Have you ever been told that someone you love has died?
I was told that my maternal grandfather had passed away whilst he was in hospital being treated for stomach cancer. It may have been bowel cancer. At the age of 12, nobody felt it necessary to tell me the full details. And that was okay, I guess. Bernard had died, but it’s okay as he was very poorly. The hospital made sure he wasn’t in pain. As half of the dynamic duo, Lord and Lady Bernard of Abrahams, he would always entertain me with little helpful anecdotes; none of which spring to mind. It’s been over 30 years since he passed away, and whilst incidences fade from thought, his physical appearance remains. The thinning, greying combover hair, the beige woollen sleeveless pullovers, the brilliant white vest showing through the top of his unbuttoned shirt. And always the braces.
I’ve never understood braces. The concept sort of works but being able to actually make it work has simply never happened for me. I don’t know if it’s because of my frame being virtually straight up and down that it doesn’t work. Benny from Bow was a much fuller man. I only knew him in his later years but from the photos on my nan’s phone, he was a similar sizing to me as I am now. Yet, before the illness took hold, he was suited to braces. I recall seeing him washing and shaving over the sink in Hackney, braces slipped over his shoulders and now hanging down by each hip, legs spread to ensure his trousers never slipped down.
A fine man that, despite only being a physical influence in my life for a short period of time, left behind a great legacy. His desire for pulling things apart and having a tinkering. I don’t do this without good reason. If there is a fault with something, I like to get to the bottom of it, ad-hoc tool kit at the ready. I don’t always manage to fix things like he did, but he always managed to have left over parts. I can generally work out where the problem lies and from there, decide whether or not I can sort it. I do the same with the human body. I’ll know what’s wrong with me, look at the general symptoms and if it’s more than I can deal with, I’ll go the GP. If it’s something that I feel I can take care of without burdening the NHS, then so be it. I’ll ride it out, alter my diet or as a last result before going to the doctor, I’ll try some cheap over the counter remedy. I rarely use Google for diagnoses, trusting my own intellect and instincts rather than going from sneeze to bubonic plague in six clicks.
Because it was so long ago, I don’t recall being told that BoomBoom had died. I think I know when I was told and where I was told. I do have a vague recollection of who was in the room, but that may simply be a feigned memory, working alongside sentimental logic.
Have you ever seen a person you love be defibrillated?
My paternal grandfather told my nan that he was going. This was usually code for when he would simply slip into a form of neurological paralysis, a blacking out. This was when the MacKenzie, a little bottle of anti-catarrh smelling salts, would miraculously appear in the hand of my grandmother as she waved it under his nose. I would only see it at the dinner table on a Sunday. Not very often over the course of my afternoons there, but frequent enough to have it buried into my visual recall.
On this particular occasion, I was at my dad’s house finishing off some maths homework. The call came on the landline and my fourteen-year-old self knew something was wrong. The family never phoned unless there was something wrong. I answered the phone and immediately handed it to my dad. The drive over there seemed to happen without taking place. We rushed to the tiled-floor kitchen and saw my grandad laying there, the ambulance people running up the driveway behind us.
My dad made me sit on the sofa; I don’t know where my brother was at the time. Despite my eyes being covered, I could still his large, and yet heartbreakingly frail body bounce on the floor, two or three times. I only knew defibrillators from TV at this stage. And I also knew that nothing was going to save him. His third heart attack was his final performance. This man, the origin of my humour, had already passed long before my arrival that afternoon. Yet his presence would be eternally etched into the fabric of my being. Just over ten years after that Sunday, I moved into the home of my nan and uncle. It was only meant to be as a temporary measure but roughly 20 years on, a few relationships and a couple of jobs between, I still haven’t fully moved out.
After the ambulance people left, the tears of the family drying up, I went and stood next to John where he laid on the bed in the downstairs bedroom. This was to be the first dead body I would ever see. The grazing on my right-hand from the wall in the garden did nothing to ease the pain. I don’t know why I thought it would when I threw the second punch.
Have you ever missed someone passing by mere moments because you left the room?
I’m not really one to change plans. If I tell someone that I’ll be doing something, unless there’s a valid reason to change, I’ll be sticking to it. Of course, validity is always subjective. The subjectiveness is wide open to scrutiny and once there are two people looking at the same point then opposing views are most likely to occur. That’s one issue that has caused my relationship to break down. What they want and what I provide are the same - unfortunately, it’s from opposing angles and has provided too much irreparable friction over the years.
This relationship finishing hasn’t anything to do with the passing of my paternal grandmother. There were over 15 years between these two occurrences. In my mind, this happened on a Sunday. My nan had already had her Miracle Lady moment in hospital. She’d been taken in with her emphysema, put in the resuscitation room (despite a self-imposed strict do not resus request) and intubated. This was in an attempt to stabilise her vitals. She wasn’t expelling enough carbon dioxide and essentially poisoning herself. She somehow managed to get over this and we had a few more months with her. However, on her second admission, things weren’t so rosy. I had previously made plans to go and watch The Hulk movie at the cinema. I was fine to break this arrangement but, with my dad and uncle both telling me there was nothing I could do, I went with the original plan and headed to the Odeon.
What really got to me about this whole thing was not the fact that I wasn’t with my nan when she died, nor the fact I was at the pictures, and not even the fact that I had missed her passing by minutes on my return. What really got to me was the fact that I had previously spoken to Nanny Gert about Death having to go through me first, in order to taker her. He was so adamant that he wanted her soul in Heaven that he quite literally waited until I wasn’t around to come for her. I don’t know if I felt angered or betrayed by him for not playing fairly with me.
My reason for moving back from Windsor to London was all about betrayal. I had bitten off more than I could chew with that particular girlfriend of the time. I remember phoning my nan and asking if it was okay if I moved in with her and my uncle for a few days until I got myself sorted out. The initial plan was to move back in with my mum but she had no space. My dad and stepmum had decided I wasn’t to move in with them and my maternal grandmother lived in a one-bedroom bedsit so that wasn’t an option. All that remained was asking the big 6-bedroomed house owners to see if they would allow me to stay with them until I found somewhere to rent. I was already commuting to Oxford Street for my office job so it was simply a question of finding a room somewhere and moving in. I asked her if it was okay for me to move in and without hesitation, she told me to ask my uncle. She’d made her point clear that she’d accept me, but it wasn’t only her living there. In fairness, she was only being polite when she got me to ask him. If he’d have said no, being the matriarchal figure that she always was, she would simply have over-ruled him. She was always like that, regardless of age, circumstance and on the onset of ailing health.
Have you ever told someone it was okay to go?
My maternal grandmother, Sylvia, was the last of my grandparents. At age 97, just a fortnight shy of her 98th birthday, she was taken ill at home. She was a little delirious, had a temperature and was struggling. I had seen this behaviour a few times in the past. All she needed was antibiotics to kill the infection and she’d be on her merry way again. Granted, with Lockdown 3.0 in full effect, there was actually nowhere for her to go, but she’d be better and ready to take on 2021 with the rest of us.
But that wasn’t the case. With the pandemic holding the nation to ransom, she was loathed to seek medical help. In fairness, she was always against bothering people. That was her and her generational upbringing. Nobody wanted to be a burden on anyone; family, friends, public sector health workers. After about three days of feeling unwell, my nan’s friend called my mother, and I was sent round to investigate. I wasn’t particularly happy with what I found. My mum had phoned 111 who had then notified the ambulance service. Naturally, I was ahead of them and arrived about three hours before them.
Nobody wants to take responsibility during these times and yet I found myself explaining that despite her stats being generally okay, she was still unwell. The Rapid Response team were called and a very nice lady turned up and administered the broad-spectrum antibiotic Amoxicillin. There was no way that my nan would remember what tablets to take and when, in her state of mind. This was on the Saturday.
On Sunday, there was no improvement. Which is understandable as the broad-spectrum antibiotic was essentially useless, as it always has been for me with my history of chest infections. Sunday night and the ambulance people arrived, pretty much saying that if she goes into hospital, there’s a greater risk of catching Covid-19 and at her age, that’s not a good situation to be faced with. At this stage, despite very few coherent conversations, it was decided that we’d wait for the broad-spectrum antibiotic to fully take hold of the infection. I was still not particularly happy.
Monday morning, a few hours before my return to work after the Christmas break, and I find myself back at my nan’s. There’s no way I’m allowing her to be in this state. She’s weak, frail, unresponsive at times. The ambulance come and after the stats showing she has a mild temperature, relay the same Covid warnings. The next level of people arrive to help make us decide to give her palliative care and simply say goodbye. There is no way on God’s given Earth that I’m allowing this to take place. Yes, she would want to be at home but no, I would not want her to be left at the mercy of a health worker that may or may not do what is expected or the change of shift not to take place in the time-mannered fashion that was required. I tell them, a decent antibiotic, oxygen and fluids. Keep her on that, and she’ll be fine.
Reluctantly, the ambulance crew take her to Whipps Cross. Because of the national situation, nobody is allowed to visit. Yet, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I am by her bedside.
Wednesday is not a good day for her.
Thursday a corner appears to be have been turned. Yet I find out that they’ve actually stopped all her medication except for the morphine and oxygen.
Friday morning and I am sat with her. There is very little response. My mum tells me it’s okay to go as she knows I’ve visited. I can’t bring myself to go. I know there’s not long left. I know that it was my decision to get her into hospital. I know it was my insistence that she’d be better cared for here that got her into this state.
I stood up, told her it was okay to have a sleep, kissed her forehead and said the words that her own mother, my great-grandmother, used to utter to my brother and I in Yiddish.
As I moved to the foot of the bed, I looked through the silent tears in my eyes and saw her take her last breath.