The Last Months of Violet Koski
Seaford, England, 2015 - 2016
I've had a steady drip of visitors. That tells me I'm on the way out. They're all very kind and solicitous, but none of them are going to get me out of here. They sit and chat and eat their and my cake. They try to cheer me up with their forced chatter. I'm grateful really, because they give me a little respite. But after a while I'm so tired I can hardly make a smile, let alone talk, so I say: 'Isn't it time you were going?' Then there's silence.
Gabriel, dear man, dear friend, took me out in the car today. I wasn't feeling so bad, some flashes coming through the spaces between the holes in the old retina. Not a bad day for gloomy November, even a few breaks in the cloud. Gabriel wheeled me to the car and settled me in so effortlessly I didn't feel like a burden for a while. And I actually spotted a tree. Its skeletal fingers pointing to the sky reminded me of my own emaciated, knobbly ones. They're pointing up to what? Like me, when I point to some blur on the horizon. Like me, a walking skeleton with no adorning flesh, they are just plain bark and bone, not one redeeming leaf. I won't get to see the first buds of spring, but to Christmas I must.
Gabriel parked in our favourite place near the cliff tops. I used to be able to make out the Seven Sisters but have to imagine them now. We watched the sea and talked, as we have so many times over the past eight years. I felt the weight of age and illness lighten, my brain cells reviving with the spark plugs of his company and conversation. This friendship has been an unexpected gift. I can tell him how wretched, upset, let down and desperate I feel. He doesn't judge. He nods and listens, but most of all we laugh. Instant rapport and ironic humour to boot. I can ask for little more. Even Douglas liked him and that's saying something, especially with Gabriel being 'one of those arty types.'
I like him to tell me about his childhood and his grandmother. She died of heart failure when she was sixty-five. Gabriel managed to take her ashes to Ireland when he was twenty, and he scattered them around the hawthorn tree at Lough Brin just as she would have wanted. He's shown me the photo she kept in her living room; I never tire of hearing the story. I secretly wish I was like her, stubborn but authentic and far-seeing, and, above all, driven by the love in her big heart. And wouldn't she be so proud of him; a well-known painter and visiting professor of art at Oxford!
In these eight years I've spent as a widow, Gabriel has shown me, just by being the way he is, that there are other ways to live when you knock down all the useless conventions. Which are ways to ward off the wolf we think is waiting for us in the dark. Pity it's too late for me.
He's the only person I've ever talked to sincerely about Tim and told how sorrowful, guilty and offended I feel. Those are three powerful emotions all mixed together. I wonder if he could be dead, or eking out a miserable existence, or living an exotic life in some wonderful country. That last option actually hurts more, because why wouldn't he have contacted me? Gabriel tells me so many people go missing and asks did I ever report his disappearance? The fact is, I didn't. I always thought he'd turn up someday when he was destitute, as he usually did when he ran out of money. Douglas said he was on drugs and after their last row practically kicked him out of the house, but I just thought it was another of their fights. Looking back, I suppose I should have stood up for him, but I was too aghast at the idea of him taking cocaine and not a word left my mouth. Then I just pushed the horror to the little compartment in my mind labelled 'unbearable situations, thoughts and feelings' and locked it in with all the others.
But I'm sure he's alive somewhere, still full of his old grudges. I always felt used and I suppose I quite enjoyed the role of Christian martyr. After all, he was educated at Oxford, though we got no thanks for that. And then the years passed, no dead body was found and I got on with my life.
After an hour up on the cliffs, exhaustion left me speechless. An anchor of solid iron had me weighted to the seat and I needed my bed. This is happening more and more. Tiredness seeps into me. Like dark rain on a black night, it obliterates every part of me. Then I don't care where I am. I just want that airbed and silence. Is that what death is? Darkness and silence?
Alice has hung some Christmas baubles over the pictures and put a mini tree next to the unused television. I appreciate her kindness far more than the decorations, which I can hardly make out anyway. She shows me the presents she's bought for the family and tells me the food is all under control. For a while I get caught up in the joy of giving. I've always loved Christmas. Yes, I know it's become commercial and gaudy, but I still love it. It's a good excuse to give presents to people you love, and up till not long ago I got pretty excited about what I was going to get, too. I must be quite sentimental underneath.
The girls will be here soon. That's keeping me going. I'm vomiting more than I used to. Food gets stuck in my throat and some days my heart feels huge, about to burst from its meagre cage of bone. But I keep popping the pills.
Carol and Annie have arrived. They came in damp and steaming from the cold. I'm so pleased, I get quite tearful. Then the nurse comes in.
'There's to be a Christmas quiz in the lounge at five. Why don't you come along, Violet?'
So the girls wheel me to the communal lounge hung with sparkling decorations. We are given paper hats to wear by festive staff. All the old girls and two old boys are placed in a circle, some in wheelchairs, one woman in a bed. A beaming nurse sits in the middle of the circle. She patiently explains the quiz rules: she asks a question. If you get it right, you are given a Cadbury's Roses chocolate. It begins. Half haven't heard the question, some have nodded off and the rest misunderstood it. There is a chorus of 'Eh, what did you say?' interspersed with the lady in the bed shouting out every five minutes, 'I want the lav!' The nurse takes no notice. Me and another lady are answering all the questions. Our mounds of chocolates are growing and I can feel the ones who are awake glowering at us. The nurse tries asking each one individually and almost puts the answers in their mouths. I feel elated I'm not like them but frightened I will be; these spectres of human beings with most of their faculties worn away, just because they got old. Then the tea urn and cakes are brought in. Most of them scoff it back; nothing wrong with their stomachs. But I have no appetite. I'm a hungry mind dragging an anorexic body and no food will satiate it. I'm wheeled back, the pile of chocolates in my lap. The girls say, 'You were the cleverest of the lot, Mum.' Little consolation that is, as having most of my marbles means being witness to my rapid disintegration.
There's been a bit of a hoo-ha today. The girls have asked if I can go home for the three days of Christmas and sleep there.
'Most certainly not,' Matron says. 'Have you got an airbed? No? Well if you haven't got the right equipment, your mother can't sleep there. She will lose her place if she is away for three days. She has to be back by six o'clock at the latest for her pills.'
So bang goes that. I'll be brought and returned by taxi. I'm a visitor to my own home. But we'll see about that ...
Dressing to go out on Christmas Eve and the taxi ride nearly finish me off, but my tongue is hanging out with longing to get to my armchair. I sink into it with such pleasure that I almost feel content. I'm given a Christmas sherry, just a couple of sips, and for a few hours I forget I don't live here. I chat with the girls and pretend to eat a few morsels. By the afternoon I'm a dead weight again and want my airbed. I'm ready for the taxi half an hour before it arrives. It'd better not happen tomorrow.
Christmas Day. I try to enthuse about the presents I'm given. I won't be wearing or using them. The lunch didn't taste like mine, but they do their best and my back aches so I can hardly sit at the table for five minutes. And again I have the longing to be in that wonderful bed where I feel so light.
I wish the boys could have been here. They're all too far away, my beautiful grandsons. I've been a better grandmother than mother. Because I've watched, I've learnt and I've understood. All those conversations and laughter, the lightness and detachment you don't get with your own kids. I'll miss that. That's the worst part of dying. Or maybe the worst are the regrets. They're always lurking there ready to pounce in sleepless nights.
But I'm holding out, today is the day. I'm snuggled in my armchair at quarter to six. The doorbell rings.
'Mum, it's the taxi. I'll help you on with your coat.'
'I'm not going. Tell him to leave.'
'Mum, you know what the matron said.'
'I don't care what she said.'
They both stand there looking helpless, one with my coat, the other with my bag. Then they come towards me and I grip the sides of the armchair.
'Mum, you can't stay here. You know that. You'll be back tomorrow. There isn't the equipment here.'
'I can sleep in my own bed. I'll die where I want.'
They sit down speechless. The taxi is hooting. My heart is racing.
'I told you I'd never go into a home. You can all go away.'
I need to go to the toilet. I hoist myself out of the chair, waving them away. I take two steps and my legs buckle. They catch me before I fall, and then everything goes dark.
'Where am I?'
But the bed tells me I'm back in the home. There are faces peering at me. Someone is holding my hand. Oh well, nice try, Violet. At least I've been a nuisance.
Christmas is over, and I've been thinking about my funeral. It's all planned: the hymns, poems and music. I want it to be a gift from me. And for once I'll be the centre of attention. Even quiet little mice have big egos, you know. I can imagine them all gathered there. Pity I won't be there to see it; or will I? I wonder what they'll say about me?
The New Year is here. All I want to do is sleep, not be sick, and have someone dear by my side but not all the time. My hearing is getting worse. Maybe I've got wax. I can't lose that and my sight. Alice still comes and creams my paper-thin skin.
'The sea is like a millpond today, Violet,' she says cheerily.
And then I'm going back, back to Brighton beach. I'm the girl that never tired of watching the sea, who thought I was so lucky living beside this dispenser of free entertainment and wonder. I think about my mother and Polish ancestors struggling to survive, wandering with their black bundles all the way to England. Mum's often here, waiting at the foot of the bed. But not my father, who wasted away from tuberculosis at thirty-two. What was he like? It's strange, but now I don't miss my dead friends and loved ones so much. I can talk to them as if they were around me, and we remember the past together.
There have been new developments. My mind is playing tricks on me. Yesterday I saw Annie sitting beside the bed. I recognised her jeans and the way she bends her head when she's reading. There were two men on either side of her. I don't know who they were. I kept asking Annie for a cup of tea but she took no notice of me. I was getting quite irritated, when Carol walked in. 'I'm glad you're here,' I said, 'Annie must be going deaf because she won't get me any tea. Look at her sitting there, engrossed in her book.'
Carol tells me that Annie isn't there. 'If they don't answer you, there's no one here.' I'll take her advice because I've seen those men before and they've never answered when I've spoken to them.
Then Gabriel was here. I can't remember if the girls had left or not. I really think there are moments when I'm hallucinating, because I'm sure he told me he'd seen Tim, in Oxford. He's become friends with a homeless guy (typical of Gabriel) who's told him all about his life. Anyway, this man's story and what I told Gabriel coincide, as do names and places. 'Tim couldn't possibly be a homeless man living on the streets,' I said, but I felt the stone in my heart twist sharply. 'Tell him to come and see me then,' I said and turned to the wall. Gabriel said something about me giving him money, that he would talk to Carol and Annie. Could I have dreamt that? I felt a bit disturbed; not the same as when I see those two men. They make me feel peaceful.
I've had to resort to calling the nurse for the commode but at least I'm not wearing pads. Sometimes I only have tea and water all day. But I'm quite peaceful. I'm often back home sitting
in my armchair, or wandering about my little haven.
A strange thing happened today. I thought I'd died. I was going down the tunnel, seeing clearly for the first time in years; everything was so effortless and diaphanous. Then I heard Carol and Alice's worried voices calling me from far away. So I came back.
'Are the undertakers here?' I asked, convinced this was the moment.
'No, you're still with us.'
I feel annoyed. 'Just how long does it take to die?' I say. I'm fed up with waiting.
My voice is getting fainter. People can't understand what I'm saying half the time and I feel frustrated. Dying is a lonely process.
I'm practically at home all the time now, sorting out my things. Sometimes I'm back at the nursing home, but I'm quite peaceful, ready to go.
Annie came today. She held my hand, her head near, trying to hear me. My voice is like a thin reed. 'I should be having six pills now,' I tell her, pointing to my cupped hand. She says maybe I don't remember, but I know perfectly well. I suspect they've stopped my medication.
This morning I asked for toast and marmalade. I love it. But I can't remember if I ate it. I'm so thirsty I keep asking for sips of water. Gabriel has been here. I can still whisper a few words and smile. But I'm a bit agitated. I'm collecting my things, precious bits and bobs. I'm trying to gather it all up but I'm getting frustrated. Gabriel takes my hand and I stop plucking at the sheets. Suddenly I feel peaceful; all hurry to order my things vanishes into an immense calm.
Annie and Alice are here. They give me sips of tea and I lie there, content, half listening to their conversation. My heartbeat is slow, my breath is rasping. Alice creams me and jokes: 'Where have you put them, Violet, under your arms?' She always makes me smile.
It's beginning to get dark. I'm lying on a black sea with no ripple but my own. The swell and surge are lulling me into the sweetest sleep, and I'm back to midnight bathing eighty years ago. I'm being rocked like a babe on a velvet sea and I am filled with love. My heart is about to explode with the immense love I feel for everyone: for Tim, wherever he is, for Douglas and his petty hatreds, for all the people I've known, irritating or good. Nothing matters but this. I'm no longer afraid. Fear stopped me and Douglas from living, but it's disappeared now death is smiling at me. The liquid darkness is engulfing me; down and down, I'm sinking effortlessly. I'm going home at last.