By the time my Grandma died, she no longer knew me. She barely remembered her children (her biggest smiles reserved for her youngest – my uncle) or her doting husband, who sat by her side, silent in his grief at watching the shell of his wife slip away.
Her soul had gone ahead, as is so often the case with Alzheimer’s, and the family were left with her physical presence to manage – a series of care facilities and hospitals providing for her once she was no longer able to be cared for at home.
Eventually she had become violent – my sweet, peaceful, smiling Grandma; who had been a nursing Sister held in wide, high regard; who had taught me to bake rock cakes, talking me through the recipe as I stood diminutively by the chest-freezer we used as workspace; who loved her garden and had a resident toad (to eat the slugs)…violent? Aggressive? Unable to comprehend the circumstances shifting around her as her closing mind fought against the final ravages of its condition, she lashed out at those who were entrusted with her care.
Before the end, though, she was quiet – compliant as a child – laying in bed and staring at nothing. She no longer retained the capability to interact or engage, sometimes looking questioningly at the relatives around her, but vaguely, as though the very process of enquiry were too much.
I went to see her. I was scared and skittish – not knowing what to expect or how to behave. I brought a tiny, lavender-filled pillow and laid it next to her head, hoping that she might at least recognise one of her favourite scents. I ignored her blank eyes, patted her arm (awkwardly) and kissed her downy cheek for the final time.
My Dad (her eldest) was with her when she died. He thought she had already stopped breathing, and was checking to see if he should call for a nurse, when she suddenly came to, looked at him – looked right at him, as though she were returned to herself – and spoke:
“Oh! The singing’s lovely,” she sighed “but I’m not ready yet.”
Then she went back to sleep, and died later – on her birthday – with a look of happy surprise on her face.
I don’t remember crying at her funeral, though many did.
Once she was gone the cohesion, which had once existed to draw the extended family together, dissolved. Her children scattered – not widely, but into patterns of sparse communication. Her grandchildren grew up without her and began to forge their own lives; slipping into the same, exiguously connected arrangement which the family at large found so convenient.
My Grandad, always more tolerant than kindly, and stern enough to command no small measure of awe from little-girl-me, was left alone, missing his wife immensely – for she had been his world – and declaring that he would be happy to die as soon as it happened. Over the next decade after the initial flurries of support, he discovered himself less often attended and in possession of failing health.
A resurgence of interest was generated a few years ago, when a violent heart attack left him unconscious in intensive care for several weeks. The family came together then – made capable by crisis and ready to pitch back in, re-establishing their roles as they wondered if they’d need to conduct another funeral. But he survived; his bull-strength undermined (yet still apparent) as he returned home and bore a second waning of support.
He made it to my wedding (there had been a question mark) and gradually his persistence became something of a dark joke, for he was no less cantankerous to, or easily borne by those of his children who reached out to him. My Dad would wonder if he’d have to take him on holiday again, grumbling about how difficult he found it. I inherited a caution of spending time with the old man, though I lived closest to him – shamefully dissuaded by the tales of challenge which proliferated from others.
Yet it nagged, this shame, and it reared its head each time I passed by his house without stopping in, scratching at my heart and reminding me that for all his ire, this elderly gentleman was my family, my elder, and in some way, my obligation and privilege to visit.
So I took Niece and Neff to see him, and discovered (to my astonishment) that illness and loneliness had mellowed him. He was sweet to them, and I saw kindliness I’d never noticed before and a twinkle in his eye as he laughed at their antics. I was surprised to find I liked him, and returned another time with my husband, just to say hello. We chatted for ages, and I learned much about his life and the history of my family; was fascinated by his recollections and enjoyed spending time with him.
I was astonished to discover that he’d made friends with the Indian family who’d moved in next door, and was full of tales about how he’d been an honoured guest at their daughter’s wedding, enjoying the prestige (bordering reverence) they afforded him, and the way they were always pleased to see him; basking in a status from neighbours he should have been afforded by us – his kin.
Illness has weakened him further, and he is fettered by it, spending sixteen hours a day tied to a tank of oxygen to help him through. He answers the door very slowly, but now always with a smile, and I am increasingly aware of a desire to break the pattern of infrequent contact by developing a habit of visiting him.
Last time I visited, it was fleeting, accompanied by yellow tulips to brighten his day and bring springtime into the still house. I was on my way for a haircut, and I assured him I’d pop back to show him my new ‘do’. When I returned later, he smiled – no; he beamed – and told me I looked lovely.
Since then, he had a fall and brought us all together again because the fall turned out to be a mini-stroke, which required hospitalisation and monitoring. I visited him several times in hospital and brought him (slightly) illicit beer, and we had a laugh, and he took an accidental selfie on my phone (I was showing him the camera) and we enjoyed one anothers company. I was only allowed to bring one can of beer at a time, but he appreciated the gesture – I’d bought a 4-pack of his favourite (Guinness) to cheer him up, and I said I’d bring the others to him when he got home.
I still have those two cans of beer on my counter-top, accusing me that he’s been home a long time now, and I’ve never been back to visit and take them to him.
I realise increasingly that I have the opportunity to assuage regrets before they happen – I have the chance to be a better granddaughter and establish a consistent relationship with him before it’s too late. And if I take that chance, when that day finally comes – the family united once more by geography as we mark his reunion with his wife – the tears I cry will not be of bitter contrition and failure, but of loss; of heartache. Of love.