The week before last, my grandfather died. It's just eight weeks since my grandmother passed away, and in a great creaking emptiness I've been to Perth and back twice now, carting home old photos, some crockery, and my grandmother's tablecloth.
Yet grief has a way of opening up old wounds, and so I find myself reliving time and again nothing to do with them but instead a day ten years ago come September, a day when the hospital called and told me to hurry over there and I called my sister and while I waited for her to pick me up I couldn't decide what to wear so I put on awful clothes that felt all wrong and made coffees for the car and called my lecturer and left a sobbing message on his machine; then my sister and I drove to the ends of the earth, which was what my father always called Bell Street, and plunged down that old familiar hill to the Austin Hospital and parked the car and went inside and met our father and my fiancé and sat with my mother until she died.
I did so much wrong that day.
I felt puffed up and important, as I knew something Big was happening, and I hated myself for feeling like that, for not being able to rid myself of self-conscious awareness. I was impatient, even bored, as we sat for hours listening to each ragged breath, to the dreadful prolonged silence that followed each one and wondering if this, or this, or this would be her last.
I was so exhausted from her years of illness that I couldn't wait for it to be over. I wished the end would hurry, even that it had come months earlier before quadriplegia, blindness, hearing loss and everything else had set in. And I wondered what sort of person I was, that I was impatient for my mother to die.
As the day wore on, nurses she knew well came in to say goodbye and I found myself resenting that even now she made time for them just as she had always made time for everybody so often at the expense of her children; and I felt so petty. As usual, she stage managed us; as usual, it nettled me and I rolled my eyes at my sister.
She asked me to remove the oxygen mask. I unhitched her; but I was scared not to have any back up, so I left the hose dangling loose and the sound of oxygen hissed through the open valve for hours. All I needed to do to stop the hissing was to turn the tap off at the wall; but I didn't. Near the end her drip ran out, but she didn't want any more intervention so we left her hooked up and ignored the machine which beeped every few seconds to tell us it was empty. So there we sat, in a cold ugly hissing beeping room, feeling awkward and waiting.
Deep in the night, she finally died. We sat for a while longer. Then I touched her cooling face and said goodbye. I wanted to stay but I didn't know why or what for and the doctor came in to certify her death and everyone else wanted to leave so I left too. I still feel guilty for leaving her body at the hospital, for not being able to take her home and look after her in death. It's the worst betrayal I ever did. The next time I saw her she was faked up before the funeral. Then the coffin was closed, and we held the funeral; the coffin was wheeled away, and I never saw it, or her, again.
I don't know where the body went; but years later I found out that a box of ashes was kept by the funeral parlour, then placed in a memorial wall. We held no ceremony then; I don't even know when it happened. I still haven't seen the wall, and don't know which niche is hers. There is no plaque. In her death as in her life, we did so much wrong.
But what did I expect? We are ordinary people, after all. And the other thing I remember is that we might have been in a sterile room at a hospital that I hated; we might have been clumsy with exhaustion and tongue-tied by grief; we might have failed to turn off the oxygen properly or talk about the meaning of life or stroke her arm to the end, but for all our frailty, we were not alone. The room was overflowing, positively exploding with passionate love; it was radiant in there. Love filled the room like a pulsing sun that pushed at the walls and shot flames under the door into the corridor; we spent that long last day in a fierce and fiery circle of care. And we did say goodbye, and laugh at her jokes, and talk about important things. She died messy and farewelled, with laughter and tears; and, really, that is enough.
At three in the morning we went outside, took the parking fines off the windscreens, and drove in miniature procession through the night back to my father's house where he strode around gathering up the dried flower arrangements which he had always hated, and threw them out. Then he put the kettle on to boil. While it was heating, he tossed her pretty little sugar bowl into the back of a cupboard, pulled out his big bachelor's bowl from some dark recess, filled it and said, "Well, she won't complain. She's dead." We started laughing at the flowers and the sugar bowl, and the awful ridiculousness of it all. We laughed and laughed until our sides were sore; then one by one laughter turned to tears and we sobbed as if our hearts would break.
And in the days that followed, they did.