Today would’ve been my nan’s 85th birthday, but she died three weeks ago. I wrote this over the course of her death as therapy. I feel a bit weird posting it here, but I guess life is nothing but a journey and I’m travelling on it, but my dear nannyflipflop’s travels have come to an end…
It was a strange feeling – walking around and looking at Nan’s things while she was in hospital with “three hours to three days to live”, so the doctors told us. I sat down in my usual spot in her lounge on the plush chair next to hers with a cup of tea – just as I had done many times before.
I looked around at her world. Over the last three years she’d become increasingly housebound; her fear of needing the toilet while she was out, or slipping over, had overridden her love of wandering around the food shops and taking whoever was around out for fish and chips at Morrisons, or a roast dinner at Bromley Hayes Garden Centre.
I imagined her days sat in that room; checking the Radio Times, watching Keeping Up Appearances, Only Fools and Horses, Saturday Kitchen or whatever Premier League football match was kicking off.
I noted her Moorcroft pottery one by one; she’d had it as long as I could remember and told me a few years ago to sell it all if she ever died. “It’s worth quite a bit, someone on Bargain Hunt had a piece last week that went for £300”.
Books she’d never finish were stacked on her side table, letters for appointments she’d now not attend were piled on top and a half open bag of sweets were scattered in a bowl on her dresser.
I took in her view through the patio doors – my parent’s beautiful garden. She’d moved in with them seven years ago when she’d been diagnosed with cancer first time round. Now in the late stages of her second bout, the chemo she’d had a year ago hadn’t worked and the fungus was consuming everything in its wake. The slow asphyxiation of her kidneys was affecting every part of her body.
In hospital yesterday she was looking at me, but couldn’t focus. Her hands were three times the size they should be and every wrinkle was ironed out from the swelling. All the fluid and fat from her face had drained into her hands and they were now inflated, thick and purple, while her face was drawn and grey.
She’d seemed fine four days ago. Just her usual self; complaining about the weather, worrying about me and my brother and apparently looking forward to seeing me that weekend. Then she’d got up for the toilet in the morning, lost her balance and fell. She was laid on the floor between her bedroom and bathroom for an hour before mum came back from a night shift and found her. In the trauma nan had forgotten about the emergency callout bracelet she had wrapped round her wrist.
As I sat in her chair I imagined her all by herself just lying on the floor. The image of her in hospital yesterday flashed in my mind, mouthing but unable to force the voice out she just had one word, ‘Why?’. She couldn’t understand why she was so ill from falling over, but what she was too confused to see was that the cause and effect was the other way round.
I know nan’s story is not a tragedy. She’d be 85 on September 4th and had had a good life. She lived relatively struggle-free for the past 14 years since my Grandpa died. She moved from London to just up the road from us in a bungalow in Barton-under-Needwood for seven of them and then in our converted garage for another seven. Dad was her only child. It was her time, but that doesn’t stop the end of a life from being so sad and me being so devastated she was leaving us.
Sitting with her in hospital I was convinced every breath was her last. The gaps seemed to get longer and longer – and in a way maybe I willed it to be so I’d be with her for her final intake and the horrific process everyone has to go through would be over.
As I noticed my business card on her side table at home with my boyfriend’s name spelt out on the back and then ‘smile’ written after it so she could remember the pronunciation (Waiel) I felt the inevitable guilt. It had been two months since I’d been to see her. I’ve been to Amsterdam and Tanzania in that time and then just haven’t been home since. It’s probably the longest I’ve not visited – bar my long-term travels.
It just happened so quickly and I’d fallen into the comfortable trap of just thinking she’d be around forever. Even on the journey home after I’d heard about her fall I still didn’t register she’d be so bad. I’d desperately tried to finish Shantaram on the train so she’d have something to read in hospital – she’d love a bit of mafia/drug-related literature – but I didn’t realise she couldn’t even pick up a grape, never mind a book, and definitely not one that size.
On my first visit she just about managed to ask me about my next holiday and make a joke; “One of you can sharm and the other one can shake,” talking about mine and my mum’s trip to Egypt in September. She even did a little wiggle in her hospital bed. I could see what a strain it was though.
When I went the next day she didn’t even realise it was me there. I tried to help her drink, but it caused her too much discomfort. I watched dad carefully bring some water to her lips and direct the straw into her mouth to encourage her to sip on it. It caught on her dry lips as she tried to take a breath and drink at the same time. The effort she had to put in to do this will stay with me forever. There’s no grace in getting old.
On the Sunday of my weekend home we decided it wasn’t helping anyone for me to go to the hospital. The Nan I knew had gone and she’d hate the thought of me being with her like that. I had to accept my Saturday visit was the last time I’d ever see her.
My nan was the ultimate armchair traveller. She lived four miles from Heathrow Airport for 30 years, but had never even been abroad. Instead she travelled through her books – she must’ve got through 100s in her life. “I can travel the world just by turning the page,” she told me once.
The last time I saw her as I want to remember her we got her big atlas down and I showed her the route I was taking from Zanzibar to Nairobi. She talked wistfully about how marvellous it would be, made me promise to take lots of photos and gave me some money to stay safe, and her usual wink. I need to remember her like this, or when she’d clap her hands with joy as I paraded a new outfit, or the way she’d raise her face to the sun when it streamed through her windows or even the way she’d tell me off for eating too many roast potatoes at Sunday lunches, not how she was in the hospital.
Looking around her bedroom and lounge today everything was different. It was only now I noticed just how many pictures there were of my brother and me; on our own, together and with our partners. Postcards from Zanzibar and the Serengeti from me were slotted into crevices in the dresser and I remembered writing them in the sun. The scrawls were filled with reassurance that I’d show her the photos when I got back, but that never happened.
I realise now how much Nan meant to me. We can never spend enough time with the people we love; we’ll never have a cup of tea and a chat again, she’ll never recite the daily weather forecast to anyone who’ll listen or watch another series of her favourite Strictly Come Dancing. Her eyes will never light up at a cream cake, and she won’t snort with laughter at the Morecambe and Wise seasonal specials she must’ve seen a hundred times, or let her mind float away to the sounds of Andre Rieu on the radio, but I have to be thankful for the time I have had with her.
I knew my nan for 27 of her almost 85 years and we were great friends. She told me her years living in our village around us were her happiest of her life and I’m honoured to have been a reason for, and a part of, them. She died on Wednesday 15 August 2012 a loved nan, mum and friend who will always be remembered – as all the sympathy cards prove – as a fun, caring and kind lady with a dry sense of humour and a sweet tooth that will forever live on through me.