I’ve had this post whirling around in my head for a while, but haven’t had the heart to write it until now. That’s because it’s about death. Whoop! Yes I know. I’m all about the LOLs. Of course, it’s an upsetting subject – and a taboo one. No-one loves thinking about death do they? But I’m itching to write this down; if it gets zero readers, that’s OK. I’ll up the joviality ante for the next post. I’m thinking a warning is unnecessary here but, just in case, it was a tough one to write – it might be tough for some to read.
My Nanna passed away in November last year. She had dementia for years beforehand and, after a few incidents where her care workers found her collapsed on the floor, we discovered she had stage 4 lung cancer. She had a month or so left, said the doctor.
The next few weeks were spent making multiple trips to the hospital and, finally, to her care home for those last days. I have never before been in the presence of someone in the process of dying, let alone someone I loved. And it really was a process; not like I imagined where you’re there one day and then slip off the next. Her feet and fingers started going white about three weeks before she died, as the blood wasn’t reaching those places very well. She lost her appetite and, consequently, a hell of a lot of weight. Strangely, she bounced back for a day or two. My parents visited her in hospital one day and she was bright and buzzy, making jokes and generally more alert than she had been in years. The previous day she had barely woken up. I’ve since found out this is quite a common phenomenon.
She asked when she would be feeling better and what was wrong with her. We told her she’d had a nasty chest infection. The doctors were all for honesty, which I completely understand, but for a dementia sufferer, it seemed unnecessarily cruel to impart the truth on a daily basis. It would have devastated her repeatedly.
The very final days were distressing for us all. Nanna was almost skeletal and she had started to receive morphine for the pain. She was no longer able to communicate much. I spoke to my Mum one night, who was with her, and she said she thought the end was near. We’d been thinking it for weeks, but I drove down to the care home in torrential rain as I couldn’t bear the thought of not saying a last goodbye.
The few hours I spent with Nan and Mum were extremely hard. Nanna kept reaching out to the ceiling and picking at her clothes, like she didn’t know what to do with herself. Every now and then, she pushed herself up and made moaning noises. We cuddled her and, at one point, even in her incredibly weakened state, she turned her head to me and, ever so faintly, kissed me. I will never forget that moment.
She couldn’t talk, but she could hear us; of that I am certain. Mum and I spoke to her of going to a beautiful garden (Nan loved gardening), planting flowers and enjoying the sun on her face. We told her she could go to that garden any time she wanted. It was virtually impossible to do all this without torrents of tears, but we tried our best to sound calm and positive for Nan. The last thing I said to her was “Night night, God bless, see you in the morning” which is what we always said to each other when I was small and used to stay with her. I left once she had received another dose of morphine, which settled her down into a deep state of rest. She was gone the next morning.
Whilst the whole thing was awful, I was so glad to have been with Nan for much of the final days. To have laid on the bed with her and stroked her hair; to have talked of fond memories and to have told her over and over that I loved her. I hope all these things made her feel as comforted as she could be at that time.
And the whole thing really made me reconsider life (as death so often has a habit of doing). I thought about the similarities to birth – the false alarms (is this it?), fear of the unknown, pain, acceptance that it’s happening whether you like it or not. I thought a great deal about the Big Questions: What’s the meaning of life? Is there a God? Should we buy a campervan and travel Europe? I mean, here we all are, working, parenting, holidaying, saving, slaving, scrounging, splurging, whatever and for what? I can’t remember which philosopher said it, but it feels like life is one big mass of distraction from our eventual deaths. Cheery, isn’t it? Of course, it’d be no good for us all to be sitting around pondering when the end will come. That’d be utter shit. Definitely more doom-defying to book up a week at Centre Parcs and push the reaper to the back of our minds.
Somewhere in the middle of my existential crisis, I thought about what I wanted my life to mean. It can’t be a coincidence that, around this time, I decided to volunteer for a homeless charity, give blood and apply to go back to teaching. I definitely had the urge to give something back, help other human beings in whatever small way I could. I want to continue doing these small things. I’m not polishing my halo or anything, but it’s true that life feels fuller of meaning when you can bring a little light to others.
My nan was kind. She loved to take care of people (namely by filling them with food, which was A-OK with me). She didn’t do anything world-worthy as such, but she loved well, and in her own way. That, to me, is a life with meaning.
Night night Nanna, and God Bless. x