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Gentle Soul, Gentle Night

The last visit we paid to Auntie Norah was on Thursday 28th August, the end of our summer holidays. She was in hospital, which I am ashamed to say, triggered the visit. Prior to this visit I had perhaps not seen her for up to a year, often remarking I needed to visit but not making time to do so, always pursuing other priorities. I would often begin my visits by apologising for my absence, to which she would reply with her unfailingly genuine and unassuming manner, "Don't worry love, I know how busy you young'uns are..." A comment which in many ways inadvertently heaped more shame upon me.

Prior to the visit I had heard horror stories about just how ill Auntie Norah had become, about her ulcerated legs that had apparently been leaving her in crippling pain throughout the summer. It was mooted things had become so bad that she may yet face having a leg amputated, we wondered aloud as we made our way there as to whether she would survive such drastic surgery. As I walked down the ward, consciously averting my eyes from other patients, I felt a sense of foreboding about what state she would be in - with the memories of my Grandad Roy's final hours still vivid, performing a macabre dance in my mind's eye. 

We couldn't find her initially, and then I heard her familiar Barnsley accent from behind the blue plastic curtain, engaged in a perfunctory conversation yet nonetheless warm. Five minutes later, the junior doctor having now moved on to the next stop of what must be a seemingly endless round, we each greeted Auntie Norah with a hug and I handed over a 'Get Well Soon' card. She appeared tired but was in otherwise seemingly good form. When asked how she was, a customary question we Brits seem to ask one another and always habitually lie in response to, she responded that she was feeling much better - the morphine was 'working wonders', 'marvellous'! Auntie Norah then went on to say, as we  inquired about her summer, that it had been difficult but she had lived many years, she had enjoyed life and it was the young people fighting cancer and the like that we should all really worry about. On reflection, such simple, powerfully selfless words would not be out of place in the scripted, intensely practised scenes of a Hollywood movie yet they were made here as casual, off-the-cuff reflections.

Unbeknownst to me, Auntie Norah had spent part of the summer in a care home rather than the cosy council house on the outskirts of the city which she'd shared with my grandfather for the past 40 years - 'respite' they term such things, although having heard so many stories from different sources about the nature of care homes, I question respite for who? During the visit, Auntie Norah's own brief tale of her time in the care home did nothing to dispel this impression, with her retelling a short story of being left on a commode for two hours in the night, unable to get up and back to bed - and when the care worker finally arrived, then being 'told off' (I imagine as a small child might be scolded by an early 1900s schoolmistress) for not getting back to bed independently. It had not been discussed with her, as far as I know, that on leaving hospital, plans were being made for a move to a care home full time. If it had, or she had simply logically predicted her fate, then I cannot help but think it somehow contributed to the following hours. The treatment of the elderly, particularly so in care homes, is one of the major social justice issues of our times. However, unlike other oppressed minorities which have risen up in previous years to claim what is due to them from state and society, the voices of our very senior citizens are rarely heard, quietened by their medical conditions - and, if we are to be blunt, silenced by the coming of the gentle night. Again, we - the relatively young and able - are shamed by our negligence, distracted as we are by other things.

We hadn't expected my Auntie Norah to end up in hospital in this way. Granted, she had reached the fairly grand old age of 78 years but she always seemed younger than her years, often out and about socialising - including a weekly trip to the gym. My Auntie Norah was my late Grandad Joe's second wife. She was around 12 years his younger, the pair meeting at a large food processing factory. My grandfather had lived to the grand old age of 91 but his final years of life were marred by a slow but unrelenting decline in both his mental and physical well-being. My Auntie Norah had become my Grandad Joe's live-in carer, attending to his most basic needs, but the radically changed nature of their partnership had clearly not diminished the romance between them - one of my most vivid memories is of my Grandad, a gentle but very reserved man, suddenly reaching with one arm from his favourite chair by the window to the sofa beside him to give my Auntie Norah a hug and a peck on the lips. When my Grandad passed away just less than two years ago, there was a sense of timeliness and a hope Auntie Norah could perhaps enjoy some years relieved of what had become an overbearing duty to her much-loved husband.

From what I have been told, Grandad Joe and Auntie Norah fell in love at some point between the late 60s and early 70s. They left their existing, apparently deeply unhappy, marriages for a life with one another - my Grandad is said to have told my father in later years, "I loved your mum but I could no longer live with her..."  In such times and in the traditional close-knit working class environments they inhabited (alongside the Jehovah's Witness influence within my family), I imagine this was fairly scandalous. 

I witnessed, as a grandson, the damage this event caused as my grandmother, Nannan Else, would regularly rail against them. Even as a small child I could see she was a deeply hurt woman, and now I recognise just how consumed she was by the fires of her grievances. She would frequently air her embittered views both at family gatherings and when I was alone with her. This left me feeling torn. I knew her comments - whilst rooted in the truth of her betrayal - were 'not right' but couldn't object to them for fear of rejecting her, a lady I adored and, in some respects, feared. This feeling of being torn has obviously lessened with age and the subsequent growth of wisdom but it still casts a shadow with seemingly trivial matters, such as where to place their photographs, still creating questions of love and loyalty. There is of course a certain indelibility about childhood influences that no amount of time, awareness and reason can shift. Maybe this was why Jesus took such a hard line on the responsibility of adults to provide protection and guidance to children?

Our visit to see Auntie Norah was cut off abruptly as we were conscious medical staff needed to return to make a further assessment of her legs, the decision on how to proceed still not finalised. We were mid-conversation about photographs; Auntie Norah's big passion. We were talking about our brother's wedding and bringing her a photobook she could show the wider family. By wider family, I mean the patchwork of two families that Auntie Norah and Grandad Joe came to be grandparents for - a disparate collection of people sewn together following their marriage, in many ways only ever becoming something like a 'family' through connection with them. Such are the unique complexities of reconstituted families.

We went home that evening, talking in the car about how well Auntie Norah in fact seemed, moving back and forth to discussion around the possibility of surgery and her moving to a care home. That night I returned home and fell asleep, Auntie Norah back off my mind, my attention turning to other things. Awakening in the morning, I experienced a hazy recall of a dream, a feeling, in which Auntie Norah was in some kind of peril. Again, it was passed to one side - I got ready and ventured into town to buy some new shoes and a suit for my coming return to work on the Monday. The shopping trip was interrupted by a telephone call, my mother delivering the news Auntie Norah's heart had stopped in the early hours of Friday - they had resuscitated her but she had not regained conscious, and any prospect of recovery was ruled out, her passing now inevitable and imminent.

Such news was a shock, the words from Lemony Snicket's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events', spring to mind:

"It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. It's like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down through the air and there's a sickly moment of dark surprise."

It turns out our visit to see Auntie Norah in hospital would be our last encounter with this lovely, humble lady - a grandma in very nearly all but name. For those left behind, we can really only wonder, and at best theorise, as to what lies beyond the gates we must all one day pass through. Speaking personally as a disciple of Christ, as a practicing Quaker, I draw hope from the experience that at the heart of each soul rests a powerful energy (for want of better words) which is beyond material destruction and connected to a larger unfathomable source - that which, in the Book of Daniel, is called the 'Ancient of Days', that which Psalm 139 portrays as an inescapable, pervasive Spirit present within all life, that which the Jesus story reveals as ultimately good. Having now sat at three funerals this year, I am more conscious of the relentless passing of time, our need to appreciate the life we have been given and the recognition we have no legacy but our impact on other travelling souls, our imprint within the ever-lasting memory of God; this is both the great comfort and the terrible burden of the Christian.

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