I thought it would be dark by the time I drove down my grandma’s road, but there’s still some light on the horizon. When I pull up next to the house the blinds are drawn, so she’s probably having her afternoon nap. So I clamber over the gate into the neighbouring field, and stumble my way up the snowy hillside. I don’t go too far, because I know this will be a physically demanding week and I don’t want to over-exert myself. There are pink wisps of cloud clinging to the Long Mynd ridge. Church Stretton is tucked in the valley between us. It used to be called “Little Switzerland” because of the Swiss way in which the houses cling to the hillsides. Having been to Switzerland I can’t say it’s much like the real thing, but I’ve always loved coming here. I love the country, I love the pubs with roaring fires, I love carols in the market square at Christmas and playing in the swimming pool with my cousins on rare days of sun. But most of all I loved my grandparents. My memory of my grandad is of an austere, intelligent man with a fierce moral compass. When he died my Grandma continued seemingly unphased, full of energy, bustling around town and organising the local arts festival into her late 80s.
But in the summer she had heart failure, and she doesn’t have much energy anymore. In fact, in September doctors decided she should be put onto an end-of-life plan. In classic Grandma style, she is now 14 weeks into her 4-month prognosis.
I slide back down the hill. My aunt opens the door, saying hi quietly. My aunt is one of the few thoroughly good people I’ve met in my life, and like the other thoroughly good people I’ve met, she is quiet and melancholic, with that slightly strained demeanour from the weight of the world on her shoulders. She has been dividing caring responsibilities with her two brothers in recent weeks, but has ended up doing most of it. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen woman and men interact in any environment which involves unpaid labour. I’m here to try and address that balance, and give her a week off. In fact I’ve been petitioning to help out for months, but have been met with a litany of hesitations —
We’re not sure Grandma would take to having a grandchild caring for her,
She wouldn’t want to be getting undressed in front of a man,
We’re going to get some carers in and see how she goes.
They did get some live-in carers: three, in fact. None of them made it more than 2 weeks. One quit after a single night. A quick debriefing with my aunt gives me some idea why.
“Your Grandma’s gotten even more pedantic recently. If things aren’t done in the way she wants, or the way she’s used to, she can get quite…”
I nod. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. Grandma always liked things just so: mealtimes were fixed in stone, including afternoon tea, which would be had at 4.15 in front of Teletex, through which you could check the stock prices. Afterwards, grandma would draw each of the 12 curtains in the lounge, and then feed the cat. It fascinated me as a child; I was drawn to this clockwork. Now I’m responsible for everything, I won’t lie, it appeals to me less. In fact, now I’m here and my aunt is walking out of the door, I’m beginning to feel uneasy. I’ve never cared for anyone before.
It’s early when she wakes up, coughing. When I peek into her bedroom she seems completely unsurprised to see me. Even though I’ve been here fairly recently, it still hits me to see her sat on the edge of the bed, shrunken to a fraction of her former height, formerly immaculate hair now resembling the tufts of snow outside. I wrap her in her dressing gown, and her pyjama bottoms with the cats on, and so it begins.
Grandma sits in only one of the living room chairs, with her feet on a stool and a sheet on her feet. The sheet must be the white one, draped lengthways and not sideways. Next to her should be not only a glass of water, but the larger bottle of water which contains the 1.5 litres she must drink in one day. The water bottle cap must be screwed on tightly enough so that it doesn’t spill when she frequently knocks it, but not so tightly that she can’t unscrew it with her limited strength when she takes her medication, which happens in the mornings and the early evenings, a total of 6 pills each, dispensed to her in one of the little silver dishes that are in the second draw down below the cooker.
And it goes on. Mealtimes are precise, with precise instructions, from the size of the bread to the number of peach slices to the amount of seconds they must be warmed in the microwave (25). It’s immediately overwhelming, but not unexpected. Before coming I’d decided I would push back a little on some of these things, thinking that my aunt and my dad have been gradually enabling this kind of dictatorial behaviour. But it’s difficult to determine which of these trivial details are important and which I can let slide. Of course she’s got to take her meds, and they’re so tiny in her shaking, arthritic hands that the dish is a good idea. Counting the peach slices is fine — saves wasting them. Only using the white sheet, on the other hand…
“I’ve got to put this in the wash, Grandma. There’s some soup spilled on it.”
“You can’t put it in the wash. I need it now.”
“You’ve got loads of other sheets in the cupboard.”
“I don’t want those sheets. I need the white sheet.”
“Well, I suppose we can put the white sheet in the wash overnight.”
“You can’t wash it overnight. The washing goes on after lunch.”
And thus we are in a stalemate. To be honest, I’ve always sort of prided myself on being someone who stands up to Grandma. We’ve had some cracking arguments over the years, most memorably two years ago, when she decided she wanted to clear some things out of the garage attic and asked me and my brother to come over. Once we had arrived, she announced that we were there not to go into the attic and help, but instead to hold the ladder while she climbed up and down, balancing crates of antique cutlery. Not wanting to watch my 88-year-old Grandmother plummet to her death in front of me, I refused, and my god, it was a firestorm. But the funny thing was, after half an hour of heated debate and a compromise which involved me airlifting Grandma up through the hatch so she could show me what to do, she was absolutely fine with me. Better, in fact. I think she respected the fact that I’d stood up to her. I got the stubborn, contrarian streak from her, after all.
Back in the present, I decide to take a less combative approach. Starting these kinds of arguments over trivia felt foolish when she was in such a weak, exhausted state, and raising her voice for too long leaves her out of breath. Besides, over the following days I realise that with many of her requirements, I can say yes Grandma and then just ignore it.
But despite my relatively short fuse, I want to help. It’s important that she’s warm and relaxed and well-fed, so I do most everything she asks. I come to realise that maybe all of the fastidious, pointless routines are to make sure she always has something to do: the porridge, then the prunes, then the tea, then the hot cross bun, instead of thinking about what’s directly in front of her. It’s both a blessing and a curse that she’s got to this stage with most of her mental faculties intact. She’s very slow, and sentences often tail off into nothingness, but her memory is all there. One afternoon as I wake her up, she notices the picture of my childhood self on the wall, and asks if I remember the time when as a two-year-old, I taught her how to work my pram. Needless to say, I do not remember that.
In fact, in some ways she remembers a little too much. As the time goes by, she seems to appreciate my abilities as a carer, though primarily through favourable comparisons with the professional carers who came before.
“One of them, she just wouldn’t listen. Told me not to tell her how to do her job, but she kept doing things wrong. Oh, she was so black!”
Oh. Yes, the main problem with the three carers seems to have been that they were the first, second, and third non-white people to set foot in this house. When carers were quitting working with Grandma after mere hours over Christmas, it seemed likely that it was something like this. I got a bit annoyed with my family, who seemed to think that it could’ve been anything which went wrong, any problem might have occurred between our Thatcherite nan and Miremba the carer, we can’t assume it was a race issue, Grandma’s much better than she used to be, you know, and —
No. She’s not.
Honestly, this is tough. How do I reconcile this wonderful, kind woman, who has volunteered for her community for decades, with the racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted things she says? I can tell myself that she’s not so bad, that she’s a product of her time, but you know, Martin Luther King was born two years before her. Black people have been (nominally) equal to white people since she moved to England in the 50s. She’s had more than enough time to rid herself of views which seem to contradict every other aspect of her ebullient, caring personality.
So how do I reconcile it? I don’t. It doesn’t affect me enough to change how I view her, and at the end of the day, maybe that’s my failing. So I don’t comment, just like the rest of my family, and I pretend I don’t notice that she mutes the TV every time a brown person is speaking on the news.
Before long, I become so tired that any ethical concerns begin to slide. Foolishly, I expected to have abundant free time here. I brought 3 or 4 books in preparation. But even when there’s nothing immediate to be done, there’s always washing, cleaning, or tidying to be done, to say nothing of my actual job. I’m trying to do work in my spare moments, but I find myself completely unable to concentrate on anything but Grandma.
This was probably the strangest thing about being a “carer”. You are so god damn alert, the whole time. Even during the nights when Grandma didn’t wake me up, I would jolt awake several times and check I could still hear her rattling breath. In the days I become zombified, so focused I literally forget the outside world exists, and don’t reply to my girlfriend for days at a time. The stuff which initially made me squeamish stops bothering me, such as the nightly ritual of rubbing moisturising cream all over her blackening, fungal-infected feet (sorry). I can’t believe people care for a living, full-time, for people they don’t even know. It also gives me an alarming insight into how new parents must feel, except with babies it goes on for years, and babies can’t tell you what’s wrong. Despite the fair amount of preparation, I still find myself unprepared.
But, I realise towards the end of the week, Grandma does accept me as a carer. This wasn’t to be taken for granted. I like to think she’s got a soft spot for me, as her first grandchild, but not necessarily a fungal-foot-massage kind of soft spot. But eventually she becomes more open about the more personal stuff, and I feel like I’m actually helping.
In fact, I even manage to help in a more profound way, by booking her a vaccine. Despite turning 90 a few weeks ago, she still hasn’t even been offered one. And like most elderly people stuck inside watching the news three times a day, Grandma is terrified of catching COVID. So one day, once I’ve put her to bed with all the sheets positioned just right, I call the local surgery on the off chance they can help. Surprisingly, they say yes, no problem: and they book her in for four days time. Thrilled, I pop back into her bedroom to see if she’s still awake. She is, so I whisper that she’ll be vaccinated on Saturday. “Oh, splendid!” she says, sitting right up in bed. She wants to know exactly how I did it, exactly what she’ll need to do. Once I’ve told her, she allows me to tuck her back in. “Clever boy,” she mumbles, already falling asleep. “You’ve always been a clever boy.”
I walk back into the kitchen and start to cry.
I don’t know why this got me. I’m not that susceptible to compliments, honest. I guess that with everything that I had to remember to do, with the constant following her around to make sure she doesn’t fall, and the constant waking in the night to check if she was calling me, it was so easy to just forget what’s actually going on. Until it wasn’t.
One of my favourite people in the world is dying. She’s out of breath when she raises her voice because her lungs are failing. She needs to drink 1.5 litres of water because if she doesn’t, her diuretic won’t work and the one part of her heart which still functions might falter. She’s fading, but she’s handling the weakness and pain and sheer bloody indignity of it all with astonishing grace. Her strength and perseverance have always been an inspiration to me; even more so now.
And yes, at times I wanted to tear my hair out in frustration. When she woke me up at 5 because her door needed to be left open to a slightly different degree than I left it open, I wanted to tear her hair out in frustration. But in a few months she’ll probably be gone, and at that point, I will feel as if I’d open a thousand doors if only to see her on the other side.