I’ve always believed that stories are powerful, complex things and over the past couple of weeks that has been brought sharply into focus for me as my gran suffered a severe stroke and, after 20 days in hospital, passed away peacefully on Friday morning.
What can you do when there is nothing to be done? You can tell stories. It started with the family sitting round her hospital bed in the ward, the first of a series of emergency call-ins at unsettling hours of the day and night. We told each other stories about gran, including her in the conversation as she was responding to sound although we had been told it was extremely unlikely she was processing and absorbing the meaning of our words. We talked about her own childhood, through the stories she’d told us about her life in Andover before and during the war. We talked about how she came to Scotland and met my grandfather. My father and uncle talked about who she was when they were children and my mother and aunt talked about the woman they met when they were first introduced to the family. We shared memories of things gran had done, said and loved. As these sort of stories do, they branched off into stories about wider lives. How my aunt and uncle started dating. What happened in other people’s childhoods. Where those people had ended up. We made ourselves laugh, we passed the time, we shared. We focused on the women we knew for the majority of our lives rather than the changed circumstances and personality that we had lived alongside for the past few years due to gran’s dementia.
As gran’s condition deteriorated and she was moved into a side room, that gave us the privacy to not talk. To sit and count the seconds between each breath. To escape from the eternal background noise of TV, radio, chairs and other people that came through the thin privacy curtain on the shared ward. The question mark over how long gran’s death would take (never if, always when) stretched out and stretched us out. Respite, for me, came through stories. I played gran the short audio recordings of the openings of the stories myself and the other Storyshop writers were going to be reading at the Book Festival this month. Seventeen 3 minute excerpts, with pauses in between some of them when myself or one of the other people in the room wanted to say something about what we’d just heard, either to say how we liked the character or the reading voice or that we were cross not to be able to hear the whole piece. Or to laugh again because the stories – like everything we heard on the radio or read in the paper or saw on the street – seemed to be about gran and this unending, repetitive waiting and the pain of losing someone you love.
The stories helped us find ways of talking about the disconnect between our grief and the normal things everyone else kept doing. How every day before this we will have been walking down the pavement next to someone in their own private world of turmoil and never realised. The cashier at the supermarket. The man with the dog. The blank face of the woman in the car at traffic lights. When I was alone in the room with gran I read her poems and short fiction from the two back issues of Mslexia in my bag. On my next visit, with my parents, I bought a poetry anthology and we spent the whole visit passing the book round and reading a poem in turn. It passed the time differently. My mother and I performed a script-in-hand reading of a sitcom episode my husband wrote, with my uncle joining in halfway through to play the starring role of The Policeman. After that we sat for ages and talked about who we’d cast in it. We laughed, we passed the time, we shared, we learnt about each other’s lives more minutely.
I am full to the brim of stories about and from my grandmother. She’s the only one of my grandparents to live long enough for me to have an engaged, separate adult relationship with. We have shared so many comedy moments in the past that the only feasible way for me to deal with her long death has been through humour: describing her as a medical mischief maker when she held on, grimly, long past the point the (always compassionate and just brilliant) nursing staff at St John’s, Livingston expected her to. I was so glad to have stories to hand in my life – family stories, but also the made-up stories in books, magazines and online – to draw strength from.
I had originally planned to write a post today to highlight two readings I’m giving this week- 1pm on Thursday at Wordpower Books with Helen Sedgwick and Jane Alexander where we’ll be talking about using science in our fiction (free, unticketed) and 3pm on Friday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Charlotte Square as part of the amazing Storyshop series (daily, free, unticketed, lasts 15 mins, in the Spiegeltent). I’m too sad right now to promote them with the vigour they deserve, so instead i’ll leave you with a tweet from back in 2012 which tells its own story about why I loved spending time with my gran and why I miss her so much.