Five-minute memoir: Julia Crouch recounts her role in the death of a dear friend


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

My friend Rosemary was quite a bird. She had lived in New York for most of her adult life, always travelled first class on the QE, and until she turned 90 everyone thought she was 10 years younger than she actually was.

But I played a major part in her death, and it's not something I'm proud of.

We knew her for over 30 years – on her return to the UK, she lived next door to my husband Tim's parents in Bognor before selling up and moving to Chelsea. At that point we were stony-broke in Bristol and Tim needed somewhere to stay in London while he did an acting course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Rosemary very generously offered him the use of her spare room.

It was a happy arrangement, not least because Rosemary's little brother Hwfa Pryse had also been an actor, and although he died tragically young in the 1950s, he had built up quite a reputation for stage and screen work. It did Rosemary good to have an actor around the place again, to share G&Ts and gossip.

She was the last of her family and had outlived all but a couple of her friends. So we adopted her as our Aunty and visited her regularly, taking her for wheelchair pushes around the glorious Ranelagh Gardens.

Although she looked the part with her white bun and silk scarves, she wasn't a sweet little old lady. She was a force of nature: fiercely independent, coquettish (I think she rather fancied Tim) and sometimes frustratingly stubborn. She also had some rather old-fashioned and strongly-voiced views on race and sexuality – although she did say she admired Rosa Parks, and that quite a few of Hwfa's actor friends were in fact 'lacy'.

As the years passed, age began to get the better of her. We found cleaners, carers and shoppers, but each time they were sent packing, and we were told what idiots they all were.

So she managed on her own until, at the age of 98, she had a debilitating stroke. We found her a lovely nursing home near our house – now in Brighton – and visited her every day. She hated losing her precious independence, but she clung to her life and memories.

For her 100th birthday, the nursing home threw a fantastic party, and she got her picture in the Argus. For her 101st, she washed down a whole lobster with two glasses of champagne in English's.

Just a week after that, matron called: I should come in as soon as I could; Rosemary was very poorly. It was the call I had been both expecting and dreading for at least five years.

Tim was away, so I arrived alone to find her semi-conscious and in terrible pain. The GP had recommended that she should go to hospital, but matron said, that since Rosemary had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form, she could perhaps just stay put and get by with some pain relief.

This is the part I am not proud of.

I couldn't ever imagine Rosemary not wanting to live. She had clung on for so long. I had to let her have her best shot.

So we spent a whole day in a very busy A&E while they prodded her and punctured her poor old veins to draw blood. When the duty doctor finally had a moment to speak to me – despite squirming around in pain, Rosemary had not regained consciousness – he told me she had leukaemia and that her abdominal pain was due to internal bleeding. To treat either would involve invasive and painful procedures, he said. He noted the DNR.

I saw at last that it was hopeless, and that, instead of acting in her best interests, I had done the complete opposite. She was given pain relief, and we were sent home to where she should have stayed all along.

We drove back along Brighton seafront and Rosemary's breathing began to turn. As the ambulance driver wheeled the stretcher into the nursing home, I saw that her face had changed. "Look," I said.

The ambulance driver wheeled her into reception and we watched as the tiny pulse in her throat fluttered and stopped.

She never did make it back to her bed.

Hers is the only death I have ever witnessed, and, even though she was so old and her quality of life had deteriorated so greatly, I have never felt so cold or so miserable as I did that evening.

It was four years ago and I sometimes can't believe she is no longer here. I miss her. I miss going to visit her every day. She taught us all so much. But most of all, I wish I could apologise to her that she spent her last day being dragged and prodded and poked around.

It was my big, big mistake. I'm sorry, old bird.

'Every Vow You Break', by Julia Crouch, is published by Headline, £6.99