November 2nd, 2007

B&W

waiting for birth, waiting for death

Serbian joke:
Q: What is the best disease to have?
A: Dementia; nothing hurts you and everyday you see something new.

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The night after my father died, I had the same endless dreams of walking the streets of unknown cities and searching the surface of stormy water for him. But my father was stealthy and refused to be found, no matter how long I walked, how deep I dived. He had slipped away to where he could not be reached- become snow and air and light.

Now my grandmother is going the same route. Her mind is wondering unsupervised increasingly far afield and she is spending more and more of her day asleep.

For most of my life due to her extraordinary vitality and self-healing powers that approximated those of Wolverine I thought of her as indestructible. In fact it was a long-standing family joke that after a nuclear apocalypse there would only be the cockroaches and my granny wandering around the world with a mop tutting at all the disorder and radioactive dust.

Our conversations are a mix of improv and broken records. Questions and answers are repetitive, hellishly circular and at other times completely unconnected to reality as my granny cavorts with invisible dogs, solicits my opinions of what my father would like to eat when he comes home from his business trip and frequently confuses my unborn child with a toddler. It's a bit like playing mental frisbee. Over the phone, I catch the cues she throws best I can, and participate in the makebelieve. I stand in for missing family members, I apologise for the friends who didn't return the flour they borrowed in 1952, I reassure her that I will visit soon - we just need to wait for the baby to be born.

She has gone beyond the point of no return. We do what we can for her, talk as often as possible. I do least of all, being distant. And when she dies it will be hard to still the voice that says 'you should have done more', and the familiar duets of sorrow and bitter rage, love and hate.

To think of her as fragile takes some mental adjustment, even though in the last year I have seen her waning fast. We let her sleep. At least she's happy there. In her sleep she does not torment her surroundings, and is herself untormented. Loneliness and grief have long been my grandmother's defining features (along with evil) but it's nice to think of her smiling in her sleep, creating a better world.

I don't know what she dreams of, although her conversational nonsequiturs offer some clues. Snow and spring. Russian birch forests. The doll she had when she was four. The warm bodies and lolling tongues of dogs. All the beloved dead: family, husband, children - restored not only to life but also to whatever golden age they inhabited when they vexed her least.

Heartrending and sweet in equal measures, all of it. The teachings of Chiron. Making peace with our unhealable wounds.

Endings and beginnings. The baby does its disco routines in my belly more gaily than ever and most nights I dream of birth. I hardly dream my grandmother. Like my father she has slipped away, is unreachable as the moon. Instead I say goodbye to her in my mind the best I can, make what peace is possible, let her go. Often I visualise them nearing a crossroads, travelling from opposite directions towards each other - my grandmother and my son- to meet and greet and say goodbye.

100 years. A long, long life. My wishes confine themselves to an easy passage for her into the next world and the hope that all those she's ever loved meet her at the gate.