This is not about sex, because in the last month I have been preoccupied with the nature of death, the concept of fragility and in a bit of a mood.
My grandpa died recently and I have to think that sex, is also a state of dying. As we experience sex, we our so aware of our bodies and their vulnerability. What is the most vulnerable concept in life? Sex and death are in tension for first place.
So, here is a little piece about my experience going to visit him in some of the last days.
Hopefully this touches some.
THE FACT OF LIFE
Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were…
The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.
Dennis Potter (final interview, 1993)
We all know death happens, but I have existed within somewhat of a mollycoddle of not visually seeing death in my daily life. I haven’t stepped over bones or watched people die in front of me. I have seen the aging process and experienced a Grandma’s death, a dog's death, multiple goldfish, a couple of hamsters, and boys from extended friendship groups. It all seems a little distant. This, however, was vivid and still makes my heart beat a little differently.
I talk of death now as I stare right at its greasy grey shadow. It’s a Thursday evening in November. The air outside has begun to feel like a walking ice bath. Today, I have donned my green scarf and fingerless blue gloves, matched with a sloppy joe jumper, encasing any femininity I possess. The scarf, made of cashmere, holds in it the smells of the last week; fires, faint whisky wood, the cold sea, and mum’s patchouli candles. Next week it will, unfortunately, take on this week's smell; hygienic wash, wet wipes, antiseptic, and that smell of old furniture. The smell of last week's leisure wraps around me to protect me from the shock of the present moment. I put it around grandpa in his hospital bed and his emaciated fingers recognize its softness. I instantly regret its breach into the hospital bed though. On the empty bus on the way back Its softness holds urine and day-old lasagna.
I am staying in grandpa's house to be closer to the hospital with my dog, Maude. When I return after the first day she looks at me strangely and sniffs me with trepidation. She can smell it too. I begrudgingly go through the ‘getting home routine’. I hang up my coat. I check the doors are closed twice as the suburban silence frightens me. I open the fridge. I sit on the couch that still has the remains of Grandpa's crossword. I try and fill in the gaps in an effort to finalize what he started before he collapsed. I can’t do it. I finally succumb to rolling a spliff as a conscious form of escapism from the day. I think of Grandpa in his bed. Maude still watches me wondering what the smell is. I think of Grandpa again. I wonder if the music from the speaker in the hospital room ever turns off to let the men in their beds sleep. Or does Dua Lipa hum in their ears all night?
Grandpa's bed is in Orpington hospital. The nurses are on rotation. The nurse on the first day complains of chronic stomach cramps. I felt sorry for her, and in a rather callous way, I wished that she got better faster than Grandpa. She is kind and offers extra biscuits to all the men in Grandpa's ward. We talk occasionally with a shared discomfort as we watch the men hysterically grasp at consciousness. She is trained for this though. She tells me it's hard to work between wards where death overlooks greedily. When I first came into the ward I thought all the men were dead already and was shocked when they all made their first movements. Their mouths were open like you do on the early plane ride naps. You could have imagined moths flying out as they had made their home between the corpse's gums. There is a yellow clock in the ward, but the hands are so small I can barely see them, let alone the men able to. There is a clipboard that hangs in the middle of two windows. On Thursday 23rd November it said Wednesday 23rd November. Maybe not even the nurses know the date as the shifts rotate and exhaustion unravels itself on their once-youthful faces. Life outside carries on though. The man in the far left corner notices my own youth (untouched by long shifts) and shouts to me, ‘You have time, so much time’. He is on his phone all day to a mysterious listener. He orders them in a thick cockney accent to do ‘jobs’ as if he, from his hospital bed, is orchestrating some gangster robbery.
There are four men in Grandpa's ward and Grandpa himself, closest to the door. I have noticed men can be mean and grouchy in their old age. ‘Stubborn old git’ comes to mind. Grandpa protests in between hallucinations when the nurses try and help. Normally he would never protest such tactile behavior from women. He saves his largest groans for the Ghanaian nurse, which my millennial cheeks go bright red at. I put it down to a lack of control so as not to dislike my grandpa's racism during his last few days. These men rarely have had their control taken away, never probably been introduced to the term ‘fragile masculinity’ as the men of now do. Has my Grandpa even cried openly before? I wonder a lot as I sit there watching him. I wonder if my generation will be better at dying, or at least the men as they will be more used to giving up control. When I sit there next to him I imagine him being in charge of his spitfire in strong winds. Such a juxtaposition. He always had a brilliant posture and an earnest grin. He would always talk of Dartmouth and the holidays he had taken there with Nana, his wife. I tell him about my new man and how he has shown me that part of the world too. I am comforted by the fact that nothing would have changed environmentally and they would have also sat watching the whitebait flap around onto the sand, as we did this June.
Whenever I met with grandpa it was always the past he was interested in recounting. His and Nana's life was spent fluttering between Aberdeen, Hong Kong, and then finally Kent. I wonder whether the focus on nostalgia was what depressed Grandpa in the end. What once were tales of adrenalin and adventures became a son dying too soon, a son abandoning (my father), and a wife leaving him in a sudden way. Nostalgia became a toxic chokehold and the present, which were conversations about ‘the weather’ and the surrounding neighborhood gossip were just too boring to suspend a happy life. In contrast, my Grandpa on my mother's side uses nostalgia as a pathway to sanity through his dementia lenses. Both bleak. My Nana (Grandpa’s wife) was also cursed by Nostalgia. She always lay stagnantly seeking the beauty of youth. She was like the haggard lady in Snow White, obsessed with what she didn’t have. I make a promise there and then that I will always keep moving in my mind. I hope the social media archive doesn’t plague me too much. The forlorn of this wondering envelops me and I grip Grandpa's hand as he wriggles in the sheets. Grandpa sometimes grins at me and opens his eyes, but I don’t think there is much recognition. At 5 o'clock they get their supper which I tell Grandpa is good for his digestion system, ‘the earlier the better I say. I feel pathetic saying it to someone who has no awareness of time.
He twitches with his arthritis and is in delirium from hospital displacement and strong drugs. When I get home every day from visiting him I can’t eat. I smoke a spliff to get my appetite up. I read extensively about how to make someone with delirium come back into consciousness. I come the next day prepared with Claire de Lune downloaded on my phone. When I play it the next morning he stops wriggling for a while and says in muffles, ‘oh nice’, ‘oh yes’, ‘oh’. I play it every day after, so he knows the signal of me being there. One day he smiles, one day he opens his eyes, and one day he gets angry. There is a man in the ward who always wants to dance with the nurses and he asks me to play music for him also. I have never seen him get out of his bed but I still go over and play him Talking Heads. The familiar nurse with the stomach aches tells me he has Parkinson's and can’t stand. He can’t dance then. I tell him that I always want to do the things I can’t do as well and after a gulp of embarrassment at my privilege, I say we are both ‘free children’. This makes him smile, but a silent melancholy follows. I ask him his name and he says ‘depack’. Since I began visiting Grandpa, Deepak has never had any visitors. I said I will play music for both him and Grandpa for the next few days.
There is a ghost-like evaporation within Grandpa's house which is lightened by my unconditionally loving dog. The house itself is a two-floored, suburban build near St Mary Cray, Kent. It was built for a quiet, comfortable life. There is a huge garden where five labradors are buried. There are majestic trees in the garden and a tired rope resembling a past of children swinging from it. Nothing fits together in the house and at the same time everything does. Everything is beige or maroon. The house and its contents lay still as if suspended like Grandpa in a purgatory consciousness. There is a Zimmer frame in every room highlighting the fragility Grandpa had been in, unable to move one throughout the whole house. There are pictures of my estranged father and his children dotted around, enough to trigger my every movement. My father lives in Saudi Arabia and rarely visits Grandpa so I’m sure it triggers him too, although not ‘fragile’ enough to admit. Grandpa has a chaotic office at the top of the stairs. His office has a huge amount of files which makes me thankful for google drive as the cost of an extra office room would be near to impossible in my life. He has piles of bank cards which make me surprised how a family member can be so different; I have never retained a bank card until expiry. For me, they just magically evaporate, and then I declare them as being stolen and a new expiry date, and the card with it, is replaced. Maybe he keeps them to build a structure one day (I am in love with an artist who would do such a thing). I aim to ask him when he gets better. He is a straightforward, practical man so I am sure he would have a matching answer.
It’s been four days at the hospital and it's the first day where I wake up and the sun is shining. I sit with Maude in the garden, watching the oak tree leaves catch fire in the rays. I am now wearing Grandpa’s clothes; his woolen crocs, polyester tracksuits, and RAF sweater. I haven’t seen my body for a while nor kept any sort of hygienic regime. Normally I would be starting to arrange winter elegant skirts and waistcoats that go with my brightly colored leggings. Today I don materials for comfort's sake and subconsciously to get closer to Grandpa. In the sun's heat, I think back to times life has shown me extremes, moments of proud nudity in clubs. I think of moments of ecstasy and leisure shared last week with my partner; holding hands and watching the tidal currents wrapping seaweed in a knot. I see that nostalgia is now holding me hostage, or helping me see the other side of this present moment. It is Friday night. Maybe in this beige home, I will show my beige body and dance when the sun has gone in.
The dates have changed to the 25th of November on the whiteboard as I make my way into the seat next to Grandpa's bed. It is finally on the right day. There is a new nurse who has a kind smile. She tells the man in the bed next to Grandpa that the Chinese believe in color therapy as she notices someone has brought him a new blanket to replace the course hospital ones. The blanket is etched with autumnal ambers and reds. She says ‘green stands for hope’. The man who doesn't seem to be listening looks around for a while and replies: ‘well there is no green in here’. The nurse looks disappointed, she had not expected him to outwit her. I come to her defense by bringing out my green hat, placing it on my head, and making the rusty man aware that I do sport a ‘hopeful green’. He looks around and smiles, relaxing into his blanket. The nurse grins at me and asks me if I can stay a couple of days more. She has heard it's my last day. I put on Claire de Lune and rummaged through my bag to find the joke book I had found in Grandpa's office last night. I intended to read it out to him. It was a vast book with exerts of Christmas crackers and ripped-out jokes from newspapers that fell out, like a butterfly from a cage, onto the floor as I opened the book. In the book itself, he had handwritten over a thousand jokes, some that would be shunned by anyone in my generation. I desperately wanted to know why he had gone to such lengths in his bright blue notebook. It was a collection maybe that he could memorize and use on women. Maybe he had used it on Nana. I forgave him there and then for not bringing up a man who could not look after his daughters.
Photos of jokebook.
It is 31 May 2023 now, as I write this and he has left to go join the end of time. I feel numb, relieved, and wide open. A generation dies to let another live.