Im staring at a corpse.
I dont know what to do.Its withered, and beaten, and a shell long deserted from anything that made her.
I hesitate, I say something expected about love and loss, and I kiss her on the cheek, feeling a fraud.
I look back, with hate. Hate that that body so let down that soul, was such a useless, lacking container for her, useless, useless didn’t fight to preserve the awe it contained. How dare it?
It’d been weeks. Weeks since her admission due to lack of breath, where she’d gone in and been strapped to a bed as doctors a quarter her age had fawned over her to evident delight: she’d laugh at their youth as they told her they’d be sticking needles deep in her chest, all the time explaining what might occur if she’d been born much later.
As it always was. I recall the night a year I’d received the call that she couldn’t catch her breath, and ran so fast, so hard to her flat that when the ambulance arrived they’d offered me oxygen. Hours of horrible waiting ensued, trying to read a much-fingered copy of the Daily Mirror, till they called me in. I sprinted, to the amusement of the nurses. She was wired up, and pale, yet giggling ina way only someone with nine decades of wrinkles can, and she pulled me close, and as her hot sweet breath washed over my ear confessed ‘I did a trump in the ambulance. I’m ok now. But I daren’t say’. I left in a taxi, wracked with smirks and relief.
So I expected her hospital visit to be no more than a pop. This woman, who had saw through the full length of two world wars, lost three of her six kids in their youth (Stuart drowned aged ten in the Long Eaton Canal, an unnamed baby girl two days after being born, hurriedly buried by an eternally haunted grandad in a paupers grave; and Marlene, who was a cosmopolitan globe trotter until an oncoming Citreon replete with drunk driver halted her travels violently in 1970), a mere lapse of health wasn’t going to do owt to her.
But she got worse, and this was anathema to my concept of the Power of Gran. How dare she weaken? I’d left a good life in the south east to be close to her, she hadn’t diminished then, so how dare she now I was comfortably settled? But diminish she did, and my post-work visits became less funny.
Her eyes were blacked: she’d fell over trying to get to the toilet. The nurses I could not blame: gran was so independently willed she would be inclined to do something more if told not to. A trip to the Sherwin Arms pub would be a good example here: on ordering a steak meal she reacted to a faux- concerned diner who attempted to intervene by chopping her beef into patronisingly small cubes , sneering at my brother and I with a ‘Some people don’t know how to treat their elders’, with an affected posh voiced retort: ‘no they don’t dear, I’m perfectly able to slice my own food, thank you’.
Yet there she was, dead. Blue lipped, eyes closed, empty.
I didn’t cry. An endless weekend that had started with a phonecall from my work phone explaining she had but hours to live, after three weeks of post-work visits to tuck her in on a night, was ending with the relief she was going now, after the hours swabbing her thrush-fulled mouth with pineapple juice, after endless hours watching as her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren paced round her deathbed…it was over. Yet for three sleepless nights, we watched as she clung on stubbornly to the little energy her fragile heart pushed round her broken frame.
Eventually, on a ice-shined cold autumn Monday, she went, and I was left staring at this withered nothingness, this girl born in 1914 now less helpless than a nestling gasping on the hard ground after falling from the branch…I couldn’t cry.
I didn’t cry as the private post mortem over teas ensued with my relatives downstairs in the QMC cafe, I didn’t cry as they told me that I was broken from the hours I’d spent and must take the holiday booked long before her demise, and I didn’t cry as I flew to Turkey, and was deposited, lost, with a girl I’ve long since alienated, on the Aegan coast.
I slept, and woke up desperate to feel emotion. Yet exhaustion reigned, and I sipped dark bitter coffee and grazed blank-eyed on croissant and slivers of melon. We walked to the beach.
And that horizon was nothing, it stretched nowhere. The sea, always a hubris-shattering entity before all this was stretched empty and cold. She’d gone, and nothing at all in those billions of caressed white waves would bring her back. All useless.
Yet an impulsion drove me to the sea, the autum-warm denim blue Aegan, and I plundered in, first to soak my trousers, second to push my shoulders, third to soak my hair and sting my eyes.
And sting they did, red raw, washing contact lenses out, and as the waves washed over: eternal, relentless, impassive, I lay in the Aegan and gouged out burningly hot tears and cried and cried and cried.