I can’t remember the exact day, not the year, or even the decade, when I had arranged to meet my grandad at the old north building of the Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) to visit my grandma who had been taken in with what grandad described as ‘an ulcer’ in her stomach. I was of course very early so went straight to the ward to see the old girl. The nurse took me to a small room off the ward and the news wasn’t good. “I’m very sorry,” she said, “but your grandmother has died.”
This was my first significant family death and I remember mumbling something like, “Thank you for telling me.” Then, I left the ward, not really knowing what to do or what to say.
The old hospital, which was across the road from the new, shiny BRI, was served by one of those elderly lifts, which more resembled a metal cage. It rattled and clanged up and down the lift shaft. I walked in the direction of the lift and suddenly saw my grandad was in it. I had not come to terms with what the nurse had told me but I suddenly realised that I would either have to break the news myself about the death of his wife of – and here I am guessing – over 50 years, I could pretend I didn’t know about it and feign shock when we were both told, quite possibly by the same nurse who had broken the news to me, or I could hide. I chose the final option. I can still see him walking slowly past me to the ward. My heart was pounding through my chest.
I know now that I had bottled out of a very difficult situation. I have often wondered if I did the right thing but in all honesty it doesn’t matter. I was quite young then and I had to make a decision in an instant. I don’t think it changed anything and I don’t see the point of regretting what happened. However, until now, this very moment, I haven’t told anyone else what I did. This is my confessional.
I learned from my experience with later family deaths. When my mum died, I called her brother in the Netherlands who, to be honest, seemed particularly unconcerned and even ambivalent about it. I did it without a second thought. Making the actual call was relatively easy, the only shock was his reaction. My experience with the death of my grandma had toughened me up, which was just as well given all the family and friend deaths that seemed to happened with grim regularity.
I suppose I am slightly haunted by the sight of grandad about to be confronted with the reality that the rest of his life would probably be spent all on his own. And I am more than haunted by the fact that my own demons prevented me from having a closer relationship with him after grandma’s death. That’s a story for another day.
Today, I cannot walk or drive past the old building on Marlborough Street without thinking about the past. I don’t feel bad about it. I just feel it. Older, wiser now, I’d have broken the news myself. Back then, I didn’t fully comprehend the realities of our mortality. As the oldest living person in my family, I certainly do now.