Grandma wants to die. Where is the dignity in having someone else wipe your bum?

A few weeks ago, Grandma got pneumonia, and at age 96, she refused treatment.

I couldn’t go and see her straight away because I had the flu – even though she wanted to die I didn’t want to be the one that killed her.

But then something unexpected happened. She recovered. Almost a centenarian, sans antibiotics, she beat pneumonia. It’s her Scottish constitution, she reckons – but she couldn’t be more disappointed.

She’s been saying she’s ready to die for years, but never more desperately than now.

“I wish I could just flick a switch and go”, she says. “I’m neither use nor ornament”.

She still has a pretty good grasp of her faculties, although she is getting more repetitive. She tells me, at least once every visit, the beautiful story of how she met my grandfather, her husband of more than 70 years, in 1939. I never tell her I’ve heard it before.

But then suddenly she’s in the present day, espousing her views on politics. She doesn’t trust the prime minister “as far as I could spit” and can’t understand why John Key didn’t see out the term he was elected for. She thinks there should be more women in the Beehive.

With four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren she’s not short of visitors, but she’s still lonely. “I sort of feel like a person walking alone. There’s no one left who remembers what I remember”.

On her tea trolley sits a little tub of wrinkle cream. Age defying, it claims. The futility of it makes me laugh, a little bitterly. No matter how good the potion, it can’t deliver that.

Her body doesn’t do what she wants it to anymore and she’s acutely aware of the indignities that entails.

“You have to put your pride in your pocket”, she tells me, “when you need someone else to wipe your bottom”.

We giggle together. What else can you do?

But it does get her down. “This isn’t living, this is just existing”.

It dawns on me how ill-prepared we are to have a whole generation potentially knock on the door of 100; how we still haven’t worked out how to factor dying into the equation of life.

She’s done well to still be drawing from her own resources at 96, but she worries. “I don’t know what will happen when I run out of money, at the moment I have plenty but every day here costs”.

It strikes me that it’s not cruises and bowls club memberships the financial wizards are telling us to save for, but this: the long and costly process of dying.

She tells me the nurses are just lovely, although, she whispers conspiratorially, “most of them are foreigners”. I can see that, and I can see why: it’s hard, undervalued work.

I give her a kiss goodbye and tell her I’ll see her soon. “I hope not”, she huffs, “I hope I’ll be dead”.

Even though I know that’s what she wants, even though I know she’s lucky to have had a long and eventful life, my cheeks are suddenly wet. She’s my last remaining grandparent. I run through everything we’ve said to each other in my head: if she’s right I want to make sure my last words to her are good ones.

“I love you, Grandma”.

 

– Nadine Higgins, Sunday Star Times

 


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