The Last Months of Violet Koski
Seaford, England, 2015
They've brought me to this place from the hospital. I thought I was going home, but no, I've ended up in 'the best nursing home in town,' so they tell me, 'and it's only a short distance from your own house, dear.' I know the street. The sea is there at the bottom of it. I used to go past this home on the bus. And now I'm in it. It's not that it's not quite nice; the room looks onto shrubs and trees, from what I can see. But it's November, dark November, and not much light is getting into the cracks of my poor old retina, eaten away like a mouse has been nibbling at it all these years till it's like an emmental cheese, with more holes than substance to be of any use.
I can make out a wardrobe next to the armchair where they've left me sitting, too exhausted to make the slightest move. It's much too small for all the clothes I have at home. Alice says she'll bring me some of my prettiest tops and jumpers. But what use have I of anything pretty here? What remains of my quickly waning vanity will certainly disappear in this room. Because that is what I'm reduced to: a room. I'm being stripped away. Before, it was little by little, but now it's speeding up, getting down to the bare essentials: a couple of nightdresses, my knickers, vests. No bras; what's the point? They only dig into my bony back, and my once pride and joy still hang round my waist, however hard I try and pack them into those ridiculously small cups (what was Alice thinking when she bought them?) They just slide out like two slippery eels, all long and skinny. Is that a TV on the top of a chest of drawers in front of the window? Not much good to me now. At home I can sit right up to the edge of my set. They placed my armchair at just the right angle so that if I looked sideways, I could catch a few images on the screen. I can't do that here. Something else I'm stripped of: my armchair and my TV.
Alice came today. I was so pleased to see her, I had a little cry. She has chosen my best jumpers and shown them to me before folding them and putting them in the drawers, all neat and tidy. She hung a couple of jackets and trousers in the wardrobe, bustling around with her usual energy. Then she said, 'Look, Violet, I've brought your favourites. Which one do you want to wear today?' I made an effort, just for her, and I picked out anything because really I can see much less than she or other people think. Pride has made me a good actress, although maybe everyone goes along with my play-acting. But the truth is that I don't care what I wear anymore; I don't care what my hair looks like, even though Alice does it so well. I cared, a bit, when I could choose what to wear myself and I was still able to rake a comb through my sparse hair in an effort to make it stand up, peering into the magnifying mirror in my bedroom and then squinting out of the window, trying to make out what the garden looked like and feeling triumphant if I could just glimpse a bush. I'd be pacified by hearing the birds or if the odd ray of sunlight burst through, because I knew it was all there. And I would count the days till spring when I'd be able to sit out under the cherry tree, just close my eyes and listen to the sparrows or the pair of blackbirds that come back to nest every year. I'd enjoy having a moan at the squawking seagulls and at the noise the schoolchildren made on the playing field nearby; or when I could listen to the afternoon play under the falling blossom, teacup slurping tea onto my trousers.
They tell me there's a beautiful garden at the back of the nursing home, and when the weather's better, they'll wheel me outside. But I just want my own garden. I don't want to be taken outside for an airing with all the other inmates. When I was brought here, I could make out some kind of rabbit's warren; lots of little rooms, cubby holes, nooks and crannies where you'd least expect them. How many of us are crammed in here, for God's sake? It's not that isn't pleasant enough -- nice soft furnishings, and colours -- but I'd promised myself I'd never go into one of these places. It made me go all cold just to think about it, so how has it happened? How did I get manoeuvred into this? Did I agree at some point in the hospital when I was so under the wheels, so near the end, that I just gave up? Surely not. That's not me. I was always a quiet little fighter. I'd like to blame someone; it would make it easier, but in the end I can only accuse this rotting body which won't do what I tell it to. And it's not that I haven't eked out my energy very precisely. A little here, a little there, so I don't collapse. My mind controlled it all. I carefully existed, careful not to fall, careful not to get burnt, careful to take my pills, counting them out twice a day. Some of them got lost down the side of the chair, it's true, but most times I got it right. So how come head and body are not coordinating any more, and I'm stuck in this uncomfortable armchair waiting for the nurse to come and help me into the airbed and bring me a cup of tea? I could cry, but they're not going to see it. Maybe if they notice I have my wits about me, they'll let me go home soon. Maybe.
I must admit that my experience of sleeping in an airbed is very positive. My back doesn't hurt so much. It's like being on a sea, the waves gently rippling, up and down, side to side. Sometimes it makes strange noises when it fills. It's the nearest I'm going to get to floating on the sea. Ah, the sea; so near, it's only at the bottom of this road, but so far now. I'll never again lie on the stony beach and watch the blue-green water shimmering in the sun, nor feel its icy embrace on my shivering skin. How I long for the sea. Yes, I know, I must be grateful. Later on they'll wheel me to the front and I'll feel the breeze, smell the air of that proletarian sea, as my daughter Annie once called it. For it's a working-class sea, with no tourists, just the odd ferry crossing the channel and solitary walkers throwing stones for their dogs. But I can't see it or touch it. I'll pretend. I'll say, 'Oh yes, it's quite calm today,' just so my companion will feel better. Come to think of it, I've spent half my life telling little lies or half-truths so other people will feel better. Now I can't hide from the truth facing me; neither can I hide under the blankets, as I did in my childhood when I didn't like what the world was throwing at me.
A girl came in and pulled the curtains, early in the morning. All bright and breezy, as they are in these places, she asked, 'Would you like a cup of tea, Violet?'
'No, I wouldn't, it's still night, you fool.' I'd like to say it, but I don't because I'm still nice, easy-going Violet who's always polite and no trouble at all.
So I asked, 'What time is it?' It's six thirty. My God, is it going to be like this every day? I said yes to tea and didn't drink it.
They come and go, shower me, bring me pills, food and tea, anything I want. I can't make out who they are yet. They're always changing. I want to say sharply, 'Stand in front of me so I can see you. Tell me your name.' But as usual, I don't want to bother them and so I put up with a confusion that saddens me day by day.
How long is this going on for? I really can't be doing with it, I really can't. What can I look forward to? What's left?
I know. I'll make sure I get to Christmas. I'll ask the girls to spend it with me at home. Surely they'll let me out then? Yes, I'm determined to get to Christmas. Alice can make a list of things to get like every year, except this time it'll be the last one.
What will I do all day? I can listen to the radio if someone will tune it, or to the CD talking books Alice brought from home. I can still more or less make out where the start button is. Trouble is, I keep falling asleep in the middle and then I don't know where I am and can't put the damned thing back to where it was. And I'm not going to ask the nurse again. I don't want to be a nuisance and keep ringing the bell like the others do. I think they must keep pressing out of sheer spite. When I think about it, and I do a lot of that, it's the first time in my long life that I've been seriously thwarted. I've always had my own way in the end, through little ingenious manoeuvres that I've been quite proud of. But nothing and no one is going to get me out of here. I've been sentenced to a loss of independence. I feel so angry with myself. I shouldn't have signed those bloody papers. How can I get out?
I spoke to Carol and Annie on the phone. 'You'll get used to it, Mum. It's really a nice place, the best one, and you know you can't manage on your own now.' But what do they know? I know I'm not going to get used to it. I'll die in this rabbit hole. And I'm not going to hide what I feel from them this time. I'll moan, even it makes them feel bad. If I had the energy, I'd shout out my anger and woe, but I must keep my strength. The truth is I just want to be with my girls. They're the closest to the bone. No matter the arguments and disappointments, they're dearest to my heart. It's funny how you forget or don't care about what went wrong. I just want to have them near. That's the crux of it. When you are stripped of the layers of mistakes and resentment, successes and failures, of how angry you got at one time or how joyful you were at one point; when you get rid of the frustration at them for not turning out exactly how you wanted, or because they didn't like you as much as you thought you deserved, then all you feel is a pure flame of love that was burning there all the time under the debris. Of course, they don't understand that. They're still trying to figure me out as a mother, with my good and dark side; they haven't got the whole picture yet and they might never.
But then there's Tim. How long has it been now? Thirty, forty years? He'd be in his sixties, an old man. I can't quite remember what he looks like and sometimes I don't think of him for weeks on end. Because I don't like myself when I think of him. YOU ARE A FAILURE is written on my mental screen in big red letters whenever he pops up. Everyone felt sorry for me when he disappeared, and of course everyone knew it was his father's fault with all that bullying, nothing to do with me. I was such a quiet little mouse, anything for an easy life, and there was no crossing Douglas otherwise I would have been on the receiving end. And I did need people to like me back then. But we all have a dark side, don't we? Tim always knew how to bring out the worst in me; he made me feel uncomfortable, or should I say guilty? So in the end it was easier to ignore him. But there's a sharp little stone wedged in the centre of my heart that never shifts.
My room is next to the kitchen, so I get all the smells wafting in and I can hear the constant banging about and clattering of plates. I also get snippets of their young people's chatter about where they've been, where they're going and who they're meeting; that excitement over just the fact of living which a good body and circulation give you. What a gift youth is, and how unaware we are of it! But I don't begrudge it. Hearing them makes this place feel less like the antechamber to a morgue. I like the way they pop their heads round the corner and ask if I want anything. They stand there so firmly rooted. They don't sway like I do; they aren't nearly blown over by gusts of wind or toppled by crowds. I am almost uprooted, the sapless trunk is waving side to side and I must be supported by strong hands that dig into my papery flesh. If only I could see their faces, instead of a faint blur. And I wish there weren't so many nurses and sisters. I have to concentrate to remember who they are, and sometimes I give up. I tell myself, 'Violet, you're in the best nursing home, you're given what you like to eat and nobody forces you to finish it. They shower you gently and only help you to dress if you want. You're privileged.' I still fumble my way to the toilet next to the room because I refuse to sit on the commode that's waiting ominously next to the bed.
Today Alice took me to have lunch in the dining room here. She had to push me in the wheelchair as I only have breath for two or three steps. I peered into the other rooms on the way. They are artificially cosy with photographs on the chests of drawers trying to imitate some kind of sitting room back home. Alice has brought photos for my room too and one of Gabriel's paintings that I liked, maybe because of the story that went with it. I'll ask Alice to tell me the story again later. We had our chicken lunch; well, at least she did. I just had a mouthful. I haven't been hungry for a long time. My back aches when I'm sitting up so Alice wheeled me to my room. What hit me then was the smell of urine half concealed under air fresheners, an undeniable waft of stale pee along the corridor. All those pads on poor wasted bottoms. I will not wear pads, not even at the end. I solemnly swear to myself that I will not succumb to that indignity. It's the last bastion of my independence. I was exhausted and had to go back to bed.
'You'll get to know the others if you go to the communal lounge,' Alice encouraged me while making me comfortable. But I can't be bothered. The only thing we have in common is that we've lost our homes, our lives, our illusions. Some have lost their minds, too. At least that hasn't happened to me. My body is crumbling away like I'm losing bits every day, but my brain is as active as ever. I can't sleep with all those thoughts and memories rolling around.
Sometimes I feel like snapping their heads off when they come in and talk to me in their little voices: 'All right, dear?' as if I were half-witted. Of course I'm not all right. Would you be if you were suddenly shunted, albeit gently, into a box of a room and were asked stupid questions all day long? I bet I'm better read than the lot of you. Just because I'm ninety-three, have heart failure, severe macular degeneration and weigh under six stone, doesn't mean to say I don't have thoughts and feelings that rise up as strong as anyone's.
I suppose I'll end my days here. I wonder what it's like, death. It's beginning to lose its grim countenance. In fact, it's starting to have an inviting smile. People talk about the tunnel and I used to think it was because of the cells breaking down. But I had my own experience in the hospital just a month ago. I nearly went over to the other side, I was so ill with pneumonia. I put my head back one night in agonising pain and there it was, rather like the tunnel you see down at the underground. Near the end was a tall figure slumped against the wall as if it was tired of waiting. I couldn't see the face. But then an oxygen mask was clamped over my mouth and an injection sent me off to sleep. So I suppose I shouldn't worry; someone's waiting there to give me a hand into the other world. Could it be Douglas? It didn't look like him, but he would definitely be tired of waiting. I can hear him saying, 'About time, too. What have you been doing? I've been stuck here for ages.'
Alice is here again to keep me company. She's a social worker now but she used to be a teacher. She spends most of her free time with me, especially as Gabriel is often away in Oxford, teaching. He's a guest professor of art at Balliol this year but he comes down to Seaford as much as he can. Then we both lighten up. My best friend, Joy, was Alice's mother. She died a year ago and I think I'm a kind of substitute for Alice; not that I'm much fun in my present state. But she and Gabriel have taken me on, and they ease the loneliness. My girls are so far away.
How Alice ended up marrying a Mallorcan with Irish blood is quite a story, but it all stems from the painting of the fountain which she has leant on the wall above the chest of drawers. When I feel stronger, I'll go and peer at it. But I'm tired now, so I'll just lie back and remember the story. Alice will fill in any gaps.