“Dying is hard work…”
All week I stepped in and out of roles, professional and personal, son, brother, cousin, grandson, medic, nurse, teacher, student, peer, colleague, nephew. All week I clutched onto “Things I Can Do To Help” until I ran out of practical offerings, stopped to look at the whole image and heard the racket of grief clattering up the back stairs of my chest.
I was fearful that my distress would hurt her, would over burden already weakened shoulders. I fretted that if I wept, my tears would burn her like acid on cheap tin.
But with her pragmatism and stoicism, she protected me from myself.
Over toast and marmalade (that she coordinated for me from the conductor’s box of her kitchen chair), I aired a theory with her that she, as a woman in her eighties would naturally be more comfortable than I with the whole situation. She agreed. If one was five and one was fifty-five, there would be no question of who should comfort who.
In this horribly unsettling circus of elastic relationships and hierarchy, that age difference was as reassuring as the cool side of the pillow in a night of fevered confusion.
So when it came time to leave I sat by her bed and held her hand and realised there was nothing left for us to say. We know we love each other and that I’ll miss her.
We know that neither one of us buys that immortal soul guff and that once she’s gone, she’s gone.
But I promised that I’d remember her every time I grappled with a crossword, or played some wickedly obscure word in Scrabble.
I’ll remember her every year during Wimbledon, remember sitting by her chair as a child, silent under pain of death and issues of epic proportions were played out on Centre Court.
And when I play backgammon with someone who gets grumpy with my for deliberately fucking them over and blocking their play just out of winner’s drive and sheer badness? I’ll tell them “My Grandma taught me to do
I was terrified of that last conversation, but she gently took the wheel for me, governing and guiding us both through what could have been, for me at least, an incoherent mess of gasping snot and flushed cheeks which I’m sure would have left me with regrets and unspoken sentiment.
With her help we did it just fine, I repeated what I’d said before about love and missing her. And she let me weep into her neck, reassuring me that the tears “just prove to us both that we mean what we’re saying” before helping me wrap it up neatly.
A pat on the shoulder and a deep breath.
“Alright my darling, come on, be a good lad.”
In the kitchen I slugged scotch from the bottle and relished the slap of its searing shock in my gullet.
Then I picked up my bag and left her in her house, this formidable lady who I’d sort of thought would go on forever.
“There’s no armour against fate…” she’s quoted at us all week when discussing the unquestionable conclusion that’s coming and, recognising the comfort she took from the line, I haven’t disputed it.
But that afternoon she armoured me against hers, with her pragmatism, humour, tenderness and love.
I wondered over taking photos this week, eventually deciding its right to document now and edit later, than not to record events and wish you had. There are other photos that will stay within the family.
So here, published with the permission of them both, are my Mum and my Grandma cracking up laughing over a letter from Orkney.
In this picture I want you to spot the hair that the three of us share, thick, wiry stuff that takes beating into submission each morning. See the omnipresent g&t by the bedside and also the card from one of my Grandma’s many groups of friends who got in touch. And mostly, see that laugh, a long, raucous laugh that made us call her Grandma Capers as youngsters, her sense of fun and wickedness becoming all the more potent as she weakens.
Living and dying with cancer is “Hard and tiring and shit.” we unanimously agreed and there were times when everyone’s emotions got rattled and thin. We fought and snapped like spitting and withdrew from each other to sulk.
And then circled back, for want of necessity or because being calm and alone was harder and shitter than being angry together.
This photo shows you my two favourite women in the world. Look well on it, because it shows you the face of a lady gracefully facing the end and her daughter by her side.