My grandmother is dying.
Literally, as I type – fading away. She has been asleep / unconscious for over a week now. She has dementia, and has been deteriorating fast before our eyes over the past few years. The tiny, skeletal, fragile thing that lies in her bed, breathing quickly, eyelids sunken beneath her brow, cheekbones and collar bones jutting – bears no resemblance really to the woman she was. Not even the woman she was two years ago, or thereabouts, when she finally had to leave her flat and enter a care home.
Such a cruel illness, it will not let go. At least now she is sleeping. Perhaps she has gone even, and it is only the body which remains, on autopilot until the fuel runs out. But if not – she is sleeping, peacefully. There does not seem to be any suffering. She has been unhappy, frustrated, frightened, angry – in these last days. As the disease robbed her of her voice, of memories, of understanding. At first (in the later stages) her speech confused, she couldn’t express what she wanted to say – chose the wrong words, or couldn’t think of them at all – or what it was she wanted to say didn’t make any sense. And then later she literally lost her voice – couldn’t speak – would mouth words, or start to, and then stop, exhausted and frustrated by it all. At least it seems she is in a place beyond all that now.
I will miss her. Do miss her already. Have missed her for years. We have never had an easy relationship, being at the opposite ends of opinion on many subjects. But I have had enormous respect for her. For the life she has led, and the strength and support she has shown for her children. She had a hard hand but played it well. Independent and feisty. Stubborn as a mule. I regret that I am not someone who finds conversation easy – because if I were, I would have gone to visit her more in those years when it may have done some good. When I lived nearby, or even before that. What kept me away was the awkward silences – I never had anything to say. I have relatives who can talk up a storm. I sometimes wonder if they stole my share of chattiness. The same when I telephoned. She craved company, contact – and yet when I did speak to her it seemed she couldn’t wait to get you off the phone. Perhaps I rang at the wrong times, when Corrie was on or something.
I don’t know what she thought of me really. I think she liked me. I was her youngest grandchild. I think the first to do particularly well in school, go to university, get a job which had signs of importance to her, like going to London, working in government. Not that that is necessarily true – it’s certainly not important. I’m no better than anyone else in my family. But she used to talk about it like it meant something to her. But at the same time it is probably part of the reason for the distance between us. As it is for the distance between me and many of my family. My experiences are not theirs – theirs are not mine. Our common ground is minimal. Our opinions different.
But our blood is the same, and that counts for something.
There are lots of things about this process I want to say. I want to talk about the illness. I want to talk about the care homes and all that’s wrong and right with them. But now isn’t the time.
My mother is heartbroken. She, one of five children, second youngest, is left to cope with it alone. Her younger brother has Down Syndrome and is in residential care himself – older than they thought he would get, immobile, vulnerable. Her elder brothers and sisters are all sat waiting for Gran, if such a waiting room exists. My aunt has been there a very long time. It will be quite a party. One husband, three children, three boyfriends, many friends, more pets. And of course her own mother and father, brothers, sisters. Probably more there than here.
I can’t say whether my dad is being particularly helpful. I’m sure he is, in the quiet times when I am not there. He isn’t going to see her much, if at all. He had little patience for her in these latter years, but I think his reticence is more to do with his own fears than any ill feeling towards my gran. After seeing my granddad die, nearly ten years ago now – (I had to double-take when I realised that the other day – so quickly a decade goes) – I know he fears if not death, then dying. Pain. Decay. Losing yourself. Both of them have said they do not want to go like this, like that. In pain, or without dignity. There’s a thought for another day. Seeing her, seeing the others in the home – crazed, incontinent, no longer who they were – I can see the fear muddled in with the sympathy, or pity. Fear is in all of us these days. No one wants to die young, but who wants to die at all?
I have said my goodbyes. Twice now – three times including the time she heard, on Mother’s day, when her eyes seemed a little brighter than usual, and her hands squeezed back as I stroked them. The last time she had fluid was Saturday in the hospital. No real idea how long it might take. It felt close when I saw her on Sunday, her breath much louder. But now they have given her patches to reduce the secretions on the chest which make that noise – but she is thinner today (if that’s even possible, there is nothing left) – her skin a little cooler. But her pulse still seems strong, her breathing regular. I read it can be seven to ten days. So maybe a few more days. Such a slow going. Perhaps she’s putting things in order. Maybe it takes this long for 95 years to flash before your eyes. I know she had some hard times, and a lot of sorrow. I hope she knew great love and joy and happiness in there too, because she certainly brought it to others at one time or another. Sweet dreams grandma. Whenever you are ready. Don’t worry, I will look after mum, you’ve done your job and more than deserve the rest.