Nana went to Heaven

Kerry_Trish_Nana

Nana with Kerry and a new cousin

I adored Nana, my maternal grandmother. After my parent’s marriage dissipated, my mother and I stayed in Nana’s apartment, then house, in Glasgow. In another blog ‘the day I knew I could write’, I mentioned that I had written a disturbing tale of a grandmother dying in a rocking chair when I was about 7 years old. Nana had a stroke then and I was just working through my anxiety about the prospect of her death. She was a strong, stabilizing influence on me when my mother was heading towards a severe mental breakdown when I was around 10 years old. My mother had many rounds of electric shock treatment and emerged a broken dove from psychiatric hospital. From then she went onto disability for the rest of her life.

A few months before my Nana’s death when I was 13 years old and she was 79, she was unwell and lying in bed during the daytime. I went into the garden and picked a small bouquet of red and white flowers and put them in a vase. As I entered her bedroom, she screamed to my mum, Kathleen, to take the flowers away. I didn’t realize that my very superstitious Irish grandmother thought that red and white flowers were a warning of death. To this day, I will not receive or give a red and white bouquet. This superstition is very old and reflects red blood and white bandages just like a Barber’s pole. In the past, Barbers often acted as part-time medics and their red and white pole indicated that you go there for medical help much like the green sign for pharmacies.

I am very intuitive and occasionally psychic. Back then I didn’t realize that I can smell and/or sense cancer. Unknown to me, and probably the rest of the family, Nana was dying of lung cancer. As a mature 13 year old, I started removing myself emotionally from my Nana. I still behaved the same but I was holding back some of my very strong affection and love just to protect myself. My life, as I predicted, was going to fall apart after my Nana’s death and quite spectacularly. I am certain that she sensed my withdrawal but I felt that she also withdrew from me – perhaps because I was unable to hide my pity or the truth in my child’s eyes. Everyone else, my mother and all her siblings seemed in denial about how soon she would die.

Just before she died, she asked for me to sit with her and I think we settled our uneasiness. I could not understand why she was so afraid of death, as a life-long Roman Catholic, and she was frightened of my pragmatic acceptance. Her children were terribly upset, naturally, when her death came. In those days the open coffin was kept in her bedroom so that friends and family could pray over the body. It settled me to see her dead body and kiss her goodbye as it was no longer her. My aunt was upset that the mortician had put too much make-up on her but when you are dead, you’re dead. I cried before she died and never did so again. At the funeral I was the only one who was tearless yet I had the most to lose from her death.

For years and up until this day, I have dreams that she has been alive all this time and I had forgotten about her. I feel great guilt and remorse in the dreams but I think I enjoy seeing her come to life just one more time. For some unknown reason I have always accepted death as part of the great circle of life and am not afraid – sometimes I long for it.

Help!

2mums and dad 001 I love this photograph of my mum (blonde), mum in law and dad in law. They are on a vacation to Spain that my parents in law kindly paid for. My husband and I are both only children, so almost always had celebrated Christmas with all three parents. One particular holiday, we were staying in one of the guest bedrooms of my mother’s house. Her house adjoined another terraced house and our bedroom had paper thin walls to the bedroom next door. My mum lived in a nice public housing estate which was full of working class people. The next door neighbor was an older lady, now widowed, who lived there with two sisters – the oldest was single and the other was a widow. They had been neighbors for more than 20 years and both were respectfully quiet – except on this occasion…

It was around midnight on Christmas Eve and we were being disturbed by strange noises in the bedroom next door. It sounded like furniture being moved around which was odd at that time of night. Then we heard a little voice shouting, “Help” out of the neighbor’s window. It was a quiet street and one of the neighbors across the street came out in her dressing gown and curlers, shouting “Who’s that shouting help?” She was a rather loud lady who sounded like a female Billy Connolly. By this time half of the street was out in their nightclothes trying to figure out what was wrong. Despite my mum’s own mental health issues, she was the voice of reason in the street and many people confided their problems in her.

No-one in the house next door had come out to explain what the problem was so my mum knocked at the front door and said, “Its Kathleen, let me help.” They very tentatively opened the door and were clearly mortified at being the center of attention. In those days Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, much like mental illness, was something you didn’t talk about. The oldest single sister had one or the other, had been deteriorating for months while the family tried to keep her illness secret. On this occasion she was delusional, thinking it was World War II and had barricaded the bedroom with the furniture to protect her against Nazi soldiers.

It took half the night for my mum to help the situation while the poor deluded sister was still shouting, “Help!” out of the window. None of us got much sleep that Christmas night. My husband and I were very young, still in our twenties, and didn’t realize how difficult the situation was. Life turned around to teach us a sharp lesson as my lovely mother-in-law who was glowing in the photograph above was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 15 years ago. She was advantaged by new medical treatments, brain scans and therapy but it is still so hard to cope with. Now, she is the only parent we have still living and resides in a special care facility. People sometimes make very thoughtless comments such as, “I would never put my parent in a home” but how could you manage without specialist staff, hoists and all the other equipment they have? I couldn’t even change her diaper because of back problems.

We try to visit her every quarter, one or other of us, but she no longer remembers me which makes me sad. Everything about the situation makes my husband sad as he only sees glimmers of her former personality. I used to volunteer at a Dementia Ward in a hospital in Scotland and I know that we are very fortunate that she is calm, happy and easy for the staff to deal with. It is lovely to see them hug or kiss her with her smiling in response as she no longer has language. Despite all of this, we still laugh when we think of the very loud neighbor lady with the Billy Connolly voice – her heart was in the right place.