Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!

Love And Light And Song

So long, my friend.
There must always be an end.
But all our love and light and song carries on –
I carry it on.
– Patrick Wolf, Eulogy, written for his late grandmother

My grandmother and my friend, Valerie Elizabeth, died on Monday.

She’d been ill for a long time, but not with cancer or anything in particular – just a series of ailments that together conspired to defeat her.

She was a wonderful woman – astonishing, really. One aunt commented “she lived an ordinary life extraordinarily”, and I couldn’t agree more. She was the most selfless person I’ve ever met. She didn’t have a lot to give, but she was generous with her time and her affection. She kept a list of people who were unhappy or unwell that was two pages long under her pillow and prayed for them every night. (I think we all know my feelings about the efficacy of prayer, but it shows how much she thought of other people.) She was thoughtful, and many people came to her for advice. She always gave me good, honest advice. (“Well, you can always wipe your bum with that,” she said when I told her I was thinking of doing an arts degree.)

She was funny – so, so funny. She had a love of wordplay (we’d often do crosswords together). She had a deadpan sense of humour, and would often play up to her image as a sweet old woman by saying racy or terrible things. (My favourite story told today is about when my brother got his license. He went to visit Mamma, who said “Reach into the front pocket of my dressing gown.” He did, and pulled out a twenty dollar note. “Bugger!” she said. “You were meant to reach into the other pocket.” He did, and pulled out a dirty hanky. They both laughed and laughed.)

She wasn’t necessarily the best cook in the world (she boiled her beans a bit too long), but she was certainly the most enthusiastic – whenever we’d arrive, there’d be something in the oven: a roast chicken if it was evening, or scones if it was afternoon. I think she enjoyed cooking, especially when cooking for others, something she’s passed on to me. Hospitality was very important to her. The maintenance man at the facility where she has lived the last eight years told us that, every time he stopped by to change a light bulb or tighten a door hinge, she’d have laid out the tablecloth with a pot of tea and homemade biscuits. She was as kind to strangers as she was to her own flesh and blood. Her generosity humbles me.

She loved people, but she especially loved children. She’d send birthday cards and Christmas gifts to my mum’s friend’s children, and to my cousins on my dad’s side. Even though she had dozens of grandchildren, she’d arrive at Christmas with a small but thoughtful gift for every single one. Visiting Mamma was a treat, not a chore for us. We looked forward to her coming to look after us when Mum and Dad went away for the weekend. I’d sometimes catch the train to Penrith to stay with her on my own.

(She didn’t seem to care for animals though. I remember her looking very sour – a suffering smile on her face – when our pet cockatiel sat perched on her head.)

All of these things made her a woman who was greatly loved and liked. Her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, all of those people’s partners and friends, her neighbours (even my neighbours – she and the woman who lived next door to us growing up became and remained friends), the staff in her nursing home all held her in special regard. When she arrived at family gatherings, she looked like a queen stepping out of her carriage to greet her subjects. All night, everyone clamoured to greet her, to sit with her and talk to her. When I last saw her conscious, a couple of weeks ago, she was still incredibly loving. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t even move herself in bed. But she’d reach out her hand to hold yours, and smile at you, and when you leant down close to her she opened and closed her mouth against your cheek in a crude approximation of a kiss.

I felt very sad holding her hand over the weekend she was dying, because it brought back happy memories, which are now just that – memories. We were both early risers, so whenever one of us visited the other, I’d climb into bed with her in the morning. I’d hold her hand for hours as she told me stories about her travels, her friends, her children. I’d hold her hand when we were sitting in church, too, all through my teens and into my twenties. And then, a few days ago, she lost the ability to even squeeze my hand.

One happy thing to come out of the last has been the time spent sharing stories about her with my family members. For example, she also used to play banjo in a band on the radio. Is that cool or what? We’ve laughed as much as we’ve cried the last few days. Every new story reminds us what a gift she was, and what a loss her death is to us and the world.

I don’t know how to end this. I could talk forever about how strong and wonderful she was, how much I loved and admired her. I will always miss her, and I’m so proud to be a branch on her family tree. What a woman she was.

Christmas with Mamma and my brother and sister, 2008


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