Friday, 26 July 2013

Dimmed Light

'I don't know what you're expecting, but she's a lot worse than she used to be.... you have to be prepared for a big change', my mum says to me looking concerned. Our friend, Rivka, makes us tea while we unpack our things. She calls from the kitchen, 'It's a funny thing about your grandmother, she has no quality of life, she says she wants to die, but she's holding on... I don't know what for, but she's holding on'. My mum might have fears about how I would cope with seeing Grandma, but actually I was fine. It's been hard going on Mum though watching Grandma get more and more confused and distant.

We arrive at her flat the next day, her carer welcomes us in and disappears to go and make tea. I drag a chair over to the side of the bed. Grandma looks up beams at me. 'I love you!', she says taking my hand, 'Fantastic that you could make it! It's been a long time since you were here, it must have been three years or more'. We look at each other for a while and smile. I hold her hand for a while. I hear her laboured breathing where she didn't quite get over her pneumonia. She catches me looking at a watercolour over her bed. 'Do you paint? Yes? What do you paint? Yes, it's very important to paint what you love.' She frets about me being cold ('Do you have a jacket? Yes? It's very important, you know.') and asks the usual questions ('Is your job satisfactory? Do you like where you live?') and worries about what I'll have for lunch ('I hope it's good'). We sit in silence for a long time. I can hear Mum next door making phone calls, bustling about, using up all that nervous energy. She scrutinises me for a while and exclaims, 'You look the same. You look lovely. How old are you now? 34? Oh, so young! Young and beautiful - good that they go together', she twinkles at me, wrinkling her nose and batting her eyelashes at me - I remember these gestures from old and it reminds me of the grandma I grew up with, demure but a little sparkly. The next day she asks again. 'How old are you? 34? Marvelous! I'm 86. That's not marvelous'. She sighs and looks down at her hands and then gets lost in her thoughts again. She looks at me and says 'I didn't get much sleep. I dreamt of you though'. 'What was I doing?' I ask. 'I don't know, you were just there. It was lovely. I love that you're here, it keeps me going for some days after you've left.' She lies back down on her pillows and looks up for a long time.

Every day as I come in she exclaims 'I love you!' and we sit and hold hands. Mum gets things done mostly, but sometimes she comes and sits in with us and the silences get longer and Grandma gets lost in her own thoughts. Mum looks at her nails, looks around the room, moves things about a bit, crosses and uncrosses her legs. She is restless and uncomfortable. Eventually she goes into the other room to continue sorting things out. She gets papers out of the wardrobe, leaving the door open. I see Grandma's shirts and cardies hanging up, ones she doesn't need these days because she doesn't even sit in the living room anymore let alone leave the house. For a moment, my heart tightens as I remember the days out sketching, reading, drinking coffee, in cafes, museums, theatres. The sound of my mum's voice comes from the other room and brings me back into the present. She is on the phone. She comes back in and tells Grandma she need to talk to a man on the phone, 'Just say who you are, Mum.'. Grandma takes the phone, 'Allo?.... Yes?.... Come next week, I have guests..... Please ring before you come,.... Thank you.' Mum takes the phone to talk to the man from the Visa company, 'Do you see what the problem is? That's why I'm dealing with her affairs.' We go through the same procedure with someone from the phone company. Grandma looks at me anxiously, 'Is she coming round? Who was that?', I pat her hand, 'No, no, we told her you were busy'. 'Oh good. I don't want anyone to come round.' These are the times when I see the confusion starting. One day, as I come in we chat for a bit, she looks away and then looks back and something seems to have shuttered in her. She starts speaking German to me, the first time she has done that. After a few bits of conversation (I answered in English), she recognises me again and asks me in English where Mum and I were going for lunch. 'I hate this food. I hope you have a good meal'. After she eats her lunch ('Don't watch me eat!') I come back in. She leans in conspiratorially, 'I like it best when you're here alone', she smiles at me.

Finally, it's our last day and she asks over and over again about the taxi to the airport, where we're having lunch and if I have a jacket. 'I'm never hot, you know, I always wear a cardie.' She looks at me, 'You're beautiful. Lovely.' We look at each other again for a while. 'I love those earrings. Very nice.' I thank her and mention they were made by a friend, from real dominoes. She looks at me. 'Well, they're lovely. You wore them yesterday as well, didn't you?'. She catches me looking at the chest of drawers, 'I had that imported here from Vienna. A very long time ago now. I'm 86, you know.' She shrugs, sighs, and frowns a little. I look at an old photo perched on the drawers. 'That was my son. He died when he was 17. Yes, it happens.... what can you do?', she shrugs and makes a dismissive gesture with her hands, her breathing becoming more difficult again. 'He loved me and I loved him, at least that was alright.' She gives a sad little smile and goes back to thinking for a while.

The time comes for us to leave. 'It was fantastic to have you here. Come back and see me before I die, won't you?'. We look at each other a little more. 'You should always do what you think is best', she nods sagely. She pauses for a while and then looks over. 'You take care of yourself. I love you', she twinkles for a bit, looks me in the eye, 'I always love you.' And then one last look and smile from both of us before I go on my way.


  1. Bittersweet & beautiful. It's so hard to watch our loved ones slip away with age. Your grandma sounds like a lovely person!

    1. Thanks very much! I've always been close to my grandma, she's wonderful. I hope other people have had just as good an experience!