Saturday, 2 June 2018

Goodbye, Grandma

Scrabble pieces on a natural wood surface, spelling the word "goodbye"
Next week, I will be at my grandmother's funeral.
She is the last of my grandparents to die, and the one that I was closest to in my youth. This was not a result of any particular compatibility of personality or interests; rather, she lived nearby and looked after me a lot when I was little and my parents both worked. My other grandparents lived further afield; her ex-husband not too far away, in a neighbouring borough, though he was frail and largely housebound, while the other set of grandparents lived in Spain when I was born, then County Durham a few years later – both a long way from London.
My London grandfather I barely knew, which became a regret once he died. His long illness made it no surprise that he was the first to go, when I was about 14. My other grandparents I spent time with intensively, when I saw them, and I suppose I had most in common with my other grandfather – curiosity, an interest in technology, that sort of thing. I didn't see them that often, though.
My grandmother who died recently, however, was a very from me, as a person. My mother's generation were the first in their family to have a higher education (so far as I know), very London working class, and while my upbringing was complicated, class-culturally speaking, enough of the trappings of middle class culture were there that I get the feeling there was some tension. My parents both enjoyed (and still enjoy) fairly intellectual discussions on a range of subjects. Both university-educated, though my mother was still doing her first degree when I was born, both intellectually curious, albeit with different focuses and subjects of particular interest. My grandmother was never stupid, and she wasn't indifferent to learning, but I never saw in her the hunger for understanding that I see in both of my parents, and in myself.
Still, she made a major contribution to my own development in that dimension. She tolerated, and did her best to answer, all my expressions of curiosity as a child. Most importantly, she taught me to read. Not that I understand she had any intention of doing so, and I gather that modern educational policy in this country would say that she did wrong by doing so, but I'm glad of it. So far as either myself or my mother is aware, she never did anything systematically to help me learn to read. She just read to me where I could see the book as well. Children's books, not much text and lots of pictures, apparently I worked it out as I went along and was reading quite competently before I arrived at school.
Writing took me a fair bit longer. I like to think I've gotten pretty good at it.
I understand that the funeral will be a sort of nothing-in-particular service at the local crematorium. Odd bits of religious elements, and others not. I look forward to it and dread it in equal measure; that side of my family is relatively large, and I don't see many of them very often, so there's potential for awkwardness (along with some specific reasons I won't go into in a public blog post). However, I don't see them very often, and it's nice to do so, though this might be seen as a sad reason. It's an opportunity to grieve, and to express solidarity.
I don't grieve that much, though. I've been grieving for years. You see, for several years before her death, my grandmother had vascular dementia. Unlike Alzheimer's, or at least the stereotypical media picture of that most well-known form of dementia, this doesn't cause memory to rewind, for people to become unstuck in time. Rather, it affects ones cognition, and coordination, and ability to form new memories. It's not usually complete anterograde amnesia, it's more that it takes repetition for things to stick – or at least, that's how it happened for grandma. You could sit with her for an afternoon and have the same conversation several times, and on the third or fourth go around she would realise that it was repetition, that she remembered some of it. Last time I saw her was a couple of years ago, and I understand there was some degradation since then, but I never felt like pressing for details.
By the time she died, she had become quite distressed and confused. In the end she was sedated, having become unable to swallow, and died in the usual manner once that step is taken. I was told when she was put on ongoing sedation, and I know what that means, so it was no surprise when I was told that she had died, pretty near exactly on the schedule I understand applies in such cases.
My grandmother was no saint, goodness knows. She had some attitudes that were common for someone of her background, of her time, and though they moderated it would have been amazing if they had faded completely. She certainly tried to do right by people, especially family, but she wasn't selfless when it came to everyone else (nor always when it came to her family, but who is?). Nor was she any great villain. Her attention in my early years did a lot to make me who I am, though.
So, why I am I writing this on my Quaker blog, you might ask. It's a very good question. I could segue into some religious observations, rehash my thoughts of what happens after death, generalise it into some sort of lesson. I'm not going to do that, though. I'm sharing this here because it's the best place I have to share it, because I am writing from the heart. I'm not sure whether to tag this as written ministry or as deliberate writing, so I've tagged it as both – truthfully, it is a bit of both.
I'll miss my grandma, but that's nothing new. I've been missing her for years. I expect I shall cry at the funeral, or while reminiscing with my mother before and after. I've cried a little already, but not much. I don't know that I will cry very much, because in a very real sense this isn't a new grief.
I share this with you all purely in the spirit of sharing, in the confident belief that sharing makes us all better, helps us all to understand. I do not ask for sympathy or condolences, though I won't refuse them.
This is the end of a story, a messy, drawn-out end that has finally concluded a messy life, but I know I would prefer a messy life over a tidy one. It's a story that's unique, and I haven't (and won't) tell it all; it's a story that's fundamentally the same as every other. Her story and mine share huge stretches, but they aren't the same story.
She was there for me, even though we never really understood one another.
Goodbye, grandma.
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