Saturday, 7 July 2012

Four score years and sixteen

A week and a day ago I was at a motorway service station, of all places, when I got a call from my mother, who told me in plain and simple terms that my grandmother had died.

I wasn't particularly expecting such news, yet in some ways I've been preparing for it - consciously and otherwise - for some years. She was a stubborn old thing, how she clung on to life and retained some ferocity of spirit which shone through in her last years perhaps because of, rather than despite, the compromises to her independence, her health and her clarity of thought.

I don't feel sad, as such, that she's died. 96 is a fine age and, I think, it's a fine achievement in life for anyone to have lived in their own house and manage most of their affairs (regularly catching the bus to go to the shops several miles away) up until the beginning of their tenth decade.

Sadness and grief, whilst they overlap in significant ways at particular times, aren't entirely the same thing, though. I believe I've been carrying the grief around with me, relatively lightly these last few days, but that it may gain greater potency over time. Perhaps finding an outlet next week at the funeral. I'm not sure how much that grief is about the death of someone whose time had very much come, and how much it relates to those of us remaining in our family. Precious few of us, and my mother having to manage more assaults on her health than I would wish anyone to ever bear.

Still, I think my grandmother has been passing for the last 3 years, at least. I hadn't seen her for a while, but she would no longer recognise me anyway: in her mind she now almost exclusively was situated in a time anywhere between 30 and 50 years before I was born. The unfamiliarity of her surroundings in these last couple of years - though in the village she had always lived - gave her a sense of disorientation on a daily basis.

Yet it's perhaps during one of her frailest times that I have my favourite memory of her. Looking impossibly tiny and lost in a hospital ward late in 2009 after a severe bout of double-pneumonia (the decisive blow to her health that meant she could never return home again), she was yet full of life when she was helped to sit up in her bed, and her only talk was of getting out and going home: the nurse told us that she'd actually been writing notes and passing them to other people on the ward asking if they wanted to plan to escape with her.

At that point, she was 94. I'd consider it an achievement to get anywhere near that age, let alone show such grit and determination.