She is now with an oxygen mask and a drip plugged into her swollen right hand. Her body is rigid. She’s so weak, dazed, and delirious that she lacks the ability to fully define her surroundings or recall the happenings of the day. Her eyes are watery, full of that residue that collects in the corner. She says that she isn’t hungry yet knocks back a full nutritional milkshake through the straw. She asks for my mother when she isn’t there. She says that she needs to do a number two and asks for a nurse. They put a bedpan under her and for over five minutes she says nothing has come out and how she wants my brothers and me to help her get her up and take her to the bathroom. But she can’t physically get up anymore. Her legs, which have always been problematic, no longer carry her as the used too. We ask her to do it in the pan. She says it isn’t coming out. I holler for a nurse to wrap up business. It’s 8pm and the ward is quiet, visitors having left the building, abiding respectfully the time limits set, conscious of the ticking parking metre eating up their hard earned cash. After the nurses clean up, we see that she has in fact had emptied her bowels. She doesn’t know she has. She can’t feel it. She can’t tell.
Things happen in what we perceive to be an instance, but more often than not the symptoms of an event or circumstance flash somewhat covertly over a long stretch of time. It feels like she has fallen ill fairly swiftly, but on reflection, she has been afflicted with various ailments for some time now. She used to live alone in a big house and shop and bath and walk up and down a flight of stairs. That image of her ambling about her business unhurried, her coat zipped up against the weather, her classic granny bag in hand, and a general look of quiet contentment feels like a long time ago. It reminds me of my youth, of maybe when I was a kid, but in actuality, it wasn’t that long ago. Today is a different story. Now all I know is a woman fighting against the cruelty of time. It’s frightening how frail she has become. This is not my grandma as I remember her, and in all my life I have never seen her this bad. It’s an experience that is alien to me. This simply isn’t her.
She is so weak and helpless that the beanie we bought her for Christmas – which gives her that cute granny look just like the utterly charming old dame out of the movie Caramel – has fallen over her eyes and she can’t push it back. Or she doesn’t know that it’s over her eyes. Or she herself isn’t there to even acknowledge it being a nuisance. Only a few weeks ago she would have brought down the hospital with her incessant howling for attention. She was loud and rude and a terror to manage in the home and in the ward. A right ole character for sure, but not now though. Now she physically can’t. Now she is someone else.
The first thing I see on arriving at her hospital room is my grandma in bed, the red hat over her eyes. It feels like someone has played a practical joke on her at her expense, just like you did at school, a sticker on the back of someone saying kick me, ha, ha, ha. Bless I think, she just doesn’t know it has happened. I wonder how long she’s been like this. Is it just a few minutes, an hour, or half the day? I don’t know. I feel angry. It’s not anyone’s fault, but I feel irritated nonetheless. I push it back to expose her eyes, but every time it falls back down. It makes me smile and laugh even though it kills me to see her like this. It’s the kind of funny tinged with heartbreaking sadness that makes you act contrary to how one should. She looks at my two brothers and me with such yearning and eagerness it’s as if she hasn’t seen us in a lifetime. The satisfaction she derives in seeing all of us by her side is a tender moment. It’s relief on her part I think, like finding someone you’ve lost. Or maybe she is just happy that we have visited her to break up the monotony of four blank walls. She is lonely, lost in translation, no books, TV or people to distract her from her so-called existence. Her eyes reveal a profound vulnerability. I now feel like a father to my grandma.
It’s difficult to see this once beautiful, mobile, and energetic woman a slave to her failing body and mind. Nobody deserves this slow descent into nothingness for it’s hard to see the dignity that can be extracted from the life she now lives. Where’s the pay off for a long life that has experienced the world in a very unique way? Where’s the show of gratitude for creating life in her children and grandchildren? Where’s the certificate of appreciation for all her efforts as a wife, mother, sister, and grandma? Where’s the life she once had?
It shouldn’t be this. No the way it is now, a pandemonium of a life plagued with uncertainty and suffering. Death may be liberation, but where is the happy ending she has earned? I want there to be life in her eyes, for her to feel love, to be free of pain, and at peace. She is entitled to that. Everyone is.
She has become so withered and frail and gaunt like some starved and exploited survivor of the Holocaust. Her facial features are more pronounced and bony, no longer round. The rich layers of skin from a healthy Indian diet and appetite have slowly diminished due to illness and a lack of hunger. Her colour is patchy, one of poor health. The wellbeing of a glowing brown complexion is lacking. She feels cold. She looks tired. She is as solid as an impenetrable rock. There is no movement other than her chest and the flicker of her eyes when we ask after her.
When I called out her name this afternoon, she opened her eyes and stared straight passed me. She wasn’t there, as if she’d taken a holiday without telling anyone. Her eyes were glazed. They looked somewhat empty and vacant of her soul. Where was she? Where do you go in that state? She could hear me – after all the sound of my voice triggered her to make some form of basic communication in the opening her eyes – but she couldn’t acknowledge my presence. Her silence betrayed her absence. Her lack of movement gave away her plans to pack her bags and head off somewhere we can’t fully understand forever. Where has my dear grandma gone?
Only yesterday she was cognisant, able to talk and capable of sucking on a straw. She can’t even do that now, her lips incapable of clamping onto the plastic tube and suck the water from a cup. Something so basic has become hopeless to achieve without help. Instead we have to swab the inside of her mouth to hydrate her. Here we see she’s still functioning. She still has the instinct and capacity to be able to suckle on the liquid swab. It’s a small victory as it hints at her being there, with us, just not how we wish it to be. However, each time she takes a draw on the swab, she coughs uncomfortably, which may be a result of the liquid on her lungs. My father says it’s pneumonia, but I can’t say either way, I haven’t heard it from the doctor. What I do know is that she dying. There is nothing more that can be done. A few days is all she has they say. Accordingly, she is now off all medicines and drips, which may perhaps account for the swift deterioration in her health. With effectively no food or water, it is left to nature so to speak. She’s a stubborn woman, so we expect a long valiant battle. I can’t quite believe it; my grandma is dying. The words smash into each other. It’s a sentence that doesn’t make sense, words that have no relation to each other. And yet the meaning is explicit. I know that much.
We wait then, I suppose, for the inevitable. Or perhaps a miracle instead, as life, if anything, is full of the unexpected, so who is to say that she won’t jump out of bed and start yelling at the nurses to come to her aid? We’re allowed to believe in miracles, even if we know it not to be the case. There is comfort to be derived from that. Magic can happen if you believe it.
All I wish for is the small things like if we could simply talk to each other, but it seems she is dreaming, dreaming of better days ahead.
We get her home not long after that. We make phone calls: get here as soon as you can, she doesn’t have long. It’s towards the weekend. Family and friends come and go, endless cups of tea are consumed, and food is constantly on the backburner. It feels like a community gathering, and we all talk about everything else from the trivial to the absurd. We laugh. It’s nice in some respects, the company of everyone most welcome, especially those whom we’ve not seen in a while. But at the back of everyone’s mind is if and when. I want it to be quick and painless. When you see someone like this, it throws you way of track and claws at everything you understand about ethics and morality or what it is to be human. I now have some approximate understanding of what runs through the minds of those who assist loved ones with a terminal illness or condition in ending their lives. I don’t necessarily know if it’s better, but if it’s coming from the mouth of someone who wants out, then as much as it would wreck you, do it. With love and care, do it.
But miracles – the thing of Hollywood movies – do happen. She gets ‘better’ so to speak, though she still classed as dying. She’s not only able to suck water through a straw, but she’s alert, able to respond to our questions, and her eyes are full of life again, animated at all the attention of those who have come to see her. Her eyes are like they curious observations of a newborn child, thirsty to understand, but too young to do so. They look alive.
There was some confusion about whether she could eat after we were told the bad news. I think we became mixed up after the day she couldn’t pull on a straw. That and the fact she hadn’t ate much in the weeks before she really began to weaken. The doctor said she could eat, so eat she did, albeit with non-solids. We start to feed her soup and daal through a straw. Those nutritional milkshakes too, and fruit juices packing lots of protein. It gives her a new burst of strength. The woman, who was not there, is there again. My dear grandma, my ‘ole fruity’ as I affectionately call her. She’s back.
She is soon able to whisper. It’s faint and incoherent and we tell her not to worry, do not force it. It must have been frustrating for her to have lost her voice, for she, like every woman I know, likes a good natter. Soon enough, though sporadic, her voice breaks through. It’s the most moving experience, like hearing your child speak for the first time. After what had felt like a lengthy silence, she had a voice again. It’s emancipation after being unduly and unfairly censored. One day not long after that, after my mother had asked ‘who’s this?’ and pointed to me, she replied ‘Nindy.’ It made me smile. It made me feel overjoyed and exceptionally happy. Good lass I said in my casual Geordie light-hearted style. What a monumental achievement it is to defy the odds. She may not have the full free faculties of speech or mobility, but her spirit and her personality radiate. She has gravitas. She has a voice.
This yearning to live has, I guess, brought us hope of something unexpected, of recovery maybe, and why not; she has clearly surpassed what we were originally told. She is a Purba, obstinate and strong, and in no hurry to go anywhere. But it’s a confusing reality. The truth is that we don’t know what to expect and each day is another hard battle. Every morning I wake up fearing that I’ll hear the worst news. Every day I have that same aching anxiety of waiting for death. It’s like being hit by a boxer, but instead of staying down for the count, I am forced to get up only to be knocked down again. My life feels empty and with it everything in the world is without colour or substance. It becomes about waiting, waiting for something, waiting for some sort of resolution to all of this, which is, I think, leading towards an inevitable outcome. Meanwhile, in this displaced existence, we find ourselves torn between the two opposites of wishing her a peaceful passing, yet equally, if not more so, wanting another day of her company, which ultimately means an extension of her pain, regardless of how muted the medication might make it. Your ability to reason becomes compromised. It’s not fair. You become helpless and pathetic. What can I do? I am not a god.
Some days her chest violently juts up and down, relentlessly, feverishly, like it has been put through a punishing workout. It doesn’t quite correspond to her breathing pattern, or as it normally should. Her neck pulses and I find it difficult to watch. It’s considerably distressing to see it so pronounced. It’s not a natural state to be breathing like this. It hurts her. It beats her up. It burns up all her energy as it continues, without pause, to thump away around the clock, with no sign of winding down. She can’t physically endure this demand her body places on her in the long run. Not even a titan could sustain such physical pressures. Is it therefore a pyrrhic act on her part? We all voice our admiration at her prowess, but what will it achieve? She is terminally ill after all. Only yesterday she kept raising her right hand to her chest. Does it hurt I asked her. She nodded yes. She voiced that her legs hurt too. But again, what can we do? I’m not a doctor. Not even they can help. The only thing that has any sway in this position is the drugs she is administered. Give her more drugs I say. Sedate her heavily and hide the pain in a cloud of fog. She doesn’t need to know.
She holds your hand sometimes as if not to let go. It’s like she needs you there, too scared to be alone, as if to say I want you here with me, it helps, it gives me strength, it reminds me that I am home. Love. Family. Life. I feel connected in holding her hands, or in her holding mine. It’s a tight grip that fixes itself to you, and I don’t want to let go… ever.
Today she’s fallen back into the abyss and the silence has enveloped her once again. Her breathing rattles raspy and watery, and is very disconcerting sound full of desperation and sadness. Her chest bounces like a deflated ball, once, twice, and then exhale, and then again, once, twice, exhale, and so on. She is under heavy medication. Her eyes float past you. They look to a place I don’t know. Is she leaving today?
She settles. Her chest rises and falls in parallel with her breathing, as it should do. It’s the opposite of how it has been, which is good. However, this time it’s rather slow, and with each fading breath the time between the next batches of intakes seems ever so longer than before. There are a couple of gaps of dreadful silence between some of her breaths where I feel lost. We look on carefully, observing as her breathing starts up again, still sluggish, but working nonetheless. It’s a short a sigh of relief as the feeling in my heart suggests otherwise, crushed and broken. They say you know it, you can sense it, we are, after all, flesh and blood, but then and there, at the time, there is always hope, always a belief that the impossible is possible. Only a few days previous her breathing had been just as languid and she confronted that with absolute zeal. My mother settles down on the couch, too scared to leave her. Half an hour or so more she says, and then I’ll go to bed. Meanwhile I potter about in the kitchen and my father changes into his nightwear. I’m feeling uncomfortable.
As my father enters my grandma’s room, with me just behind, we look straight to Mumma. She grimaces. I really can’t describe it, but it’s not one of uneasiness or pain. More like a twitch, a way of scratching away a tickle. And then she lets out a breath. We wait. Nothing. She doesn’t try to breathe in. We wait. My dad walks over to her and calls out her name and gently shakes her shoulder. Still nothing. I know. She’s gone. She’s actually gone.
My dad says it out aloud. She’s gone. Or something like that. My mother jumps up from the couch, her attention having been on selecting some Indian hymns to play for my grandma, and she’s momentarily hysterical, in disbelief.
I’m calm so to speak. It was such a peaceful death, which is reassuring, and I think that that helps me maintain a still disposition in the immediate aftermath. That and shock of course, for you cannot ever understand the loss of a loved one. I don’t want to cry either, but that happens later on in bed, alone, in the very early hours of the morning. We all gather around her and spend some rare time together as a family. She would have liked that.
The next morning I open the door to an empty room and an unbearable silence. No hissing and dull thuds from the respirator, no wheezing and coughing from my grandma, no nothing. My grandma, who has been such a prominent and colourful figure in my life, will not wake up today. I will not be able to tease her anymore. I will not feel her hands in my own, and I will not be able to answer her questions about my day. It is the end of something beautiful. We all get to see her one more time though, on the day of her funeral. I break down. I can’t reconcile what has happened. I sort of didn’t believe it anymore. The reality of life had becomes surreally normal as in the week after her death we were again occupied by hosting family and friends. You effectively become too busy to grieve, unable to have a solitary moment to think about it. It’s a distraction I welcome though. It doesn’t allow your heart to break. That happens now. Afterwards, when everyone has gone back home, back to the arbitrary and quite often trivial and routine lives we live. Showers. TV. Food. People in your life you don’t really give a shit about. Paperwork. Etc. Life does go on. It’s strange though. I feel different.
When we’d visit her at her home in Gosforth she would always ask if we were hungry and if we wanted tea. It was a typically grandma-esque quality and a very endearing one. It said I am your grandma, I love you, I care about you, I worry about you, and I want you to be warm and nourished. It was a discreet way of saying I am your protector. I’ve only just remembered that. It’s strange how you forget these things, but now I’m beginning to remember. It is a very happy memory and there’s a lot more like that waiting to be remembered.