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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Death and Coincidence

This is not a Lanzarote/Grannyp third person piece; this is Penelope writing as Penelope. She cannot do it in any other way. You'll understand why not.


Sixteen years ago my twin sister lay dying in a hospital in Oxford. She had terminal breast cancer, and a month or so before had been given three or four months to live. But her cancer was in a hurry. When I went down to Oxfordshire to tend her one day in early April I found her sitting with her head in her hands. A migraine, we agreed hopefully. But it was not a migraine. Thirty six hours later she was back in hospital; the headache was caused by a tumour; the cancer had spread to her brain.

In theory my sister had been booked into the hospice. But given the speed of her decline and the fact that she knew many of the staff on the radio/chemotherapy ward where she'd been sent, it was decided to let her stay there; that she was dying and soon was in no doubt. For me it meant a week of traipsing up and down the M40 from Hammersmith in glorious spring weather, lambs jumping up in the fields alongside it, roadworks jumping up on it (meaning unlooked for trips round that not particularly desirable place High Wycombe when driving back late at night.) Life stopped otherwise. It had to.

Unusually there was another dying woman on the ward. She was put next to my twin, a mere curtain between them, sometimes not even that. My family tends to the tribal; sundry and various might be another way of putting it. Sundry and various duly traipsed in and out. The other dying woman's family, on the other hand, consisted mainly of two young women, one of them very pregnant, and both with long curly hair. They too came in and out, sat with their mother as often as I sat with my sister, that is for much of the time. We looked at each other and smiled now and then, but otherwise exchanged not a word.

Those who have been with someone dying will know this: that it is a terrible, at times wondrous experience; that it feels like connection to some essential, some primal force, one always there, but mostly unfelt, unacknowledged. Life outside it, by comparison, looks more like being plugged into something as trivial as a Gameboy; it is as remote, as cut off from you as you are cut off from it. The two young women and I, all connected to that force, sharing it, you could almost say, did not need to speak to know everything about each other. Even as we knew nothing about each other. We speculated about them for sure. They speculated about us - so they might well have done as various as our family was and is. On both sides we knew nothing and yet everything.

Things took their course. My sister fell into a coma. All day I sat by her side, time slowed to the rate of her painfully slow breath; waiting for each breath; expecting any one to be the last. But on it went, breath after breath after breath. Her children came. Mine came. My then husband cancelled all his clinics and came. My sister's two closest friends came. Now and then we went and sat outside in the sun and consoled each other, all feeling as close as a family can ever feel; another - but more benign - effect of death. Eventually, after twenty four hours of coma, at quarter to nine on a Thursday night, a week after she'd arrived in hospital, my sister breathed for one last time; then, with her daughter holding one hand and I the other, both of us telling her we loved her, her breath ceased.

I did not see the two young women again. They arrived that night to see their mother. I heard them behind me, as I stood at a window in the corridor looking out at the night. I saw their reflections in the window but I did not turn round, I could not bear to. 'I'll see them in the morning,' I thought. 'I'll speak to them then.'

But when I came back as I had to, to deal with the essential business connected to death, around reverently cheerful officials, they were not there; they did not come. And by the time I went back to the hospital ten days or so later to thank the wonderful nurses, both beds were empty. Helena, I was told - that was the other dying woman's name - had died on Saturday, two days after my sister. That was that I thought. I would never see the young women again, those two with whom we had shared everything, in one sense, throughout that painful week. I was sorry about it, but not surprised. It's just the way things are.

Six weeks or so passed. Six terrible weeks. My sister had remarried two years or so before her death. That her new husband was literally a maniac - made partly so by her death, but not entirely - became apparent straight afterwards. The story of why and how is not one I propose to tell, ever, enough to say that it traumatised all of us, but especially her children: that every one of life's little or not so little ironies looked at this point black.

I lived then in a house next to Ravenscourt Park Station, overlooking the park. One morning I was walking down the street parallel to it, when I saw a young woman coming towards me, a young woman with hair cropped close to her head. She looked familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. The nearer she got, the more familiar she seemed. We walked right up to each other and as we did she spoke. 'Aren't you Judith's sister?' she asked. And then I recognised her too; the younger of the two women whom I'd known so intimately over that week; who'd known us so intimately. She had cut her hair off, that was the only difference. 'Yes,' I said. And we stood in the middle of the pavement hugging each other, crying - I'm almost crying now, again, writing this. Anyone else coming down the street had to step into the road to pass us. I don't know how long we stood there. For a long time I think.

We have been friends - the nearest thing to family that isn't- ever since. All due to that gift -to that miracle of coincidence. For it was amazing coincidence. The mother, Helena, came from Guildford. She was only in hospital in Oxford because the older sister, the then pregnant one - by now she had given birth to a little girl - lived there. Her mother having had diabolical treatment from the Guildford hospital (think 'neurotic woman' - think no more) this sister insisted on sending her to her own doctor; who got her an appointment at the Churchill Hospital where my sister too was being treated. That was the first thing. The second was that three months before her death, before she knew she was ill, grown tired of Guildford, she had bought a charming little three story late eighteenth century house in the otherwise quite industrial street down which I had been walking. Lucy my friend was doing it up with her then boyfriend: they were now almost ready to move in.

Lucy and her boyfriend got married. When my marriage broke up they bought my house and I - a midnight inspiration - bought theirs. As soon as the move was confirmed, she became pregnant with her first child, my godchild, the very same one I took down to the sea last week and into the yellow submarine that plunged us to the depths to look at fish. For it was this family that has just left after an ecstatic if exhausting seven days, the first few shared with my son and his two. My son knows the island well. Lucy, her husband, my goddaughter now aged ten, her younger sister aged six, were exploring it for the first time.

The family still live in my old house. Though much has had to be changed to make it family friendly, there are still traces of the garden I made over the eighteen months of my sister's illness; therapy of a sort. The fig tree I planted survived a move from one side of the garden to the other and is now bearing figs. Two weeping silver pears carry on weeping. A green bay tree flourishes as ever. The Clematis Armandii flowers on the back wall of the house every spring. The house too has changed a lot, but is still recognisably itself. As for Lucy's mother's house which I bought and lived in happily for a while, I sold it to my best, my oldest friend when I came out here; she has now just sold it to her daughter. It remains a family affair.

Grief happens - and never goes away entirely; why should it go? But miracles happen too. Like this one, like primroses sprung up in a graveyard. Precious.

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