In November 1997 my Nan was admitted into hospital again.I didn’t think it was anything terribly serious, but another case of water retention. Oedema, I believe it is called. A year or so before she had suffered with it, her hands and ankles swelling up like balloons. A doctor came out to see her, a lovely lady, who checked my Nan over and decided she needed another hospital stay. The odd thing was though, I clearly remember this doctor, having finished with my Nan, poking her head back into the living room and quietly motioning me to come and speak with her. I went into the kitchen and shut the door.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I stared blankly. “Fine,” I said. And she seemed to scrutinise me with her eyes and then nodded and that was that. It was only many years later that I realise her question was loaded with so much thoughtfulness and meaning. She was asking if I was coping, being on my own, caring for my grandmother. I was never very good at expressing my real feelings, thinking that I had to be strong for the sake of Nan, so whenever anyone asked me this type of question I would always say I was fine. With hindsight, a period of respite for myself would have been a helpful thing during those seven years, but hey ho, life goes on.
My Nan was admitted into St Woolos hospital in Newport and so each day, I would leave the lovely two bedroom house we lived in at Hollybush, Cwmbran, and take the bus to Newport. I would pick up anything my Nan said she wanted – grapes, or liquorice (her favourite sweet), or some shortbread (her favourite biscuit) and walk the long steep hill, up past St Woolos church, and into the large, sprawling and often unusually quiet hospital. I would arrive early in the afternoon and sit with my Nan, who would never have the energy to say much. She would ask, in a slow, thoughtful way, about trivial housekeeping matters. She would have her tea at around 4:30pm and, it being hospital food, never ate much. Again, a warning sign and something I should have acted upon but I just thought everything would be fine, she would be home soon and our lives would carry on as normal.
During those times when her tea was served, I would stroll down to the hospital canteen and have a hot drink. Very occasionally I would buy a meal, but not often. I was in charge of my Nan’s benefits and would claim them dutifully each Monday, along with my carer’s allowance. I was good at buying gas and electric stamps (a now obsolete way of saving towards utility bills and a method I genuinely enjoyed. It was the collecting aspect of it I guess!) and making sure everything was paid that had to be paid. I would make sure I kept the weekly fare to the hospital. I think my Nan ‘gave’ me weekends off from visiting her. I know for sure that I didn’t visit on Sundays. I’d like to think I visited her on Saturdays too. As I sit here, twenty years on, I want to feel I showed her as much love and attention as possible.
As it grew closer to Christmas, I had no doubt she would be home. But the closer that important date came, the realisation began to dawn, for both of us, that it would not happen. Nan was quite philosophical about it. Her deeply wrinkled liver-spotted hand would hold mine and she would say “It’s only Christmas love, I’ll be back soon in the New Year.”
I can’t quite remember everything I did during that Christmas of 1997. Did I cook myself a small turkey and a Christmas dinner, just for myself? I do not know. I have a vague memory that my sister was able to persuade her partner at the time to drive us to see Nan on Christmas Day. I have a misty memory of a very quiet hospital ward with tinsel garlands hanging from the ceiling and my Nan in her bed, wishing us a merry Christmas in what seemed to be an increasingly frail voice.
I would return to an empty house, with just our cat, Suki, for company, and make a coffee and sit in my armchair that was next to my Nan’s. I may have placed a glass of port on her side of the small living room table, just for comfort. That’s what we would have been doing on that Christmas night if she had been home, sipping port and laughing together at this and that, as she had a wicked, dark and bizarre sense of humour like myself.
She passed away on February 2nd 1998. Although since then I have had many memorable and wonderful Christmases, I think for many of us it is the Christmases that we spend with family that are the ones are hearts are drawn back to and the ones we remember the most as the years pass by.
The picture below is from around 1990 I would guess, when my Nan was still relatively healthy and before I became her full time carer (though was living with her).
As my Bamp died in 1987, I have a strong feeling that this is the Christmas immediately before, 1986, when he cooked the largest turkey he had ever cooked before and after a long day of tending to it and basting it, uttered “Never again!” He was proud of it though and I think it was he who asked me to take this photo (on that years birthday present I had received from them – a Polaroid 600 Instant camera!)