In memory of Mary Glaisher – 4th June 1929 – 24th December 2014
“It’s all in her legs,” that’s what the nurse said, “When her legs stop we’ll know it’s the end.”
With the covers pulled back above the knee, we can see the scar on her right calf from the National Trust stile that bit back as she climbed; and lower, the skin that’s healed now, where a small patch of cancer formed. It looks fine now, healthy, unlike the rest of her.
There are other scars, marks; eighty-five years of scrapes and bumps and injuries take their toll on even the most resilient skin. These legs used to twist themselves into a lotus more accomplished than her young classmates; these legs perambulated her around parks and meadows each afternoon, as recently as the day before she arrived in hospital, lay down for the final time.
We need that sign, something to tell us when we should stay in the hospice, when we should rest our heads on the polished wood of the common room table, the room that mostly houses visitors; the residents rarely leave their rooms. We have a plan: on that night, the night that the sign in her legs starts to show, we will stand guard at her open door. A night vigil, breathing silently as we listen for the break in her rattling gasps.
She mostly sleeps. Perhaps it’s the morphine. Or perhaps it’s the years of walking endless miles catching up to her body: it wants to rest. Sometimes when she wakes, she tells us about the people who have visited her in the night: men with cameras; endless mewling cats crawling over her covers; a figure in a tall hat standing over the end of the bed.
The sign comes, and we ready ourselves. We drink strong, over-brewed tea from the nurses’ kitchen and stare at the out of date magazines in what has become a waiting room. The room waits with us, it witnesses, as it has done countless times before. The room knows the signs as well as the nurses do. Tonight is not the night.
She’s asking for us, as we rouse ourselves from lack of sleep and un-glue our eyes. She’s smiling, eyes wide and deep, lucid. She asks us about things she remembers from the past, and about the whereabouts of her purse; she’ll need it today, she says. Today is the day she’s leaving.
And despite the morphine, and despite the endless sleep, she has counted in her head the days we told her she’d be sleeping here. Two weeks, we said, some respite from the hospital and a private room to rest and get her strength back. To get her walking again.
But she’s not left the bed. The one that tips with a push of a button to elevate her until she slips down on the starched sheets and we have to call a nurse to slide her back up. She’d been in the local hospital for a month before we moved her. Gradually losing weight and muscle mass so that the brief taxi ride between the hospital carpark and the hospice, half a mile down the road, made her exclaim with every jolt and pothole. We shouldn’t have promised her that she’d go home, we knew it was a promise we couldn’t keep.
The physical therapist, Snow, still comes but no longer attempts to coax her onto the brown ridged carpet. Her shoes, and the slippers we bought – the ones with warm wool insides and backs that open to allow for swollen feet – they’re still on the floor in neat pairs. “I’ve told the nurses, today’s the day.” Her smile is bright, awake for the first time in days, really awake.
In the night, as we snatched at rest, someone has re-decorated. The small brass light fitting that hangs above the easy chair has been adorned with a string of ancient tinsel and a smudged bauble that has lost its shine. Five days until Christmas, as if we needed reminding.
We aren’t sure if she’s noticed it, its behind her right shoulder and she can’t turn. Does she know the date? When she first came in she told us that this year, Christmas would just happen. We weren’t sure what to make of it, except to think that by now she’d normally have finished her shopping, wrapped the gifts and placed them in a festive bag near her front door, the one that sticks in summer and lets in a draft in winter. She always comes up to our house on Christmas morning, early, us still in our pyjamas, tutting at our slovenly nature.
She needs changing. The nurses shoo us away to give her a little dignity. We’ve been seeing her change for years, but we comply. They have a way of doing things.
We take a turn around the garden while the nurses ready her for another day of sleep. We feel the frozen grass beneath our feet, crunching steadily, leaving footprints. And suddenly we run, break out of the cloak of sorrow and race the length of the garden. We’re children once more, allowed out for a few precious moments, allowed to run away from death.
The nurses have tried to make her understand, and when we return the smile she wore has been replaced by a childlike frown. She doesn’t believe what they’re saying. They must be wrong.
“They keep telling me I’m not going home today, but I said I must be.” She stares at us, defiant. She’s daring us to tell her she’s wrong. We wondered if she was being prescient, understanding her situation more than we thought, and that she knew that today would be the day she would leave this room; the day her spirit would leave the room. Surely she can’t think she’s going home?
We fumble around the truth. Not yet, we say, maybe soon, but not today.
She sticks her bottom lip out, pouting like the little girl in the black and white portrait on the stairs at home. We can’t take this. We turn away, wiping at tears. Maybe tomorrow, we tell her. We can’t disappoint her, not now. We sit beside her, hold the soft-yet-wrinkled hands that used to plant geraniums and throw slugs over into next door’s overgrown jungle. Her hair, which she was desperate to wash when she arrived here, has been trimmed by the hairdresser that comes to the hospice. Her hair is grey, a beautiful mix of highs and lows that we all hope will be what we inherit when we lose our own shades. We push the strands back from her forehead and kiss her nose to make her giggle.
We take breaks, wandering up the road to the meagre parade of shops to find a mediocre sandwich, a weak coffee. The sky is grey but the weather doesn’t get cold until the late evening, when an icy breeze wisps through the windows of the hospice – the care home as the nurses insist we say. They troop in, one after another to pull the pane towards them, shut out the air. We open it again as soon as their shoes squeak off down the corridor. She likes the air, she hates being stuck inside. We allow our spiritual sides free reign for moments like this, let ourselves believe that she needs the air to be able to let go of the earth, to let her spirit fly away through the opening.
“I want to go.” she moans, almost constantly, mixed in with “Oh dear”. We are unsure if she means from this room or this earth, and we can’t ask. We still aren’t sure if she knows how close she is to death; that death sits on her legs and tries to stop them moving, to give us the sign.
We stare at the same walls for days. One end of the corridor is blue, pale on the lino, darker at the handrail. The other end is green, the same pattern of shades. Both colours are institutional, remind us of painted school hallways, of council office buildings. The care home is private, like an exclusive club that she would have seen as an indulgence. Despite this, the paint scheme is the same as that of hospitals everywhere. The clock ticks away, loudly, drowning out the silence and counting every second that passes, every moment that she is still with us. Still one of us. We know, though, we know that moment has passed. She is separate, she is no longer a part of us.
We’ve already let her go. We had to let her go.
We’ve said goodbye so many times that the words have become meaningless. We tell her we love her, each time we leave the room, in case it is the last time we see her eyes alive. One day she calls the nurses in just to tell us to leave, and we stomp out, tempers high and do not return to say goodnight on that particular day. The next morning, she either doesn’t remember or thinks we took her too seriously. She seems hurt that we didn’t return to tuck her in. We can’t win.
We haven’t slept properly in weeks. We wait for the ring of a telephone in the night, never quite closing our eyes. We barely eat, buying jellies and fruit ice lollies that she can get down easily. We finish the portions of food the nurses bring her that she barely touches. Curries and soups that she would once have loved; puddings like the ones she used to make us for Sunday lunch. Sticky toffee and custard sit congealing on her night stand now. We have lost our appetites, but we must stay alive, we must stay alert to allow her to find her peace.
The afternoon that it happens, with no sign or warning, we linger in the car, listening to the end of a program on the radio about the meaning behind some of the nations best-known carols. It is Christmas Eve.
The sun is low in the sky, casting long stretching shadows towards the new year, towards the eventual spring, her favourite time of year, when everything wakes up and leans forward to summer. She hates winter, hates the cold and the dark.
As we pass the nurses in the hallway, nothing is different. The same green-then-blue walls, the same squeaking tiles and scuffed sideboards. The clock is there, ticking still. And she is there. And we watch, wait for her chest to rise. Hold our breath.
Wait, for the sign. For a twitch in her legs.
Jess is a writer, performer and lighting professional working in theatre. She is a queer feminist and activist, whose writing focusses on LGBTQ+ character representation, mental health visibility, and the lives of women. Her story ‘Destiny’ appears in the anthology (Re)Sisters: Stories of Rebel Girls, Revolution, Empowerment and Escape. Her work has also been featured in Novelty Magazine and on Dear Damsels, including their print anthology for 2019. She writes alongside a creative collective of women who met through For Books’ Sake’s Write Like a Grrrl course. She regularly performs her poetry and prose at spoken word nights in London, and has written a TinyLetter about her mental health called The Stories I Tell Myself. In her spare time she plays roller derby with the London Rockin’ Rollers. Find her on Twitter @JGlaisher and Instagram @JGlaisher.