Granny in person
This is by special request of Pat... As is also the piece; which the Guardian itself didn't give her for some reason... It is not the picture they put in the Guardian by the way; that was a fierce close-up showing every wrinkle....
The intro to this was NOT written by me. All the rest was, rather expanded from the original blog post.
Out of grief, a miracle
Two women tending dying loved ones exchanged looks in a hospital ward but did not speak. Weeks later, both mourning, they met in the street and fell into a spontaneous embrace. Penelope Farmer tells how this chance encounter led to a friendship that would change both their lives for ever
Monday August 13, 2007
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 tend her one day 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 a hospice. But given the speed of her decline and the fact that she knew many of the staff on the radio/chemotherapy ward, it was decided to let her stay there: she was dying and soon she was in no doubt. For me it meant a week of traipsing up and down the M40 from London in perfect spring weather, lambs jumping up in the fields.
Life stopped otherwise. It had to. Two years earlier, a little before my sister fell ill, I had started making a garden from scratch, haunting garden centres, choosing and planting bulbs and shrubs. Watering them, adding new ones, watching them grow, became my therapy throughout my twin's illness. Now I didn't have time to enter the garden, let alone work on it.
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; son, daughter, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, an aged dad, an unlikely husband, troupes of friends. 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 very pregnant, and both with long curly hair. They too came in and out and sat with their mother as often as I sat with my sister: that is, much of the time. We looked at each other and smiled now and then, otherwise we exchanged not a word.
Those who have been with someone who is dying will know that it is a terrible, at times wondrous experience; that it feels like connection to some essential, 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 cut off from you as you are cut off from it. The two young women and I, all connected to that force, sharing it in a sense, did not need to speak. We speculated about them. They speculated about us - they were bound to, various as our family was and is. On both sides we knew everything, yet nothing.
Things took their course. My sister fell into a coma. All day I sat by her side, time slowed to the rate of her painful 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 sister's two closest friends came. Now and then we went and sat outside in the sun and consoled each other, feeling as close as a family can ever feel: another- but more benign - effect of death. Eventually, a week after she had arrived in hospital, with her daughter holding one hand and I the other, both of us telling her we loved her, my sister's 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.
But when I came back as I had to, to deal with the essential business connected to death, they were not there; they did not come. And by the time I went back to the hospital 10 days or so later to thank the wonderful nurses, both beds were empty. I was told that Helena - the other dying woman's name - had died 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.
More terrible weeks passed. All deaths traumatise families, but the repercussions of my twin's death were worse than most; she was barely 50, her children not much more than teenagers, her second husband very recent and not their father. I attempted vainly to pick up some of the pieces, without getting anywhere much. I couldn't sleep, nor could I work. I was becoming - or so it felt -ever more distraught.
I lived then in a house next to Ravenscourt Park station in west London, overlooking the park. One morning, six weeks or so after my sister died, I was walking down the street parallel to it, when I saw a young woman coming towards me, her 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 had known so intimately over that week, who had 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.
Only when we had disentangled ourselves could we begin to work out the miracle of coincidence that had brought us to that desperate, yet comforting embrace. Lucy's mother, Helena, came from Guildford: she was in hospital in Oxford only because the older (then pregnant) sister - by now she had given birth to a little girl - lived there. That was the first thing. The second was that three months before her death, before she knew she was ill, Helena had decided she was tired of Guildford. She had bought a charming little three-storey late 18th-century house in the otherwise quite industrial street down which I had been walking. Now it belonged to Lucy, my friend; she and her boyfriend were doing it up. They were almost ready to move in.
Lucy and I have been friends - the nearest thing to family that isn't - ever since; living in parallel streets, we were endlessly in and out of each other's houses. We drank umpteen cups of coffee and got mildly drunk a time or two - or I did. We went out to lunch sometimes and we still do. After a year or so Lucy married her boyfriend, Justin, and I went to their wedding. When my own marriage broke up three years later, Lucy was on hand to comfort me.
She and Justin had always loved my house and the garden I had made for it. After my marriage break-up they bought my house and I - a midnight inspiration - bought theirs. As soon as the move was confirmed, Lucy became pregnant with her first child, my goddaughter, now a 10-year-old whom, in April this year, I took down to the coast of Lanzarote, where I now live, and into a yellow submarine that plunged us to the depths to look at fish.
Leaving London with my new partner has made no difference to my friendship with Lucy. I return to London often, and it would be as unthinkable not to spend time with her and her family during those visits as it would be to keep away from my own two children and their families. Lucy's two girls feel as much a part of my life as real grandchildren, and almost as much of a privilege.
The family still lives in my old house. I have stayed there a couple of times. After an operation a couple of years ago it was Lucy who brought me home and tended me for a day or two, before I was fit to go to my daughter's in Bristol. Lying in bed then, hearing the trains go past, still knowing instantly which were Piccadilly line ones and which the more ponderous District, it felt as though nothing had changed.
Outside, my beloved garden, like the house, has seen many adaptations to make it a family affair, yet there are still traces of the garden I made all those years ago. The fig tree I planted survived a move from one side of the garden to the other and is now bearing figs. A pair of weeping silver pears carry on weeping. A green bay tree flourishes as a green bay tree should, and the clematis armandii flowers on the back wall of the house every spring. As for Lucy's mother's house which I lived in happily for a while, I sold it to my best and oldest friend when I moved to Lanzarote; she has just sold it to her daughter. It remains a family affair.
Grief happens - and never goes away entirely; why should it? But miracles happen too. Like this one, like primroses springing up in a graveyard.