This is Emily, my mum and Joshua’s grandmother. She is 96 and has alzheimers dementia. Until a few months ago she was still living in her own home and on her own. Then, after yet another fall in the middle of the night, and yet another visit to hospital, we decided to accept the inevitable and look for a care home where she could live out the rest of her days in relative comfort and safety.
And that’s what she is doing now – living out the rest of her days. And what we are doing is preparing for another ‘goodbye’. Visitors to this website will have seen our posts to honour Jane’s father Gerry who died earlier this year. As with Gerry (though tragically not with Josh), we can take our time as we gather ourselves for what will be we hope a very ordinary and peaceful death – a death in the right order of things. Though the fog of dementia is thickening by the day there is still enough Mum there for us to collect our thoughts and share some laughs. Jane and I visit as often as we can. Sometimes together, sometimes separately. I enjoy my moments alone with Emily. I’m making up for the moments I couldn’t spend with Joshua before he died.
How you doing today Mum?
Much the same, old and doddery
You’re looking well
Am I? I don’t feel it. It’s about time you put me in the oven
I know. You’ve been saying that for ages
Have I? Can’t remember…. What’s the day today
What time is it?
Half past twelve
Can’t you do something?
How do you mean?
Help you what?
Just help me to go. I’ve had enough …
Emily is not unhappy. She is not distressed. It’s only when she gets a urine or some other infection that she can become a bit agitated and start to hallucinate. But these are minor episodes in a life that is gradually and quietly ebbing away. Of late when I visit, I often find her still in bed, not bothering to get up and dressed. Any talk of going for a walk, across the road to the pub, or just downstairs for a cup of tea is now redundant. She is still bright and alert, if muddled and very forgetful. This does have its advantages. I can tell her over and over that my brother Ned will be visiting from America in a couple of weeks and her smile receives the news as if for the first time.
But she is tired; she’s tired of living and not afraid to say so. She has always stubbornly asserted what she wants out of life even if, as often happened she failed to get it. And at those times she has accepted her fate with grace and humour. She never ever want to live on a chicken farm – that was my Dad’s idea to help pay for our education. She hated the idea of her little ones being sent away to boarding school but agreed it was for the best. She was dogged in her determination never to end up in one of ‘those homes’ but now she has, she quite likes it, at least that’s what she has chosen to like – seeing, as for her, it’s so much like home, it’s not really one of ‘those homes’.
Our talk of how long she still has left to live comes with surprising ease. Maybe that’s because, since Josh died, I am now much more in tune with what death really means to those of us who are still here. It certainly is a relief to be able to converse with someone about to die without fear of upset. I say ‘about to die’ only because, for the moment, we are merely talking about it rather than expecting it any time soon. I’ve been witness to such conversations for many years now. This is Emily and her friend Yvonne in 2008.
Yvonne: I don’t think any of us are going anywhere. Talk about going to heaven and hell is a lot of nonsense. I think when you die that’s it
Emily: Oh that’s what I think too
Y: You didn’t exist before you were born
E: No I said where were you before you were born
Y: You weren’t activated then
Jimmy: What do you think happens then?
Y: Well I think you go to sleep and you’ve had your life. Eternal life doesn’t mean that the person lives on forever in one form or another. Not in my mind. Eternal life to me is the eternal chain of people having children. You’ve given life to another being and hopefully they’ll go on …
E: Yes and they’ve given it too and on and on and on …
Y: You see I’m the one who’s let the side down. You should, by rights have children.
E : You’re the one that’s ended the line
Y: Yes, that’s wrong
Our line of course doesn’t end with Emily. She has three children, eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren and we spend many hours trying to remember who belongs to who. For memory to function it seems, we need a narrative. A faulty memory needs a narrative even more. My mum has lots of these stories, she tells them over and over and we try to listen as if we are hearing them for the first time. There’s the time when during ‘the war’ her father refused to give her a pay rise so she ‘upped and left’ to find another job in a Liverpool department store – but when she got there she discovered the place had been bombed during the night. All that was left was a man at a desk in the underground car park “if thee wants a job you can get yourself up t’roof and keep a look out”. Maybe one should never question the wisdom of old age, even when big holes appear in the logic of their stories. But if the store had been bombed so, how come there was still a roof to look out from.
There are similar quirky errors in how she narrates the story of Josh’s death. Josh was traveling up the road when a woman stepped out – he swerved to avoid her and went under a bus coming the other way. Well its a good enough account and we are not about to challenge it. For her, as for us, its not how Josh died but the fact that he’s dead that is so… so painful. And in the same way that she hears with singular pleasure, the oft repeated news of my brothers arrival, so she must visit the shock and the distress of hearing about Josh’s death again and again.
Josh is up on the hill now isn’t he. There’s a gap in the hedge and you can see right down the valley. I want you to take me up there too.
Two out of three Mum. Josh is up on the hill and you can see right down the valley, but there is no hedge. It is a wonderful view especially as the sun sets and of course you can go up there with him. He’d love to have you by his side.
We may have years yet before Emily goes; or it may be only months before we say goodbye for real and forever. But I know that, because we have these talks, and because we can still share our sorrows, when her time comes, our final farewell will have greater depth. It will resonate longer and with less pain. If only by contrast with Josh’s death, his grandmother’s is, at least in ‘the right order of things’. And who knows as and when we say goodbye to Emily for the last time, we will see Josh in the distance waving as well.
Thanks for reading
(To see how Emily’s conversation with Yvonne went, it features in my film THIS IS PURGATORY which you can view here)