My nan died recently. It wasn’t much of a surprise, I mean she was 97, and that’s a bloody good age. In fact in the end it was a relief for her and the family. She transferred to a nursing home last year and she sort of settled in but she suffered from dementia, often being confused and never really seemed that happy there.
I last visited her at Christmas, being so far away makes seeing family difficult but I was really glad that I got the chance. The home was well equipped and the staff were amazing… really taking care of her well. It was funny actually – the day I visited was the day of the Christmas panto, and nan along with the other residents were wheeled out, and put in rows to watch this supremely cheesy Christmas song and dance routine by guest entertainers. To be fair to them they were amazingly energetic considering the audience were in many cases, erm not. My nan always had something to say though often shouting out that’s she didn’t know what the Elvis impersonator thought he was doing!!
They sang lots of Christmas songs, rock and roll, cockney favourites that sort of thing. It’s hard to know if some of the other residents enjoyed it. It seemed hard to know if some of the other residents were even there. For as many people exchanging stories and chatter there were also bodies, laying twisted and contorted, motionless with teddy bears strewn around them. There was one lady I remember, she was really unresponsive keeled over in her chair and didn’t acknowledge anyone, but then a Bing Crosby song came on – immediately she looked up and out of the window and her face lit up with wonderment to see snow falling…There wasn’t any snow but it was a line of the song that seemed to inspire this. She looked so happy listening to the music… and she could see the snow. It was right there, and it was beautiful.
After the performance was over I said goodbye to Nan for the last time. I had to get really close to her as she was very deaf and couldn’t see or hear me very well. She would ask me a few times who I was.. get me confused with cousins or aunts. We would tell her and then she would forget… She would cry and say how much she hated it at the home. Then ask who I was again. But there was this one moment when she touched my face and looked at me and I really believe she knew who I was.. her face was so old and wizened and wrinkled yet exactly like a childs. Both old and young in the same body.
She looked me in the eyes… ‘Amy’ she said confidently.
‘That’s right Nan. It’s Amy’
Then she smiled and she stroked my cheek.
And then she was somewhere else again.
Visiting the home made me think about old age and how it’s often always so hidden. How community and family structure has changed so much in more ‘advanced’ times and how as a society we undervalue older people.. almost as soon as they stop work… and definitely up until the point their ability to spend money and consume runs out. I wondered who the people were that were sitting around me. What they had loved, who they had loved, what they had achieved and dreamed of. I almost saw them standing in front of me as young adults with hopes, and fears and passions. Many of them still had these things, others were just traces or shells of the people they once were.
My dad rang me on a Saturday afternoon to tell me Nan had finally passed away. I still cried. Events in the family – weddings, funerals often result in the churning up of old memories, events or incidents. I think I cried more at the time that was lost through the family ‘estrangement’ than I did at her death. Death is always inevitable but If I had just tried to find my dad sooner than I did, I could have had more years with her, or if I had managed to get back to Kent more often, I could have seen her more.
But she is gone.
This is how I remember her:
- Home made jam (often plum)
- Toffee apples
- Fruit cake
- Yorkshire terriers fed on maltesers
- The smell of tomato plants and geraniums being nurtured within a humid greenhouse
- Fat brown teapots
- Lace doilies
- The bathroom doll in the knitted dress that sat on top of the toilet roll
- Imperial leather soap and flannels.
- The TV on extra loud
- Bossing everyone.
- Gold jewellery
I remember less about my granddad (Bert Reuben Webber) he died some years earlier but I’ve got notes and photos from my parents (set 2) about his life and am going to do something with this in the future. I know he was hit by a car so he couldn’t serve in the war due to injury. I know he loved music and was disappointed none of his children grew up to play the organ/piano like he did. I know they managed a shop once. I know he was a devout labour supporter and I have a letter to him from Neil Kinnock. I know he loved my Nan very much. He was also a Mason like my Dad and uncle.
The day of the funeral drew near and I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to be hysterical and upset or distraught with emotion or regret (it happens). I have this one damn black dress that I always wear to funerals, sensible auditions and job interviews. Its really nice but its getting to the point where I’m sick of the sight of it now – it just makes me feel grim. I wore it anyway though.
But I also wore my clown shoes. They are magic shoes. I call them my clown shoes because clown as a philosophy starts from the feet up. The feet are important and symbolic because they are what ground you and connect you to earth (of which we are all a part). The feet are the starting point for your journey through life (they take you places) and they are what supports you. People seem to assume they are my clown shoes because they are red, clompy and funny looking. This may also be true. They didn’t go with my dress at all, but as they are magic shoes that didn’t matter. And it really didn’t matter. In fact all but one person thought they were happy and cheery, and they were kind of grateful to have a talking point at the wake.
And that’s when I realised how important clown as a philosophy is. In clown, death is inevitable part of the life cycle, and it’s okay to engage with it. In clown, being grounded gives you strength when others need it and I realised that during the ceremony. So at the funeral I wasn’t this mess that I thought I would be. I was accepting and grateful and there for other people and yes I provide laughs. But looking at my nan there in a box for the last time, it suddenly didn’t seem so bad…because if I have learnt anything from older people is that we are all equal in death, and in life it is the laughs and pleasure and sharing moments that are important.
Outside after the service we stopped and looked at the flowers. It struck me how odd it seemed that people leave wreaths saying ‘mother’ or ‘father’ as if they were only ever defined by that role. I guess how you remember someone is a very individual thing. All the flowers were beautiful.. and up in the trees (and very surreally) parakeets squawked. (London has around 3100 urban Indian parakeets apparently and some of them live in the trees around the crematorium) the noise was reassuring. It almost felt like the gull-stuffed Bristol of home. They must be stubborn little buggers to survive over here, beautiful too.
They played the ‘circle of life’ at the end of the funeral which is a great song. I’ve posted the version below for you. The first few minutes are phenomenal. TURN IT UP LOUD!!!
I loved my Nan but truth is, I know, know, know she would have disapproved of the below version even before she had heard it. So… I thought that was all the more reason to post it.
Because people change…… and so can families.
It was a good age.