25 April, 2006


On Sunday morning, Grandma Ashton died, aged 90. She was a beautiful English lass who grew up into a wonderful woman, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She was the matriarch of the very close father's-side of my family. She was the closest thing I have to a namesake. She was much loved, by many.

Death is a hundred different kinds of awful.


Perhaps you have never sat beside the bed of a person you love, who is dying. You are a lucky person. Perhaps you don't know the feeling of a death so inevitable that you sit hunched, waiting - even hoping - for those widely-spaced laboured breaths to finally cease... for this person you love to be granted release from the mass of organs and tissue that is shutting- up- shop around them... for this person to leave your reach forever, and that body to become simply an object to be disposed of in some way which we accept as meaningful. If you've never been in a position to know these feelings, co
nsider yourself lucky.

I have been in this position three times.

My Grandfather - after being expected not to live through one night - lingered in this state, in the stiflingly public space of a hospice, for four days. My family - known for sticking together like glue - kept an otherworldly vigil in his room, as that inescapable breathing kept emanating from the all-but lifeless body in the bed. It is a profoundly fucked-up (for want of a better term) feeling, when you know your loved-one is not going to get better. This is a one-way journey - there literally is no hope, except the hope that it will be as painless as possible. And so you wait. You order take-away food and read magazines. You greet your cousins and - because their energy is usually so infections - you smile and say 'how are ya?' instinctively. But then you check yourself and sigh together... and sit... and wait. Finally, the vigil became too much and the staff suggested maybe Grandad wanted to be by himself. That he was clinging on because we were there. So everyone left him alone in his room, and went home to shower, eat, be normal as best we could. He died within a couple of hours. Alone - as, it seems, he wanted.

My mum, mercifully, was only in this state for a couple of hours, at the very end. This made it gut-wrenchingly short for those of us left behind - those of us who would have given literally anything for more time. But it meant that she was in that terrible limbo - where the body begins decaying before the soul has left - for a very short time, before she let go, never to be ill or in pain again.

This Saturday night, I found myself sitting again by a death-bed. My Grandma had suffered - as far as can be ascertained - a massive stroke and a heart attack. One would have been caused by the other, but no-one can be sure in which order they happened. Either way, my Grandma was in a coma, with a core temperature of 26° and a barely detectable pulse
. Though her body was still (barely) functioning, she had no signs of neurological response. As one doctor said to Dad and I: "If you or I were in this state, it would be a critical condition. And she is 90 years old." So here we were again. The family gathering round. The lack of hope. The laboured breathing. The waiting. We ate take-away food. I read a magazine. I went home to put my sister to bed. As horrible as it may seem, I was glad to leave. I wanted to be there for my Dad and Aunty-S, but I was glad it was necessary for me to leave. I hate hospitals. I hate the fluorescent lights that make everyone look sick, and the nurses shuffling about, and the sterile sounds and smells. I hate the waiting and the hopelessness and the quiet, creeping death.

This was not supposed to be a "woe is me" post. I guess maybe I'm just trying to explain myself. There are books called things like Death: The Last Phase Of Growth, and people talk about the enlightening, inspirational experience of being in the room when someone dies peacefully. I wish I could view death in this way, I really do. But I have experienced death (or at least the lead-up to it) up close and personal, three times in my life of 25 years, and it has never felt like a glimpse at the eternal or a profound epiphany about the world. Maybe this is a fault in me - a symptom of my inability to feel faith. But from all I have seen of death, it is messy and dull and ugly and undignified. Everything you love about a person becomes overshadowed by the numbing, draining excercise of waiting. Of listening. Of being left to hope for nothing but an End.

I do not want to remember the people I love as a dilapidated bundle of bones and organs under a sheet - seething uncomfortably and always surprisingly tiny. I don't want to say goodbye to a breathing corpse, who has long-since ceased to be recognisable as my Grandfather, Grandmother or Mother.


As far as I'm concerned, I last saw my Grandma at Easter, when we all had afternoon-tea at Aunty-S's. I kissed her goodbye - old and deaf but grinning and healthy - as Dad and I helped her navigate the steep steps to the car. She waved goodbye and the car disappeared down the street. And there was no sadness, because we didn't know that this was the last time we'd see each other.

Goodbye Grandma.

I hope I die without warning, in my sleep.



Blogger Jellyfish said...


Lots of love, sweetheart.

April 25, 2006 1:29 pm  
Blogger lili said...

oh paulie, there are so many people who love you so very much.

hugs and more hugs.


April 25, 2006 2:10 pm  
Blogger fluffy said...

Sounds like you have such a close family. It's awful that you've had to say goodbye like that three times already. Much love xxx.

April 25, 2006 10:28 pm  
Anonymous David said...

you know, when mine pased... all i could think about was that they've gone now to become the artists that paint the sunset..

April 29, 2006 1:20 pm  
Blogger mindlessmunkey said...

Thankyou to everyone who left their kind thoughts either here, by email, in person, etc etc...

It means a lot.

p.s. Lili - who on earth is this "Paulie" you speak of? ;)

May 03, 2006 3:54 pm  

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