[Remember folks, this is a duplicate article. Annexe posts primarily to http://www.annexemagazine.com now.]
Grown-up grandchildren visit their grandmother after a fall. Paul Nash’s story unravels a family’s sadness in their grandmother’s final days.
by Paul Nash
They had known of course, that she was getting older. You could not help but notice she was getting older. They were all getting older. And, to be honest, it had initially started as a bit of a joke whenever they mentioned how small she was getting these days. Smaller physically definitely, and perhaps, if they cared to admit it, smaller in herself too.
There had been brief discussions about dementia. Of Alzheimer’s. Of trips to the doctors. Of tests. Initially these merely amounted to generic statements in and around the same theme: she’s getting older; these things are to be expected; at her age.
But it did come as a shock, when she fell.
There were the usual hurried phone calls and a visit, when it could be arranged, of the grown-up grandchildren.
For the grown-up grandchildren it was both a trip down memory lane and a fraught experience. They had spent, about fifteen years earlier, many afternoons after school at their grandmother’s flat. Mainly while their mother was still at work and generally on Fridays. In a way coming back to her sheltered accommodation block, in the same town they went to school, represented a revisiting of an extension of their childhood. Of afternoons spent sitting in her tiny bric-a-brac filled living room, eating sausages and beans, or spam and chips, and listening to tales of what the “bitch” next door had been up to that week. Which generally amounted to said “bitch” drying her washing on the line outside their grandmother’s windows. Which was, to be fair, exactly what the line was for. But any suggestion of this fact was duly given short shrift, and might delay the arrival of cheap and cheerful Bakewell tarts. So these suggestions were kept to a minimum.
So coming back, even these circumstances, was at least initially an almost pleasant, sepia-tinged experience. Until they actually entered the flat. The cliché held true: everything seemed so much smaller than they remembered. Including their chair-bound grandmother. There was an indefinable, almost acrid illness about everything within the flat. Their grandmother was a lot more fragile than any of the grandchildren had seen her before, even with previous seemingly much more serious health scares. There was a pallor about her that suggested defeat. On her arm was the tell-tale almost skin-tone arm brace, the result of the fall that had briefly hospitalised her. She remained firmly seated in her chair. It appeared that she was spending all day and all night in this small chair. To all intents and purposes this tiny corner of a tiny room now represented her entire world. Everything was arranged around her to be within relatively easy reach, and arranged in a minute detail that would become more apparent during their stay. Their relatively short stay.
There was her walking stick, leaning at a precise angle against the arm of the chair. Which in turn was kept in place by the basket bin at the foot of the stick. Directly in front of her was a tallish pouf, wrapped in a plastic sheet, with a tray on it for the little food she could actually manage. On the side table there was a hospital style plastic water receptacle. Again, very definitely place.
And then there was the blanket. The innocuous, thick, square patterned blanket wrapped tightly over her legs. She spent an inordinate amount of time fussing over the blanket as they discussed, or rather tried to discuss, if she was feeling better? was she happy with the carers? was there anything they could do? But it was difficult to rouse much of a concerted response. So it was left to them to do most of the talking. She couldn’t even bring herself to call her next door neighbour a “bitch”. Which was telling in itself.
As the grandchildren busied themselves trying to be helpful and making the one thing they had been told she would eat – ham sandwiches on white bread – they couldn’t help but notice with some sadness and self-reproach that this is exactly what the carer before them had brought, and was in fact, what the previous family trip had brought too. She must have been eating ham sandwiches day in, day out. So they gingerly ate their own sandwiches and watched sadly as she stoically mushed her own meek portion.
The one constant was the obsessive re-arranging of and fussing over the blanket over her legs. Which continued unabated even when her strapped and broken arm was clearly being hurt by her insistent hectoring of the blanket. She repeatedly tucked it down the sides of her frail body, making sure it covered her legs, but very pointedly that it did not go under her feet. This continued all the way through the grandchildrens’ well-meaning but ineffective attempts to lift her spirits, to try to gleam some source of positive progression in how she was feeling.
There was a sudden, yet slow growing look of discomfort, of panic. The grandmother clearly needed to leave the chair, but also wanted to avoid the trauma as long as possible. But eventually the moment came: she needed to go to the toilet. There were efforts to try to help her, which she attempted to bat off until it became clear she did in fact need their help. Eventually she was helped and guided to the toilet by the youngest grandchild. The grandchildren were then left in the tiny living room alone to shoot hasty glances at each other, full of awkward sadness and no small amount of guilt. But there was nothing they could do. Especially considering the very difficult nature of their relationship over the last ten years or so. She had always been a difficult, even spiteful woman with adults. (Children were more her forte.) They were already doing more, just by being here at all, than was realistically expected of them. But still the guilt remained.
One of them made the mistake – when their grandmother returned awkwardly, painfully, and full of inexplicable shame – of trying to help her with her walking stick. She had placed the stick back in its very exact place, against the arm of her chair. But in her painful haste to sit down the stick had fallen. They rushed to help her put it back in what they thought was the most accessible position. But it was not the correct position. Their grandmother’s anger at this breaking of her invisible rules was instant, panicked and surprisingly aggressive. It was the anger of confusion and fear. It actually scared her, this stick being ever-so-slightly out of place.
In her growing anger and shocking vehemence she bitterly accused them of moving other objects around the room while she was out, as if they were playing a grim joke on her. After many kindly protests that they had done no such thing, and even carefully showing her that they had not, they had to effectively agree to disagree. The routine of the blanket then began all over again. The folding, and the re-folding, the placing just so, the examining, the making sure the pattern aligned with the now almost visible invisible lines of her small insular world. All the while smoothing the blanket into place with a growing air of open desperation. Then the stick again. Then the water receptacle. Before her attention inexorably turned back to the blanket once again. Always the blanket. It was finally horribly clear to the grandchildren just how far the dementia had taken hold.
The grandchildren all had other places to be. So they busied themselves washing and cleaning up the kitchen, talking of another possible visit next month. She ignored them now, and focused solely on the blanket over her legs.
Near the end of the visit, in a sudden moment of clear-eyed clarity she called the eldest grandchild a “smart boy”. Nominally because of his shoes – she was once a seamstress and always professed a love of “fashion” – but perhaps mainly because, in that briefest of moments, she could see in his eyes that he understood what was really happening here. She was dying.
But it was also an admonishment.
They said their goodbyes.
They all drove home and went their separate ways.
Two of the grandchildren were together when they received the next late-night, hesitant phone call from their father. Their grandmother had fallen again and was back in hospital. The grandchildren expressed a desire to come back early the next morning for the first visiting session of the day. But even that would be too late – her body was shutting down. She would be dead before they even got on the train.
The “smart boy” asked their father what had happened. There was nearly always a carer or her long-suffering “companion” with her, after all. It appeared she was still insisting on sleeping in her chair and, their father supposed, she had simply got up in the middle of the night and fell.
Most probably she had tripped over her blanket, which must have finally come loose during the night.
Paul Nash is a London-based writer and works in publishing production. He has written and co-produced and number of successful comedy and drama short films, including Salsa Guy and Stand & Deliver. He also writes sketches and script edits for new sketch group Treacle Town. Paul is currently developing a number of television comedy and comedy drama projects, and writing more short fiction.
Image by Paul Burn.