Granny, là voilà: a true story for Halloween & All Saints Day

A true story by Suzan St Maur

Her raucous breathing had been rattling the room for nearly 24 hours. I lay back on the garden sun lounger chair beside her bed and dimmed the bedside light. Just as my eyelids started to flutter, the clattering stopped. Started again. Stopped. Did not start again.

article about death

She was talking to my long-dead grandmother.

I got up and kissed her forehead. “Là voilà,” I said through my sobs, without looking behind me.

“D’accord, there she is…” said the voice.

“Granny? C’est bien toi?” My voice faded to a whisper, but it didn’t matter.

I glanced around the large drawing room in our jointly-owned house where we had installed my mother in a hospital bed for her last months. Surrounded by French antiques handed down through the family’s generations, paintings, silver and crystal, she was the cancer-riddled jewel in the crown of what she loved best … elegance, beauty and good taste.

Of course, with such old-fashioned gentility combined with having lived in Nazi-occupied territory throughout World War 2, goes the stoicism that people of that generation had to abide by. On returning from the hospital where her prognosis of six months to live had been barked out to us, her only comment was “well, I’ve had a good life.” I had heard her say the exact same thing about our dogs and cats when their times had come.

And then there was humour. We didn’t have much in common, but I could always make her laugh. Determined to carry out her wishes that the last days would be as normal and light-hearted as possible, I extracted humour from anything I could think of – even to her terrible constipation and the long waits watching for results by the commode chair. Humour is everywhere, when you really need it.

While she was in the hospice having treatment for lymphaedema, we all sang along, totally out of tune, and laughed with the carers while they hoisted dying patients up for their bedbaths and led rousing choruses of rude rugby songs. We fell about when my mother, whose cancer had now reached her brain, responded to her telephone ringing by picking up a hairbrush and shouting, “Allo? Allo?” down its bristles.

In the afternoons, back at home, her best friend would visit and I would serve them tea, biscuits and a glass of white Port – a Belgian goûter at its best. Probably unwise when combined with morphine, but who cares when death is beckoning. The tray was silver; the napkin under the crystal glasses was heavy damask.

In the evenings, I would heave her into her wheelchair and roll her into the kitchen while I fed the animals and prepared dinner. She would have two gin and tonics and, moon-faced and ravenous on steroids, would demand ‘snecks’ in her Belgian accent and gorge on as many savoury treats as I could find. I was always careful to hide from her the puddles of lymphatic fluid that oozed out of the pores in her legs on to the floor.

Towards the end I took to sleeping in the small TV room next door, ready to go to her if she woke in the night. I could hear her mumbling in her sleep and as time went on, her voice got louder and I could understand. She was talking to my long-dead grandmother.

“Mamy, Mamy, Mamy,” she would call, in the voice of a little girl who wants to show her mother something interesting. There must have been secondaries all over her brain by then.

It was only in her last 24 hours that she could no longer have her “aperitif” in the early evening. Prior to that, even when she could no longer eat solids, the nurse and I would put a tiny drop of gin with a few drops of tonic in a plastic beaker and hold it to her lips. She would smile a little, and attempt to sip.

Then, the coma came. That evening I knew there were only hours left and I called her best friend to come over right away.

True to her wishes, there was no hand-wringing, no tears. Ignoring the raspy breathing we sat around her bed and gossiped about the latest village scandal just as she would have loved had she been able to join in. Well, they say that the hearing is the last sense to go.

Later that night, as I said, I watched her die. “Là voilà,” I said through the sobs to my ‘grandmother’ behind me, my voice fading to a whisper. “There she is…please take care of her now.”

A clear female voice said out loud, “Tu as bien fait, mon petit choux. Restes tranquille.”

No-one in our house, apart from me, speaks French.

(Please be reminded that this is a true story.)