I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my last grandparent died. One of my grandfathers had died before I was two, the other when I was five – I have only the faintest of memories of him, already bed-ridden. My paternal grandmother had a stroke when I was twelve or thirteen, and lived on for another five years, but much diminished from the feistiness I enjoyed being protected by as a child.
My mother’s mother was the religious one, from a family that had a number of Anglican bishops and curates in the preceding generations. I have always thought that if she was around now, she would certainly be ordained; as it was, she uncomplainingly did was available to her, which was to run the local church behind the scenes. She had had a bout of cancer when she was approaching eighty, and the family moved her to an apartment in an assisted living facility, where, true to form, she ended up looking after the ‘old people’ as she called them, even as she began to slow down.
Her death was very gradual; she had plenty of time to arrange her own funeral service, with particular attention to the speed at which the hymns were to be played – ‘too slow and it becomes a dirge.’ With her robust faith, she was not at all afraid of what was coming, and maintained a dignified steadiness. She eventually slipped into a coma, and was given a couple of days to live at most. It was three or four days before her three children – my mother, her brother and sister – and I of the five grand-children, were all able be present; we gathered around her bed on a Saturday afternoon, chatting about various things, just to keep her company.
My parents were divorced and my father remarried, but just this once my mother came back to their house for dinner, a strained civility in the conversation between my parents, my step-mother, not unusually, working to put everyone at ease. It was approaching mid-summer, and warm enough to eat outdoors. I remember swifts circling overhead as the sun went down. There was a phone call.
My mother and I walked back over to my grandmother’s apartment. I kissed her forehead, but apart from the coolness of the skin, there seemed very little change in her. We agreed that, even in her comatose state, she had waited until all her children had had a chance to come before she had left.
I took a different route back through the town, walking along streets I had known since childhood. The long summer evening was slowly diminishing; in the pubs I could hear the loud joyful chatter of a Saturday night; the glow of the TV shone through house windows. I noted, with some comfort, that life was continuing.
My grandmother at her 70th birthday celebration, looking much as I remember her as I was growing up.