My incredibly old grandma has just been taken into hospital after possibly having a stroke, or a fall, she’s not quite sure. As her short term memory is now serving about as well as a goldfish, she has no idea why she’s in hospital or how she got there. She does remember a heavy handed attendant being too forceful with her and she brought that up about 15 times during our hour visit.
I’m sure he was just doing his job, I assure her. You can’t be too heavy handed with a 94 year old, surely, for fear of snapping her. Grandma doesn't hear my assurance, but there's no doubt the nurses down the hall hear every word of her complaint. Every time.
I read her medical notes. ‘Patient refused all assistance. Becoming very agitated.’
To them, she’s just another old person. To me, she’s my amazing grandmother who flew spitfires in the war and can recite about 43,000 different poems, limericks and proverbs. I want to shake the nurses and say HEY! That's Benedetta Willis you know! You ought to bow!
But as I sit on her bedside and survey the ward, I see dozens of old people, who I’m sure all have their own story to tell, their own wars lived through, their own battles battled. But to me, they are just more old people. I look at them in pity, hoping I never get that old. And I realise Grandma, Grand as she is, is just another old person. But as long as each old person is more than just another old person to someone, then that's all that really matters.
None of them are in bed, obviously not allowed at 2pm, so they sit besides their beds, wrinkly and old, awaiting their next visitor or meal. It’s a strange existence and makes me shudder. Not until we reach Grandma’s bed do I feel any kind of emotion other than fear. Then I see Grandma and I feel love and worry and I rush to her side.
As soon as she sees me, she holds out her old, wrinkly, soft hands to meet mine.
‘Darling,’ she says, ‘I keep trying to get them to kill me but they won’t.’
She’s had enough. She doesn’t know why she’s still alive, why she’s survived her husband, one of her sons and many of her friends. She doesn’t want to know, she just wants it to be over.
I love her dearly and selfishly want her to be around forever to tell me I need to find a good man and make sure I keep my kidney's warm. I want her to be around forever because she hasn't finished telling me about the man she would have married, had he not become a Japanese prisoner of war. I want her to be around forever because, at 94, she still has her wits about her and still knows when to whip put a shot of sarcasm. I want her to be around forever because I love her.
But I also understand her want to die. It's not that she doesn't love her loved ones. It's that the quality of life for a 94 year old must be rubbish. And this conjures up all my thoughts on euthanasia which I'm not going to go into now because my dinner is nearly ready and I can't be bothered. Suffice to say - I'm for it. If I want to die, I should be able to.
Her hearing is terrible and it makes her seem mad. I’m sure the nurses must think so. But she isn’t. She’s quite sane. She's just refusing to admit she can’t hear and so says something, anything, in return of your sentence, hoping it’ll fit into conversation, but it never does.
Are you ok Grandma? Do you remember what happened?
No, I haven’t had any pudding, comes the reply.
If I die, she says, don’t worry about me because I’ll be happy. Here, I can’t stop crying.
Grandma lives alone in the Isle of Wight, far from any of her loved ones, and the thought of her sitting alone, crying, asking to be taken from this life, sends tears down my cheeks in streams. It makes me want to give up my life and go and play scrabble with her until her dying day.
‘You don’t know what’s really going on in the world until you come to a place like this,’ Grandma says wisely. Hide all the old people in wards like this, we do, so we can think they don’t exist. But they do. They exist because we are desperate to keep everyone alive for as long as possible. Everyone in this ward is well past their sell by date, some look like they haven’t had a visitor since they arrived, and all over the country there are wards specifically for the old. The heroes of the second world war, slumped in wards, old, decrepit, dribbling and deaf.
Her arms shake as she reads the notes we’ve written her. We try the mammoth task of explaining power of attorney to her and that she understands. She might be about to die and we need to prepare ourselves. ‘Yes, your father should take control,’ she says, handing the paper back as she shakes like a leaf. I can see her desperately trying to tell her body to give up.
But she’s a tough old boot. She’s been saying she wants to die since before her 90th birthday. She’s a bit of an eeyore, you see. ‘Your father doesn’t even know I’m in here,’ she whimpers. Er, yes he does, Grandma, that’s how we know you're here. You spoke to him yesterday? Oh, did I? Well, that’s something, I suppose.
Her son, my Dad, Bryan, is by far her best child. He does everything for her and although he moved to Malaysia 5 years ago, always returns to her little bungalow to fix things and calls her all the time. He lived on the isle of wight for years but realised she wasn’t on her way out and he had to live his life for himself. But it made me realise what families of Alzheimer's go through. To think how worried he must be, thousands of miles away, and calling her constantly, and then she just mutters that he doesn’t remember her. Five minutes after we’d gone, she had probably forgotten that we’d been. So I guess we go to satisfy our own guilt. Guilt at only spending an hour with her as it was, and not an entire weekend. My family assure me she gets tired when we stay any longer but I can’t help feeling our fleeting visits aren’t enough. In other cultures, aren’t the old revered? Respected? They’d never chuck them all in a ward to be forgotten and hidden. The family looks after the old, just as they looked after you.
Marie Ann, my beloved other mother, came with us. Grandma asked her how her father was and Marie Ann had to break the news that he died a month ago.
‘I’ve been trying to die all day,’ Grandma retorts. I start getting worried that Pip must be getting freaked out by it all as she’s being very quiet. Grandma! I shout, You can’t say that! No, she replies, you can’t just try and die can you?
No, Pip comes in defiantly, because we love you too much.
It falls on deaf ears, literally, but I heard her, the little darling. Are you ok Pipsy? I say as we hug. I know hospitals are horrible. I’m starting to get worried she’ll have a fit and we’ll have to pull up another NHS trolley. No they’re not, they’re alright Kim. You’ll be alright, she says as she pulls my jumper down to protect my kidneys, as she always does.
I think I’m worrying about everyone too much. Grandma is happily tucking into the biscuits Tammi bought her, Pip is quietly sapping up all the information being spoken around her and no where near having a fit. Everything seems hunky dory.
So off we trot back to civilisation. Job done. Grandma attended to, left in the ward with all the other oldies. Each with their own story no one cares about any more. Each dying slowly.
Makes my special K diet all seem a bit frivolous and superfluous now. Although, let’s end this one on a light note, I’m bloody loving the new slim kim. Even my mum said I was looking skinny. Whoop whoop! It’s all about getting your mother to worry about your new gaunt physique. I’m going to try and get down to nine stone, just to see if I can, and then I’ll stop being the neurotic diet freak I’ve become over the last 2 weeks and return to normal. Although not quite return, as I would like to stay skinny forever. I haven’t been very good at the diet. The lack of proper food during the day means you are meant to have lots of vegetables in the evening and last week I ate: burger and chips, meatballs and spagetti and a pie. But I must be doing something (unhealthily) right.
This week I’m not going to drink until Friday, and I’m going to eat loads of vegetables. There…even talking about Special K has quite taken my mind of old age and death and misery. I think I can go to bed now and be assured I won’t dream I’m dying
(maybe of starvation).
** footnote 1 - The next day Marie Ann returned and asked Grandma who her biscuits were from. I don't know, she said, sounding surprised. They just appeared! Worth the visit then.
** footnote 2 - So much for not drinking till Friday. Got bloody drunk last night and had dinner with some lesbians who had their hands down each other's pants all night. It didn't annoy me because they were lesbians, it annoyed me full stop. Get a room lezzers! I hate overtly public displays of affection. I'm trying to have a conversation with lezzer one and lezzer two is groping her tits. Made me so annoyed I've decided never to become a lesbian.
"The composition of my soul is made, too great for servile, avaricious trade.
When raving in the lunacy of ink, I catch my pen and publish what I think."
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