This is the one of the hardest things I have ever typed. The first draft set me off into tears and each edit since destroys me slightly.
Nan lay in the bed.
She was a degenerated vessel of what she used to be. She looked glazed due to being high on morphine, of which eased the pain of the cancer that had ravaged her. Drifting into consciousness, she seemed unaware of me even being there.
I cried – I felt so hopeless. It was the worst moment of my life. Even with the streams of tears oozing down my face, like an overactive water feature, Nan did not realize I was there. It felt like there was a heavy weight in my chest, whilst my tearful face had become raw and exasperated. I sank back into a miserable hospital chair. Numb to the core, the energy was draining from my body .
I knew she was going to die.
2 years earlier – June 7th 2010.
“I don’t know how to tell you this… she has cancer,” Mum said from the bottom of the stairs.
I didn’t know how to act. Or what to do.
It felt like the punch in the gut I had received by a bully in Year 7 in French class. I dared to share the same oxygen as him. Le teacher, Mademoiselle Allinson was oblivious.
I never contemplated Nan getting cancer. Despite smoking like a chimney, keeping Malboro in business since the 1950s, and eating far too many Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers, she seemed vaguely healthy.
She barely touched alcohol, and had once taken a few sips of red wine at an outside wedding. She then suddenly fell backwards with a “Woah.” I later had to carry her back to the car as she was too intoxicated to walk.
After the news, I bought cigarettes from a One Stop store. Richard, the long haired, yet gentle cashier, marketed to me that Haribo was half price. I declined, later lighting up a cigarette. I felt lightheaded as the dizzy buzz of nicotine fucked with my body. I didn’t normally smoke. I felt like an overzealous 13 year old attempting to look cool but not.
I should have just got the Starmix.
Nan’s house always smelt of smoke. She lived in Brynmawr, Wales. Her and her son smoked indoors, with no windows open, and the consequence was that the house was hot-boxed in festering disharmony.
My suitcased clothes, despite being zipped up, would somehow reek of smoke. Mum treated my returns from Nan’s like a contamination risk in case I spread the aroma back home. She forced all my clothes into the washing machine.
This tobacco smoke wafted in the air, even turning Nan’s grey fringe a horrible pale yellow. The confused child in me asked her why she dyed it that colour. Maybe I should have bought Nan a lifetime supply of Airwick with a side dish of actual hair dye.
After my cigarette, I saw some friends. They were a welcome distraction. We took advantage of beer and a microwaved roast deal at Weatherspoons – a place that has been described by The Guardian as the ‘McDonalds of the pub world’. I was egged on to down some gravy.
It took me ages to work up the courage to call Nan and talk to her about the cancer. All I knew was that it was in her breast and lung. I didn’t know what to say. Our family never talk about personal things. Either by sheer awkwardness or due to dancing about on the spectrum, no one dares be emotional or open to not ruin the status quo.
I couldn’t say the C word, I just used the term unwell. Before I said goodbye, I ended with a ‘Love you.’ Every single phone call afterwards ended with this affection.
Two years passed, and she didn’t seem any different. She hadn’t planned on telling us in the first place, as she felt it didn’t matter. She was slimmer.
She continued her lifelong duties – feeding the dog, cat and her overgrown son in his mid-50s, with the relentless dedication of a hypnotized housewife. The dog was diabetic as she fed it choc ices.
I’m not proud of my Uncle, whose spent his life on Jobseekers’ allowance and growing suspicious herbs. His airing cupboard once held a giant plant, of which I stumbled into by accident during my adolescence. Nan’s had an eternal maternal instinct of feeding him, whilst he sat on the sofa and ranted how society was ‘poxy,’ or how the world was an arsehole. This unwanted commentary was non-stop whilst we watched The Weakest Link. No television programme was complete without his stoned monologue. It was like Gogglebox but with a psychotic. Sadly, my lowest ebb was buying some herbs off him whilst her back was turned. We had a sofa-based deal.
He wasn’t always bad. He took me to my first and only illegal rave in 2003, tucked away in the Welsh mountains. People offered me acid to buy or asked if I had any. I was confused at what science had to do with forbidden mountain trance.
My uncle would also leave his false teeth in a mug in the kitchen. Don’t ask me why.
Despite being a jobless overgrown child, he was proud to be a vegetarian. Whilst eating a bacon sandwich, he loudly proclaimed to me it smelt like a tramp’s armpit. It put me off.
Anyway, it was now late 2012. I had returned from Camp America in the summer, and my mum let me know Nan had taken a turn for a worse and was hospitalized.
The journey to see her involved spending 8 hours in the car with my mother, the equivalent to a life prison sentence with Louis Walsh and the Crazy Frog as cell mates.
The night prior, I went to an event called Birthday Lashings. Dressed as a Blues Brother (tie and shades was a cost-free costume) people thought I was Mr Bean or The Men in Black. My ex spent the night rolling around on the floor covered in party streamers because I spoke to different women. Most women there were middle aged, wearing Asda sparkly party dresses and making innuendos about cocktail sausages.
We hopped into 2 booked taxis to go to the nightclub nadir that is Walkabout. I was promised a good time but didn’t have one. The dancefloor was a sticky vortex of hopelessness, and despite my best dance moves, I failed to attract a female.
It was 3am. The taxis turned up, some people had gone home prior. The remaining people piled into one and I was left with the other taxi by myself – paying the whole £35 trip home alone. I called the ex, hopefully she had picked herself off the floor, maybe she was in town and we could split a taxi fare back. No answer. Luckily another person who was hovering around shared the taxi home and gave me some money towards it.
It was now the morning of the 25th of November 2012, the last time I saw my Nan alive. I was grouchy, hungover and hating the world.
Mother was brimming with cold and road rage. I had avoided being in a car with her for years. It was mobile claustrophobia.
As expected, it was a a horrid experience. Instead of taking the Seven tunnel, she refused to pay the toll fare, so our 4 hour journey was now 7 hours. The nausea from last nights Birthday Lashings was not appealing as Mum swerved through country lanes. The dodgy Satnav, an unloved Christmas present from a man named Derek, was thrown out the car window.
I was ecstatic when we stopped at a Tesco where I stuffed myself full with sweet Chili Sunbites and brownies, whilst guzzling down some Travel Sickness tablets.
We sat in the carpark, miserable and tired, then Mum imploded. She swore about her childhood issues and how no matter what she did, her brother was always preferred by her Mum. He got away with murder practically. Decades of unexploded rage detonated, I did feel sympathetic. I loved her but I think she had been enveloped by stress after what was happening to Nan.
We arrived at YItsbyty Aneurin Bevan by night. No, I haven’t fallen asleep on my keyboard. It was the name of the hospital.
My mum stayed in the car, not wanting to spread her cold. Little did I know, this would give me the chance to say what I wanted to Nan. I felt this could be our last goodbye.
I asked for directions to find Nan’s room, it was a labyrinth of white corridors to find her.As I entered her room, my heart sank.
I was usually greeted by an exasperated noise as she’d try and get off the arm chair to greet me. Or she’d be waiting at the station, with a confused look on her face as she had forgotten how tall I was.
This was horribly different. She had withered away. Just 5 months ago, she was alive with life. It had now been drained out of her. Her complexion a ghostly white, the colour in her cheeks had faded away.
Her arms had become twigs. I couldn’t see her legs under the duvet; I thought at first that they had been amputated. I swallowed hard; it was devastating to see her like this.
The nurse awoke her and went to get her a vase for the present of flowers and blueberry juice that Mum had gotten her.
My Nan always had juice and biscuits ready for me at my beck and call, I felt very spoilt, yet I felt loved and that I was a little Lord of her Welsh Manor.
Instead now I was pouring the juice, and ended up accidentally covering the counter in blueberry nectar. Luckily Nan didn’t notice, but she was unintentionally ignoring me anyway.
I mentioned there was an interesting looking TV attached to the ceiling, just to break the silence. Nan asked the nurse to bring it down.
NO NO NO – I screamed in my head. We can’t watch the television, I’ve come all this way to see her! Now is the opportunity to talk about emotional things – I didn’t want my voice to be an Uncle-like commentary. Maybe I could pour some more blueberry juice over it and start an electrical fire.
The television was unfriendly. It was a ghastly contraption that was probably concocted by a 1970s interpretation of the future, yet built by a baboon. It came down from the ceiling, and you had to tap it to change channels, yet it was almost impossible to reach by hand.
Children were choir singing on TV, and Nan asked if Camp America kids were anything like this. There were far from angelic I retorted. Nan did not respond.
I felt that I was fighting for her attention, was I just an annoying noise? She was content looking at the television. I felt invisible to someone who always made me feel wanted.
I turned it off. The atmosphere was silent and bleak, I felt tearful that this was not the loving, smiley Nan I was used to. When I looked across during the EastEnders Sunday Omnibus, she would always give an affectionate wink with a slight head twist.
I began to cry, the tears flowing down my cheeks until my eyelids were sore. My throat was dry. I felt my world had caved in slightly. I wanted to communicate how I felt like I was the only person in the room but I was so utterly numb, my emotions raw. I couldn’t say anything or express myself, I just didn’t know how.
She suddenly noticed I was sniffing. I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and let it out.I told her I was upset, and I loved her so much and that I didn’t like seeing her so unwell.
Suddenly, she held out a boney wrist from the side of the bed and we held each other. I wanted to hold it tight but I didn’t want to hurt her. It felt like she was using all the strength that she could muster. It was poignant moment, a shred of emotion from a family who didn’t show it. I felt relieved as it felt like she knew who I was now.
We talked about various memories. Gregg’s sausage rolls she’d bring back for me and my hatred for a soul destroying department store called Haven. I told Nan how she looked after dogs far better than her friend. (Nan hated any conversation of unloved pets being put down, and at one point had a house full of them. Her owner friends would speak of it putting their pets down, and Nan would adopt. There was Monty Dog, Bell, Andy, Arrow and Lady to name a few. Andy once bit my hand, the bugger. I was traumatized about dogs for years.)
We reminisced how Nan ended up hating Derek, who once planned to stay for a weekend yet stayed for 9 days. He had turned the arm chair into his personal throne and left a line of empty beer bottles by her bin. Beforehand, she’d sung his praises, but now simply expressed a cruel cold lip when I mentioned the name Derek. We also touched upon that wardrobe incident, where we had collaboratively almost got her crushed by a huge inanimate object.
More truths tumbled out. I told her how I used to throw tantrums in the car rides home back from Wales. I want to stay in Waaaalleeeeessss, I had wailed. I revealed it was her I came to see, her love and smile would make me so happy.
I asked what Nan wanted to do when she was well again, she said we could walk down the beach together. I asked if she wanted to go in the sea, she said she couldn’t swim and that she’d have to stand on my shoulders.
Nan’s dinner arrived. After she had eaten, the memories ended, and she didn’t notice I was there again.
I took some time out and collapsed against the wall outside her room. I balled my eyes out, I started to slide down in despair. The nurses outside looked confused and perplexed why I was crying, one of them said they could talk to me. I asked how long she had left, they said they didn’t or couldn’t know.
Mum then appeared wearing a face-mask, and my Nan told her that my grandson was here, but then later referred to me as her nephew. She never had any nephews. Mum left again and I got to stay with Nan a bit longer
Nan took more medication, and admitted she was even more out of it. She said it was a shame I didn’t stick to a media carer. She wanted to say that’s my nephew’s when the TV credits rolled. She said she thought of me a lot, and what I’m doing.
She kept longingly checking her phone which was on her bed table. She was mystified by things such as text messages, and asked me if I remember me changing the background to a little yellow man, which she thought was brilliant.
Out of it again, awkwardness prevailed. I told her how much I loved her once more, my heart tugged as I wiped my tear stained face. We both agreed we were people’s people. Uncle never told her he even liked her, let alone loved her. We both agreed we’d love each other… forever. I couldn’t believe we were saying these words to each other, it didn’t seem real.
I took in a sharp intake of breath as the tears fell. We held hands again, despite her having a manky tissue in her hand. She promised she’d get better for me, and that I should ring her. I kissed her forehead twice.
I somehow slipped on the floor on the way out but my feet managed to catch myself.
Her last words to me were be “careful”.
I looked at her on the way out, and she looked at me longingly, and I think she was happy.
I needed to speak to someone rational. I called someone, who I’d recently been in touch with about a prospective meet, I knew she was one of the few people I could have a telephone cry with. Awkwardly, she was with a guy, so I instead stumbled around the hospital until I found the exit, and we drove home.
It was a tense drive home. Things regressed to an unwanted parent-child dynamic. I got told of for munching Sunbites too loudly and that they smell. Then my phone screen was too bright. I dived out to go to the loo, and possibly some salvation, and she told me to wear a coat, and not to close the car door loudly.
I think she wanted me to snap and have an apocalyptic car showdown along the M4. I bit my tongue for hours, despite being tempted to open the car door and jump out down the dual carriageway.
A few weeks later, Nan died.
Grief was new. It didn’t have the constant emotional absorption of getting your heart broken. At first I felt nothing. I kept on thinking I was in a movie, thinking of the stereotypical grieving process of what I should do. This is what happens when the TV has been your third parent.
I was more relieved of her passing and I felt really selfish for feeling that way. It felt like confusing burden had been lifted. I ordered 2 doubles at the pub – bad idea, for a steep £10. I didn’t care if the barperson thought I was a breakfast time alcoholic. A flurry of memories hit me that I then realised I only shared now.
These included Nan putting up with my repertoire of, “what do you get if you cross?” jokes for hours on end whilst I recorded them on one of these below 90s contraptions
More memories came to mind. Nan making an Xmas Lunch with mint sauce. Each following meal still involved the same eternal pot of mint sauce. Fish and Chips and Mint Sauce. Pie and Potatoes and Mint Sauce. Or Stuffing. She knew I had a soft spot for stuffing, by New Years Day there would be stuffing on the side of each meal simply because she knew I loved it.
I remembered Nan offering me a stack of bread and butter and various cups of cold water in case I couldn’t handle my first Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle. I found it hilarious Nan also could not understand the idea of Naan bread. Maybe it was jealousy.
On the way to a shopping trip to Somerfield and Kwiksave, I’d turn to talk to her and she’d always be gone. I would look behind, only to see her miles away at the top of the hill. Her tiny legs were no match for my manly strides, yet she would never say anything.
On the way back, I would be her hench strongman as I’d carry the shopping bags back up again.
We once bumped into a boy who randomly offered us a chocolate dog bone for Nan’s neurotic Labrador, Andy. We were perplexed why it had a bite mark in it. The hungry boy thought he’d gotten a novelty chocolate deal at the Pet Shop and eaten some.
My favourite memory of her is when I used to say goodbye as I’d head into the car/bus/train and head off back to England. She’d wave as long as possible, until she could no longer see me. I would turn around, and her face would always be smiling at me, hoping that I would come and visit again soon.
On the day of her funeral, there were little bags of tissue next to each seat. We sung All Creatures Great and Small, an ode for her love of animals.
We watched a slideshow that my Mum had prepared of her life, including her on a motorbike. I burst into a fit of giggles when a photo of Nan and me appeared, with my bed-hair affected Lego Man haircut. My uncle was his normal self, proudly smoking in front of the No-Smoking sign at the crematorium.
I placed a white rose and a note on her coffin, and then she was gone forever.
I couldn’t believe it. We had a post meal at a Harvester, but it felt like there was someone amazing missing
Her birthday is on Halloween. Once I bewildered her with a surprise visit by putting on a frightful Halloween mask and knocking on her front door.
“You’re a bit early,” she said as I trick or treated her in the late afternoon. I took off the mask and revealed it was actually me!
Now on her birthday, I’m not cheeky at all. Instead of improving my appearance with a novelty mask, I buy a helium balloon and attach a little note, then let it go up into the sky.
It hope it doesn’t end up up entangled on a satellite dish, but it’s nice to give her a message every year to remind her she’s still very much missed.
Next Halloween, look up into the clouds, around about sunset.
Cast your eyes wide into the sky.
You might just see it.
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