I was twelve years old when my grandmother died. My father woke me up, early that morning, and told me, “Your Gran has gone to Heaven.”
I was confused, no one had told me she was that ill, they certainly hadn’t told me she was dying. I thought that her decreasing health and physical ability was because of her great age, she had seemed so impossibly old to me back then. It was much later that I’d find out what had happened to her.
She was the only grandparent I knew. My father’s parents had died before I was born and so had my mother’s father. My gran, my mother’s mother, was the only grandparent I had. Other children at school had both sets of grandparents and would talk about them endlessly. I just had Gran, a woman who seemed so much older than the grandparents of those other kids at school. She was an old, small, white-haired woman, like a character out of children’s literature.
When I was nine, Gran came to live with us for a while. With hindsight I realise she wasn’t well, but no one told me at the time. She would sit in the armchair next to the fire in our sitting room and tell me stories of her life. Stories of her growing up in Scotland, her time “in service” in London, running a household in wartime Kendal, Cumbria. She was full of stories and I loved listening to them.
During that time, she was admitted to one of Liverpool’s hospitals. We visited her one Sunday afternoon to find that she had been moved off the main ward and was now in a side room. She told us that the ward’s sister had moved her into there when it became empty. At the time it just seemed like a nice gesture; now I know differently. As a senior staff nurse, working on a busy hospital ward, I’d move a very ill or terminally ill patient into a side room to give them some quiet and privacy.
From our home she moved into a newly built bungalow, near to my Uncle Lance and Aunty Sheila, her youngest son and his wife, in the suburbs of Derby. We would drive over there every Saturday to visit her. The bungalow was small, made from cream-colored concrete and perched on the side of a shallow hill. Being a new build, the garden was untended and raw. It was divided into two by a stone-paved path that cut through its middle. On either side of it were two strips of open soil, which were made up of large clumps of red/brown clay, many of them as large rocks. I wasn’t allowed onto this clay soil because it would stain anything that touched it bright red. Our dog, Candy, a little terrier with a love of new and different smells, wouldn’t venture onto this clay garden either, yet normally she’d spend as much time as possible sniffing out the smells on a new patch of ground. My gran had loved gardening, she and my mother would spend afternoon after afternoon tending to our garden. While she lived at that bungalow, the garden was left untended, just two open strips of clay where even weeds didn’t seem to want to grow.
It was in this bungalow that she died.
I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral, my mother believed funerals were no place for children, so I was left at home in the care of a neighbour. This, along with not being told she was ill, made accepting my gran’s death so difficult for me. It wasn’t as if she was dead, never to be seen again, she just wasn’t there, missing from my life. It wasn’t until I was into my teens that I was able to make the connection that she was actually dead. For my mother, though, the loss of her own mother was something that she found so difficult to accept, it was so hard on her. She spent weeks and weeks off work after Gran’s funeral. I would often find her, alone in the house, silently crying to herself. I now realise her grief had become depression, but back then I was not a perceptive child.
It was only as an adult, after I had trained as a nurse, that I began to find out what had happened with my gran; it was only then that my mother told me what she had found out after Gran’s death. My grandmother had stomach cancer. When she had been admitted to hospital in Liverpool, it had been for “exploratory surgery.” This was long before CT and MIR scans, and cancer tumours do not show up well on x-rays, so people would have surgery as a way of diagnosing where and how big/advanced their tumour was. When my Gran had had her exploratory surgery, they had found that the cancer was extremely advanced and had spread to other organs in her abdomen, meaning there was nothing that could be done; certainly surgery was useless, so they simply sewed her back up again.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how ill she was, no one knew. My gran wasn’t told that her cancer was as advanced as it was; she certainly wasn’t told it was terminal. The decision was made by her doctors that she wouldn’t be able to cope with the knowledge that she was dying and therefore she wasn’t told. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen now, no doctor will take that God-like decision, but it still happened in my lifetime. It also meant that neither my gran nor her family had any chance to prepare for her death.
When my mother was told that her cancer was terminal, thirty years after my gran’s death, she decided not to tell anyone else. But she was able to make that decision for herself and she took it for very personal but still practical reasons. It was also a very different time. I was an adult and a trained and experienced nurse. I had been quietly watching my mother’s health decline and I had been preparing myself. I also had Martin in my life, my partner, whom I could talk to about this and he knew what I was going through. Then I found out her cancer was terminal, though by accident. My mother was prescribed new medication, a hormonal treatment, and I recognised it as a medication used in palliative care, designed to shrink a tumour to reduce the symptoms from it, but it didn’t treat or remove the tumour. It was then that I knew she hadn’t told anyone her cancer was terminal. I was in a difficult position but I was an adult and had someone I could talk to. And when she was in the hospice, at the end of her life, I had the chance to say goodbye to her and we both knew it was goodbye.
I work as a district nurse now and I look after people, in their own homes, who are at the end of their lives. I don’t have the input that palliative care nurses have; my role is very much providing the nursing care people need at the very end of their lives. This has given me an insight into how a death can and does affect the loved ones and family of someone dying.
My own experience, personal and professional, has shown me what a large and life-changing event a loved one’s death can be. But I am also a writer and my computer-like mind stores all this away to be used in my writing. Death is such a life-changing event that I cannot but write about it. But I want to write about people’s personal experience of it. I don’t want to write sensationalist or sentimental prose about the death of a loved one, I want to write about the real progress and events of it all and the way these deaths affect people.
That all said, I have just published a story, Five Days, about a child losing his mother to cancer. This child, a boy called Byron, isn’t told that his mother has cancer and that she is dying from it. It is her decision and she doesn’t let anyone else tell him what is happening. She is trying to protect him, but her actions leave Byron confused and isolated, he feels excluded from what is happening.
Though not directly based on my own experience, I did tap into my experience as a child when I was writing this; I also used my experiences as a nurse too, especially when I was told not to tell a patient’s child that their parent was dying. I wanted to explore a child’s-eye view of terminal illness. It wasn’t an easy story to write, but so often I like to challenge myself with what I write, I want to explore difficult subjects from the point of view of characters being affected by them.
This wasn’t the easiest story to write, I had to keep returning to the fact that the story is seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy without the insights that an adult character could bring to this story, but I did find it a rewarding thing to write. I had written about something important to me.
I am very grateful to my writers’ group, Newham Writers’ Workshop, who gave me such helpful feedback on each chapter of this story. Writing can be such an isolated practice, and so often I don’t know if a piece of writing works or not, but getting feedback from my writers’ group has been invaluable and I have learnt so much from it.
In her will, my gran left me her rocking chair. It was an item of furniture that I had loved sitting in as a child, the sheer originality of it attracting me; all the chairs in my parents’ home stayed solidly in place, none of them rocked. As a child I would always head straight towards that chair. When I moved into the first real home of my own, my own flat, I finally had space for it and it sat in my sitting room for years. It now sits in our bedroom, in a corner almost made for it.