird sounded exactly like her.
I remember her teaching me to iron with tea towels and socks, and that a good cook never left any batter in the bowl when cooking. I remember her Welsh cakes, and making figurines and fridge magnets out of plaster of Paris and painting them with her. I remember her bedrooms; each with a terrible carpet and curtains that didn’t match and dressing stands with her gold chains on them and mirrors I used to sometimes be a little scared of at night. She kept two money boxes for my brother and me; one in the shape of a globe; that was mine; the other, a wooden church for my brother. She’d put a pound coin into each every week, and despite us moving halfway around the world, whenever I’d go back to visit, I’d find she’d been putting the pound coins in every week anyway. Her Sunday dinners were to die for. She’d boil every bit of nutrient out of the vegetables, but she’d cook lamb and introduced me to mint sauce and apple sauce with meat and potatoes. I was always in charge of the potatoes, putting in a bit of milk and more than a bit of butter, and then margarine on top of that once they were on the plate. And there was always a pudding. Rice pudding and jam, or custard if it was a particularly good day.
She hated The Simpsons. “Them yellow people,” she called them, but she watched it with me anyway. I’m certain it was a pretend hate. I remember after school watching Trap Door and SuperTed and Neighbours with her every day while we had tea. She taught me that if you stirred milk and sugar into your tea and you had bubbles on the top, it meant you were going to be lucky and get some money. I used to drink them all up from a teaspoon. I remember her first e-mails, and being so incredibly proud of her, having gone for computer lessons on her own at the library after we’d moved. They were all one big sentence with no punctuation but were always full of so much love. I remember how excited she’d get, throughout my whole life, whenever I visited. It was all the time, but I adored her and I was infinitely as excited as she was. I remember finding a card I’d made as a child on a visit maybe four years ago now, in one of the spare bedrooms, apologising for not being allowed to visit every day any more but saying how much I loved her anyway. It had an outline of my hand on the front I’d drawn and coloured in.
The decline happened slowly, over years and years, but her spirit was the strongest I’ve ever known. It was horribly unfair. She broke one shoulder, had surgery that went wrong and that meant she couldn’t use that arm any more. She started falling; in the street or in her house, and hitting her head. I remember coming home and finding her at the bottom of the stairs in her nightgown one night after a day in London and being so, so scared. Despite it all, she still cooked, came out to the seaside and down to the shops with us, out for a curry or fish and chips, with a smile on her face.
She was in hospital a few years ago for an extended period, and went through a really worrying few months, but she emerged, resilient as ever. This time, she fell again, and the damage to her other shoulder meant she couldn’t use either arm. Couldn’t use a walker. Surgery. Surgery during which she had a heart attack. Again, she woke okay… but then the infection started. The skin began necrotizing, and antibiotics weren’t working. She was too fragile to operate on again, and we found ourselves terrified that either the infection or being put under again would kill her. Eventually she became strong enough to have surgery attempted again… and it was successful. My dad visited, and gave her a burst of hope and love after months of being stuck on a hospital ward with no wireless phone… but then her blood pressure started to drop. It kept dropping and wouldn’t stabilize.
This time last week, we got the news that she probably only had a matter of days. I couldn’t sleep. I lay there that night, my heart and mind racing, worrying that somewhere almost 4,000 miles away, my dear nan was laying there alone, her consciousness on the verge of disappearing into oblivion. I got maybe two hours and dragged myself up in the morning, but I felt like I was going to throw up at any moment. I was wide awake and exhausted and nauseous and anxious, so I called in and said I’d work from home. I’d been working that weekend, and I had a pile of things to catch up on, so I dove into it from morning ’til night to try to catch up and distract myself. The next day was spent at the office, waiting for any news. Again, I ploughed through; couldn’t eat for nausea and still had an enormous amount to do, and did as much as I possibly could. That evening I had to work an event too, and in the middle of it, I got a phone call from my dad I couldn’t pick up. I knew then that that was the call.
He messaged me asking when I’d be home, and I said it would probably be over by nine-ish, so probably 9:30. I called as soon as I was able before even getting in the car, and got no answer. My mind started to panic, so I drove home, and found my dad outside my apartment building. It was a bizarre moment—I knew why he was there, but he didn’t seem upset. I said I’d tried calling him, and he said “let’s go inside.” I knew why, but my brain was working on two different levels and I blurted out something stupid about it being messy. At that point, he looked at me, his eyes welling up, and he choked out, “it doesn’t matter,” and put his arms around me. I cried, and I shook, and he cried with me. He’d only found out a couple of hours prior, and I’d been stuck on a tour bus taking photos of “ghosts” and “spirits” unable to be there for him when he did. We talked. We hugged. The grief came in waves. It was something we knew had been coming for a long time, but my nan had always been such a fighter. She’d always pulled through.
We talked about how the most important thing was that she was no longer suffering. She’d suffered for so very long, and her quality of life was just gone. We cried as my dad said she’d never have to be in pain again, as we both thought inside we’d never see her again. The part that pierced my heart was when he had a moment after which he said quietly, “I’m an orphan now.” I couldn’t bear it. After a little while and many tears, I knew I had to call work to tell them. I spoke with the CEO who was incredibly kind, compassionate and comforting. I’d had no idea she was travelling, but she talked to me for a while and showed a kindness I’ll be eternally grateful for. The next night, my beautiful sweet friend came over to keep me company. She brought food and drinks and we told stories to each other and shared several heart to hearts. She held me as I cried and I felt such incredible gratitude. The next few days I found myself embracing the I in INFJ (uncharacteristic for me), on day one just driving with no particular destination in mind, looking for somewhere completely isolated from other people. I went south, and eventually an abandoned old barn popped up. I had no makeup on and a dress I’d worn the day before and looked as rough as it did, so I ventured through the long grass and sat inside. There were holes in the roof, which was collapsing; doors had fallen down, and it was a graveyard of its former glory. It was perfect. I sat there in the silence for a while, took some pictures, and tried writing. I just wanted my mind to stop racing for once, and for a moment, it did. The next day I spent alone in a bookstore cafe type place I’d never been to. I wrote for hours, and I found it therapeutic. My soul felt a tiny, tiny bit better after those two days.
As much as I’ve written here, it could never be enough. There could never be enough words in this language of ours to do justice to just how much she meant, and how cherished she was to the very end. I hope with all my heart she knew. And cherished she always will be. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be a) here today and b) who I am today. Her gift of love was one I’m beyond lucky to have been given, and I’ll keep it safe in my heart forever.
I love you, nan.