Fifteen years in the twilight zone

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The Independent Culture
MY GRANDMOTHER wasn't dying of anything as far as I could see; she was just lying in her bed at home, almost absolutely still, not saying anything, not gesturing or speaking or even focusing her eyes. She was just living. Or was she? I looked at her for signs of life, or possibly for signs of death. Nothing. There she was, pushing 98, her tiny head lolling to the side, with its thin skin and thick hair, white with one or two strands of light grey, of late middle-age. I didn't know it, but she had less than an hour to live.


A noise - a noise, definitely from her, coming from her throat. She was still alive. I sat down, feeling, not relief, but a sense of unease. Was this . . . it? Was it about to happen, right in front of me? What would I do? The thought that I wouldn't know what to do terrified me, but of course it was a red herring, I would know what to do - I would make a phone call. No, what I was frightened of was death, the Fact. So I thought: get a grip of yourself. This is just a bad patch she's going through. Admittedly, it's a pretty bad bad patch. But she can easily get out of it, step by step. There's nothing actually wrong with her. She's just weak. She could make a start by eating a bit more, getting a bit stronger.

I sat down. She was silent, her head still lolling - still, I thought, breathing. But I wasn't sure. Maybe she was already dead. What would be the difference? Well, right now I was hoping that her organs were blindly pumping their fluids around her body, the liver still functioning, the spleen doing its stuff. I was hoping for gastro-intestinal action, for respiratory movement. I didn't mind that she couldn't do much, or say much. It wasn't even quite that I wanted her to live, which seemed pointless. I just wanted her to not die.


Now that she was nearly dead, I wasn't at all worried by the prospect of her not being around any more. It wasn't that I wanted her exactly - in a sense, she didn't exist any more. She'd been in a kind of limbo for years - not dead, but not, in the minds of others, fully alive. Was it that I wanted her to live as a talisman against death? And when had that started? A decade before, I'd been terrified of her disappearing; she always seemed on the point of dying. As she entered her late eighties, as she began to talk about how she wasn't frightened of dying, I seemed to sense, every time I saw her, that it would be the last. Her strength slipped away - but her ability to be weak seemed to be bottomless, and this changed things, gave them a new complexion. At least she wasn't dying. All around, people half her age, a quarter her age, were dying. I went to their funerals, some vaguely expected, some out of the blue, people who had been crossing the road, or cooking in a caravan, when it struck. But as my grandmother got older, she began to look, not more likely to die, but less likely to die; as she weakened, she took on an air of immortality.

There was a point, in her early nineties, when the walk to her front door was a chore, and then, more than a chore, a danger. At 91 or 92, she answered her door to me for the last time. I'd travelled down to her flat in London from university, an hour on the train, and forgotten my key. Attracting her attention, against her poor hearing and daytime television, had taken half an hour. And then she trekked - ten minutes to cross the room, and another 15 to get down the corridor. But she was smiling when she opened the door.

At 93, she fell and broke her leg. 'You know she's not likely to get better from this, don't you?' a doctor told me. Yes, I did know, and began a series of semi-hopeless visits to a ward full of old women whose malfunctions, physical and mental, had all but taken them over. But she got better, and moved back home, a bit weaker, but more invincible - less likely than ever, it seemed, to die.

'Well, I'd be surprised if she pulls through this time,' said another doctor, after she had fallen and broken her other leg, and cracked several ribs. She was 94. I doubted it, too, and went to the ward again, sitting among the wrecked old women, most of them a decade or more younger than my grandmother. A couple of times she told me how one of them hadn't made it through the night, had been carted out by the nurses in the morning. When her leg healed, I was less surprised than I thought I would be. She had some physiotherapy in a nursing home and went home.

And other people were still dying. My grandmother was practically bedridden, and then bedridden, and then barely strong enough to lift a spoon, and then not even strong enough to do that; meanwhile, I sifted through the talk, the gossip of death, still buffered against it by the fact that my grandmother - now 96, now 97] - was not dead. Her role had changed, subtly - now she was simply not dead, she was undead. My mother kept on saying: 'I don't want to get like that.' Nor did I - but what was the alternative? The alternative was to have people choked with grief and saying what a wonderful person you'd been. At least if I lived to be one of the undead, nobody I knew now, probably, would be at my funeral. That was a thought.

'How is she?'


'Well - she's always terrible.' It was what I said every day. She was always terrible, and she always went on, pushing it a bit further, moving, deceptively fast, into the end zone. It still softened my attitude to death, her not dying, her inability to die. Maybe it would happen to me, this inability to die.

Just minutes now, although I didn't know it. She opened her eyes. Did she? Yes] It didn't seem a particularly important detail. I waved; she moved her mouth. Too weak to smile. Her muscles moved; in a few minutes, something would make them stop.

I let myself out of her flat - she'd never gone into a home, at least - and caught the train home. And, when I got home, the phone was ringing.-