Monday, April 30, 2007

A chill on a hot day

Told by email on Friday of my Grandmother's impending death, and travelled down today to Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow to see her today.

She fell and broke her hip on Thursday evening and lay on the floor of her room in the residential home until morning. During the operation she suffered complete heart failure which has severely damaged her heart and we've been told she has some kind of bug.

She's very poorly. The doctors have told us that they do not intend to resuscitate when she finally goes, possibly today, certainly some time this week.

As always she tells me she knows she knows me but not who I am. It helps her avoid the embarrassment of failing to recognise the host of family members, carers and acquaintances she has had to cope with over the last ten years of utter disorientation.

The intimacy of constantly adjusting her oxygen mask and hushed conversation brings us physically closer than we've been since I was a young teenager. Her repetitive delirious outbursts reinforce how alienated we are from one another

On the way up I was thinking about how i could choose to paint her as a working class hero, truthfully pointing to her time in the Communist Party, her positive sense of community and workplace spirit, how she coped with the real hardships and trials of her life.

But I think it would be disrespectful to give the impression she was defined by what were incidental aspects of her character. I have abiding memories of her as "Grandma Big Steps" in reference to the large number of stairs we had to climb to her council flat when visiting (having first climbed a steep hill). I remember her tiny flat in Sawbridgeworth, so delightful to visit due to the ripe teenage daughter of the family living next door.

But, in reality, it's harsher memories that really define what she was to me. Sets of behaviours that left her cut off by some in the family, and regarded with awkward distaste by many others. I certainly stopped speaking to her for many years and it was only when her illness had wiped away any vestiges of the past that could justify maintaining a grudge was I really willing to acknowledge her again.

When I'm with her I have to fight down self loathing. The gnawing hypocrisy of putting on layers of pleasantries with a woman I barely know and have absolutely no respect for. But then she barely knows who she is herself and whatever lies behind us surely we all deserve someone to adjust our oxygen mask in the last hours of our lives.

Perhaps when its my turn there will be someone willing to stand vigil, to simply observe my passing, possibly easing the passage with their presence. If there's no one then fine. I did my bit today to say that those without worth are still living, breathing creatures. We should be mindful of the pain of others. Open to the unique significance that their life holds for them.

As I get up to leave the woman in the next bed beckons me over. She's as frail as anything. Paper thin skin, hollow cheeks, shaking, skeletal hand reaching out to me. Leaning in I hear her whisper in a strong Polish accent "It's so cold in England."

I look outside at the burning sunshine on grey concrete and nod, help her with her covers and leave.


Anonymous said...


So sorry to hear that you are going through such a testing time. Your piece was beautifully written - I hope it helped you sort out some of the issues in it.


Natalie Bennett said...

My thoughts are with you Jim. That's a tough set of emotions to deal with.