‘So these are my choices?’
My Mother and I are discussing your imminent death. Knowing this would probably have upset you, for you never liked to be a burden, yet constantly thought of yourself as such.
‘I’m sorry, darling. It’s covid, isn’t it? The care home has all these rules…I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. I understand.’ And I do, I really do. The entire world has been placed in a state of compromise, and nothing epitomises the preceding year more for me than my current predicament: trying to find some way, shape or form in which to say goodbye to you, my guardian, my light, my friend, my cheerleader, my second mother, my precious Nan. Sadly, my choices are limited. I can drive for five hours to wave at you through the window of your room at the care home, where you won’t be able to see me anyway because of your poor eyesight. Or I can try and talk to you on a mobile phone that someone else holds to your ear, where you won’t be able to remember my name or see who I am or even understand what I’m saying, most probably, but perhaps it will be enough for me to roar I LOVE YOU YOU ARE EVERYTHING TO ME down the phone in a way that might make it through. Or I can say goodbye to the woman in the photograph albums I have filling up the attic instead. The beautiful woman with the dark hair and the tanned, smooth skin that glows and the bright smile and hands that were always, always entangled in the fur of a dog. I can kiss the tips of my fingers and lay these upon the cold, glossy paper and hope that somehow, the love reaches you.
But I cannot say it in person, or hold your hand in mine, or lay a kiss upon your cheek.
Instead, these are my choices.
I never was too good at making important decisions.
You are, thankfully, oblivious to this conversation, for you are lying in your bed in the care home you have been in for three years, ever since that nasty fall that almost killed you, the fall you took on Christmas Day. I remember that day in crystalline detail: I remember calling you, listening to your house phone ring and ring and ring with a sinking stomach. I remember then calling Mum, telling her that something didn’t feel right, telling her to get round to yours, check on you- it was Christmas morning, for heaven’s sake, there would be no reason for you to not answer the phone, no innocent reason. I waited twenty minutes and then dialled Mum’s mobile phone, and she breathlessly confirmed what I was terrified of: that you’d hurt yourself, badly. ‘She’s fallen,’ Mum said, and in the background I could hear you moaning and crying in pain. It was awful. What you’d done was also awful: you’d stumbled while in the toilet, a small, pokey space separate to the bathroom with no room to manoeuvre, and in falling you’d twisted, and somehow managed to hook your arm over the sink and tap next to the toilet, and, having caught yourself, you then lacked the strength to do anything other than hang there, twisted, agonised, humiliated, cold, for hours and hours, your panic alarm cruelly out of reach on your trapped wrist, until you were found on Christmas day in the morning, as the song goes. I remember all of this. I remember being told a few days later to prepare for the worst: you had a broken wrist, collapsed lung, pneumonia, sepsis and a horrible, highly infectious form of flu. We had to wear PPE several years before it was all the rage, you know- I remember the plastic apron, the gloves, the clear plastic visor and face mask we had to climb into before going into the special, quiet ward they reserve for very sick people, to say our goodbyes. You had no idea who we were behind all that armour, and I don’t think you really cared, at that point, you were so thin and frail and tired and I wished fiercely that I didn’t have to remember you like that, that I could somehow twist time so that your skin plumped out and became the lovely light tanned skin I remembered so well, and that your hair would puff proudly again, and your eyes would sparkle, but time is a mindless machine with no care for my wishes, and I had to endure the sight of you, diminished and dying. Because love comes with certain rules, and one of those rules is that, throughout the course of our lives, we will see things we desperately wish we didn’t have to see, but we will have to bear those sights in an utterly lonely and unique manner, because this is part of the bargain we make when we open ourselves to love, and though it may be better to have loved and lost, undoubtedly, it would be far better to have loved without pain. But perhaps love and pain are so intertwined that wishing for such things is wasted energy, I don’t know. I do know that there is a part of my mind that is forever reserved for the low, sick feeling you experience when something so utterly horrible you cannot quite comprehend it is unfolding before you, in real time. It is like a headache that constantly persists, or a heavy backpack you cannot remove. You carry it with you always, and the weight never lifts, but your back grows stronger, with age and experience, and you learn to straighten again beneath the burden.
But time, we were told, was not on our side. You would die, we were warned, and that was that, there was nothing more that could be done.
Except you didn’t. Miraculously, despite being informed that you would most likely fall asleep and never wake up again, you did wake. You were a stubborn bugger, under all that softness. Granddad used to call you ‘his little dragon,’ and I always thought that was a bit harsh, but it was in fact affectionate and accurate because by golly, could you roar when you wanted to, you were a five-foot-two spitfire in freshly pleated trousers. And a few weeks later, I was able to hold you, and my God, it felt so good. It felt so damn good. ‘I’m alright,’ you said, a little unsteadily, and I said nothing, just held on to you. The power of your skin against mine, your soft, velvety cheek resting next to my forehead, the connective surge of love passing from your body to my body, it was restorative, it was everything, and it was a gesture I haven’t been able to repeat since. Sometimes I see a photograph of you and relive that moment, feel your skin as if it were in reach, and I give thanks for that unexpected opportunity to hold you, I give thanks because my ability to touch you was wrenched away several years later and so those extra moments held more significance, in hindsight.
After the fall and your recovery, you never walked again. You were bedridden, and so we sold your house, also partly my house, I suppose, by simple default of how many of my early years I had spent there, growing. It was obvious you couldn’t stay there alone anymore. The rapidity of which your life, and my childhood, was then dismantled and marketed and re-owned was incredible, and I spent a lot of that period feeling breathless, wondering if the new inhabitants of your house would sit where I sat as a girl, in the small covered seat a the bottom of the garden, near the shed, with ivy and honeysuckle tickling my back as I listened to my Granddad tinkering away inside, making something, fixing something, building something, doing what he did best: using his hands. I wondered if they would lie on the couch in the living room on sick days, the couch you would bundle me into with a scalding sweet tea and a warm rug and a hot water bottle, and trace the delicate lines of the hairline cracks in the ceiling with tired eyes. I wondered if they would listen to the same music we listened to, Rachmaninov and Holst and Vaughan Williams and Thomas Tallis, anything but Bartok, I hate blasted Bartok, you would say, as we moved around the warm bungalow painted in shades of cream and yellow, everything cream and yellow, like a field of primroses in spring, each room an invitation to smile. I wondered if they would keep your plants, your sea grasses and ferns and daffodils and climbers and creepers and mosses and trees, or whether they would want to start anew, whether they would ravage the pristine lawn with diggers and decking or worse, maybe even gravel, anything for an easy life. I wondered about this and mourned the loss of my childhood home, but understood that it was necessary to let go: your safety and health were more important.
I am not sure you felt as accepting of things, particularly when you moved to the home. We tried our best, we tried to make your room less sanitised and sterile, we bought pictures and cushions and plants and ornaments, but we all knew it was sorry compensation for the deep comfort of your (our) own home. Despite this, there was a certain sense of security in knowing that you could no longer hurt yourself and lie, broken and alone, for hours on end, and we knew you would be warm, and safe, and fed, and there was the TV, wasn’t there? We would visit, and we did, and we said this to ourselves and to you, but we had forced smiles on our faces as we spoke. But there was little else anyone could do, and such is the reality of the situation for many. The struggle to care for someone with such enormous physical and medical needs is one that not every person can reasonably dedicate themselves to whilst also earning a living, being able to afford the gas bill and food and electricity, even with a pension taken into consideration. We did what we thought was best for you, and you knew that, because you loved us as we loved you, but we all felt shitty about it, and you most of all. They say a man’s house is his castle, but for you, your home was a ship, and without her, you were directionless, a passenger rather than a captain, and I always felt guilty for this. But, as I said, love comes with rules, doesn’t it? And another one of those rules is that you will, by stint of loving, also experience guilt, and that is something I have become extremely well acquainted with, over the years.
Time passed, days and weeks and years, and I thought I had more time, but suddenly, a huge event landed upon us all like a heavy, stifling blanket thrown down across the world: a virus. And everything became dangerous, and unsafe, and potentially lethal, and your care home did what many others did- battened down the hatches, closed the doors, sealed the gaps, and prepared for siege.
And, for a while, I thought that would be enough. I thought you would make it.
A year passed, all of us in isolation, and I couldn’t see you, couldn’t call you, couldn’t do anything except write to you and send cards, but as your eyesight failed you couldn’t really read what I sent anyway. You couldn’t see me, or the words I wrote, and I couldn’t see you, and I couldn’t see Mum, either, because she was the only person allowed access to you, and that meant she had to shield as much as possible. I still haven’t seen her, sixteen months later, and the first time I will see her will be for your funeral, which is not the reunion I would have wished for, but never mind. I think I slowly started to mourn the loss of you while I sat in my garden and listened to children crying in the nearby park, listened to frustrated parents ranting to their partners about homeschooling and how behind they were at work, how they never had any time to themselves anymore and how they just wished this whole thing would go away. And I wished that too, because the silence you left in my life was deafening. It still is, and will be for a long, long time.
Anyway, it wasn’t enough. The deadly arrows made it over the ramparts, and in January, we were told you had the virus. I dissolved into a ball of nerves, and everything fell by the wayside: I cocked up a huge writing opportunity, I started to get behind on deadlines, I wrote muddy, mediocre things to plug the gaps in my obligations, I became both needy and standoffish in my personal relationships, and you were always in the back of my mind, because you’d stopped eating, and you picked up an infection, and your delicate lungs began to fill with fluid, and I think I knew what was happening without really thinking I knew what was happening, because for the first time in my entire life, I did not buy you a birthday present. I couldn’t think of anything that you would reasonably want, in all honesty. You didn’t eat or drink, you no longer read, or listened to the radio, or watched TV. You couldn’t walk. What else was there for you? What does one buy a person who no longer wishes to live? I sent a card, a giant card with giant text on it, but I felt like a fraud in doing this, I felt like I was sending you an admission of my own lack of faith in your ability to pull through. As it was, I think you barely looked at the card, which must, by then, have been little more than a placard of fuzzy colours and blobs, and when asked about it, you forgot my name, which sliced a deep groove in my heart that will take many years to bridge, I suspect.
And then, as I was sitting at my desk reading the rejection email from the Very Nice People who had expected more from me on the Thing I Had Cocked Up due to stress and grief and brain fog, Mum rang.
‘She’s dying,’ she said, and then I was given my ‘choices,’ although they weren’t really choices, because we all knew I was going to stay here, in my house, hammering keys with mindless dedication to something I couldn’t focus on whilst separated from you.
The next morning, Mum rang again. ‘She’s gone,’ she said, and I couldn’t quite believe it, they were hollow words that struck me as deceit, like cracking open a mussel shell to find no pearl inside. Still, it had to be true, because Mum said it was so, and thus we cried, but I couldn’t tell if I was crying for the loss, or crying in frustration because I never got to tell you I loved you one last time, and I didn’t even get to yell it to you down a phone, and, as they say, that was that, and you were gone, and I will never say it to you again, not in person. This feels unjust, and unfair, as if I spent my life painting a huge masterpiece, only to be denied the final brushstrokes. It feels unfinished, for I never got to say thank you. Thank you for picking me up when I fell. Thank you for mopping up my tears. Thank you for tending to my wounds, and tucking me into bed at night, and for the endless days in the sun down at the beaches of Holkham and Burnham Overy, thank you for the freedom you gave me to roam, thank you for the passion you shared with me for music and art and romance and photography, thank you for the appreciation you gave me for beautiful things, thank you for being hopeful, thank you for always being so determinedly optimistic that I had no choice but to succeed, even when the days were cloudy and dark. Thank you for being my friend, my hero, my inspiration, for making me soft and kind when I could very easily have been hard and brittle. Thank you for steering me on a steady course, and for helping me to understand what it means to love fully and completely and unconditionally.
I never got to say any of this. Perhaps expecting to have this opportunity is very privileged and unrealistic of me, but I wanted to say it. I wanted you to know these things. Now I’ll never get that chance. Choices were made, and those choices led me here.
I shall have to say it in other ways.
I shall read your favourite poem to you at your funeral, Sea Fever by John Masefield, I shall grip the paper with the poem printed on it tight in my shaking hands and say the words I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky as calmly as I know how whilst keeping it together, for Mum is terrified I will break down and cry at the funeral, although I have told her there is no shame in crying at funerals, that is precisely the point of funerals, but she is funny about these sorts of things, we all are in our family, we have a stoic Norfolk tendency to view displays of emotion as alien, strange and rather grotesque occurrences to be feared, so I shall swallow the rising lump of loss in my throat and power on through.
I shall light candles for you, and I shall flick through the heavy leaves of the multitude of thick family photo albums you gave to me when we sold your house and I shall marvel at how beautiful you always were, and be thankful that you were always so keen to document everything and never afraid to have your own picture taken, for this has left me with a bounty of images, all of them a way by which I can access your memory and cherish it, like sifted gold in a pan.
I shall write this letter to you, and I shall figure out some of my feelings in doing so, and I shall probably come a step closer to accepting this new reality, which is a world without you in it.
I shall talk about you with friends, and I shall record videos where I lay out, in painstaking detail, all the things I loved about you, and I shall relive your life, or at least, the part of your life that I knew about, the part that I had such glorious access to.
I shall do all of this, but I shall also feel like a raw, open wound, for that is what I am, right now.
The trick is to take care of the wound, the trick is to not let it fester, and that is something I need to become better versed in: taking care of my wounds.
Later, after the awful news had settled a bit, like a fresh snowfall, I am lying next to The Kid in bed, reading to him.
He turns to me, with his owlish eyes and long eye-lashes and says, ‘Mum?’
‘You know how Grandie is dead now?’
‘Well, I’ve been thinking. Now that she is dead, she gets to go on an adventure, doesn’t she? She gets to find out what happens to us after we die.’
‘I suppose she does,’ I say, biting back a million feelings.
‘And nobody really knows, do they? So that’s exciting for her.’
And I realise he is right. Because we don’t know, not definitively, not beyond what happens to our body. And although I am not of a religious persuasion, I do wonder what happens to all that warmth, all that love, all those years of experience and passion and emotion and encounters and lessons learned and language and feeling and expression. Where does it all go, the glittering, myriad components of a personality? Does it rot too, or crisp into ash, or does something, some part of us, the essence of us, go on to have wonderful new adventures? Are you setting foot upon a path yet to be trod, are you, right this very moment, as I write this, down by the sea that you loved so much, the sun upon your upturned soul, listening to the gulls cry and feeling the salt air run past you and through you and around you like my love?
I don’t know my darling, I don’t know.
But I do know that I love you.
And I know that I will always love you, with every part of me that can love, and for that, that feeling, that better-to-have-loved-and-lost-headachey-heavy-backpack pain, I will always be grateful, for I am what you made me, I am soft and strong and I have a heart as wide and as open as the sea, and my capacity for love is endless, and that is your legacy.
And I hope I made you proud. And in hoping that, I know I am making another choice, I am choosing to live as someone who inspired pride.
And that, I think, will be a good choice.