Christine, Wondering

Random Musings of a Human Becoming

Saturday, October 5, 2013

In the Room Next Door

Wednesday 11th September started as a perfectly normal day. I went to work, I taught all morning, I grabbed my phone and went to have my lunch.

Sitting down to lunch, I took a look at my emails, and there was one from my Mum which just said "Phone me".

I knew her mother, Jean, was unwell, and my heart sank. I scuttled outside, juggling my credit card and my phone as I tried to charge up a calling card to phone halfway around the world. Before I managed it, my phone rang, Mum's number.

Her news was not good - she'd just had to be the witness at Jean's do-not-resuscitate conversation. Jean had been given two days to live.

I cried all over my colleagues, my head teacher drove me home, and after several phonecalls and wrestling with internet systems, a plane ticket was booked and ten hours later, 10:30pm that night, I was taxi-ing down the runway at Heathrow on my way to Perth.

I arrived at 1am on Friday the 13th (flying out on the 11th of September and flying in on Friday the 13th, it's amazing I got there in one piece). We decided not to go straight to the hospital, and I will forever wonder whether that was the right choice, as I learned later that at that time Jean was still able to talk to people.

We got there around 7am after a few hours' sleep, by which time Jean was, I guess, in a sleep of sorts. She didn't wake up, and died an hour and a half later. I had no last words from or to her, no chance to say any of the thoughts on my mind, but had I gone straight there, perhaps I wouldn't have been there to hold her hand at the very end. I'll never know whether it was the right choice. Perhaps there isn't one. Perhaps she knew I was there. Perhaps, as I was the last of the family who was on their way to get there, she was waiting for me. I'll never know.

Jean wanted to die at home and in her sleep, without having lost any of her mental acuity. Given that they won't really let people die at home any more, this was close. She had five of her seven children and one of her sixteen grandchildren at her side as she slipped away after an astonishingly full life. If any death could be said to be a good one, this was one.

If flinging myself across the world at short notice to watch my grandmother die was not surreal enough, what followed transcended surreality. My cousin, who got married last weekend in Kent, was having a betrothal ceremony in Perth on the 14th. Jean had been adamant that it should go ahead - 'dance at the wedding' was one of her last wishes for us all - and so it did, with us all in this bizarre daze of unprocessed feelings. There were a few tears, but largely it was a masterpiece of kept-up appearances and non-dealing-with-reality.

I stayed in Perth until the following Friday. I managed to see a couple of friends, I sorted out the possessions of mine that remained in Mum's shed, I saw my paternal grandmother (who got taken to hospital with pneumonia as well that week, which was almost more than I could take) and helped in a peripheral way with organising the funeral. The day before the funeral it became apparent that I was the only adult grandchild who wanted to speak (all grandchildren had been asked) so along with my 15-year-old brother I became the voice of all of my cousins at only the second funeral I'd ever attended. I was still adjusting the eulogy a couple of hours before the funeral as family members asked for particular things to be included.

The funeral was Wednesday 18th. I had not been distressed by Jean's body when she died, but I wish I hadn't looked in the coffin as it was all wrong, Jean and not Jean all at once... too much. I drove two of my three siblings in the funeral cortege across Perth to the venue, teaching them as we went that all they had to remember to say was "as well as can be expected" and "thank you". I hugged people I hadn't seen for ages, or who remembered me only as a small child. I got up and spoke. I sat and cried. I drank juice and thanked people for coming and for saying nice things about my eulogy. It was a beautiful funeral and I wish I remembered it clearly instead of in bits and snatches, but I guess that's the way of things.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, Jean’s beloved friends and family. When I was in high school, Jean attended a morning tea given by my home economics class. Overhearing me offer Jean coffee, my teacher jumped in with “Christine! How dare you call your grandmother by her first name?” Jean drew herself up, gave the teacher a scathing look, and responded with great dignity, “How dare you tell my granddaughter what she can and can’t call me?”

The teacher never forgave me, but the pride I felt about Jean standing up for me, and for our relationship, more than made up for it. It was only years later that I understood what it meant to Jean to be seen as an individual, not just someone’s granny but a vibrant,  complex person whose name deserved to be used.

As an adult, I often find myself echoing one of Jean’s favourite phrases: “That is an un-called-for provocative remark and as such is banned!”. As a result, a rising number of young English school children know the meanings of “un-called-for” and “provocative”, and may even try a little harder not to wind each other up. This might be the smallest part of Jean’s legacy, but nonetheless I think she would have been proud of it.

So who was Jean, to a grandchild?

Roast dinners, birthday cakes, warm hugs,
Banknotes slipped secretly into eager young hands;
Well-chosen books, comfy chairs, wise words,
A fierce defence of kith and kin;
A love of nature, an eye for beauty, a powerful history,
A lifetime of learning and love.

Thank you, Jean.

The wake was at my aunt's house, afterwards, just for family. Having catered for a 150-person wedding four days earlier, my aunt wasn't able to cater for the wake, so we ordered fish and chips. Jean loved fish and chips as one of the simple joys in life, reminiscent of holiday treats, and I think she would have found it funny and fitting that the family had such a meal in her honour.

Afterwards, my cousin got out his guitar and started strumming, and the family began to sing. Nothing particularly significant, just pop songs of various vintages. We wobbled our way through "When you say nothing at all" and nearly broke down over "Leaving on a jet plane", but there wasn't much reference to Jean at all... just the family, sitting around singing as we've done countless times before, as if Jean was not gone at all but just in another room, or had left for home early while her family carried on foolishly into the night.

I don't believe in any sort of an afterlife - haven't for years. That didn't change when Jean died. I believe she's completely gone. But perhaps as long as we remember people, love them and hold them in our hearts, in some way they're only just a thought away... like they're just in the room next door.

I miss her so much.

Five daughters, two sons, three daughters-in-law, four sons-in-law, ten granddaughters, six grandsons, three each of grandsons-in-law and granddaughters-in-law, three great-granddaughters, two great-grandsons, and one step-great-grandson. What an incredible legacy of love.