They lived close to a fourteenth-century tower house, my grandparents. You couldn’t see it from their house but it was only a few minutes away. They and the village lived in its shadow. When we were young and my Gran more energetic we would take the short walk up there. The solid tower sat alone atop a small hill with views up and down the valley with its meandering river snaking below, a strategic gem in the middle ages. Any marauding army wanting to cross the river would have to do it within view of its watchmen. It was the perfect place for us to get lost in history. My cousins and I ran around the tower jumping over the ruined walls or the remnants of the old house, taking it in turns, to be Robert the Bruce or William Wallace whilst Gran sat on a blanket in the lush grass, content to watch us repel the English invaders. Black and white Friesians stood and stared, slowly ruminating, unperturbed as we ran amock in their field, yelling and shrieking. Grandad told us how he would climb up to the ramparts of the tower when the Luftwaffe bore their destructive cargo through our valley. To the east the Rosyth naval base and to the west the famous Glasgow shipyards set the nocturnal horizons ablaze.
My aunt met me at the train station and drove me through the drizzle to my Grandparents’ house. The train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh felt slow. A journey I had taken dozens of times, familiar landscapes came and went. I stared at the grey sea and windswept beaches as we trundled along England’s northeast coast and over the border, trying to temporarily empty my mind, trying not to contemplate terminology I knew only too well. ‘Advanced cancer’, ‘palliation’, ‘metastatic disease’. An impossible task for a cancer nurse, impossible to disassociate myself, impossible to separate the private from the professional. When I arrived at their house on the outskirts of the village, Gran was in bed where the hospital transport service had left her the day before. I tip-toed through the three-room cottage, it smelled of boiled potatoes and something else. The bedroom door was ajar and I saw her, or what remained of her, lying in her single bed, on her side facing the wall. Eyes closed. Shallow breaths. The skin of her cheeks lay flaccidly, along her jawline. A tear pooled in her sunken, visible eye. Not born of emotion. Just lacrimal fluid, a purely physiological reaction to a drying eye. Grandad, in his armchair in the living room, breathed heavily and muttered unintelligible sounds that only those on the other side of the conscious divide could comprehend.
Her name was Elizabeth, named as were many in those days because she was born in the same year as our Queen, Elizabeth II. I used to wonder what her name would have been if she had been born a year before. It was a game we played “Patricia! Janet!” I would tease and she would laugh. “Oh, really Duncan. Do I look like a Janet?” People would say there was a passing resemblance but I wasn’t sure, she was just my gran. She, however, loved the comparison, her eyes lit up and she would allow herself a satisfied little smile. Gran had the same soft curls combed up away from the forehead, the same warm broad smile, the same blue-grey eyes and in later years the same wrinkles and fatigued face. Grandad would say ‘I have my own Queen Elizabeth right here. Sometimes she even makes me tea’, and he too would smile to himself, tickled by his own little joke. I never saw my Grandad in the kitchen and when I was young, I wondered who else was there to make the tea. I made him a cup an hour ago with a chocolate biscuit and a whisky to go with it.
Returning home it always hit me, the rhythm of provincial life. Not much seemed to change but then that’s the way the village liked it. The only hotel had been converted into apartments and Doctor Clark’s office had a new disability ramp. The post office had gone as had White’s, the grocer, the CO-OP had a new sign and a lick of paint but the balance, the staidness that had always hung in the air remained.
A disdainful neighbour, Annabell, from Gran’s Presbyterian church, stopped by. She wanted to know if she could bring Grandad any dinner. I told her it was OK I had it under control. She nodded but her eyes questioned not only me but also my cooking abilities. She said she hoped to see him in church soon. I smirked at that, Grandad who was sitting in his armchair facing the TV that wasn’t switched on, didn’t lift his head. When she left I gave him another whisky. Gran was awake now shuffling in her bed, perhaps disturbed by Annabell’s call. I went and crouched beside her. Although I had been there a few days it was largely in the presence of aunts or female cousins. Grandad and I banished to the living room or sent for a bit of fresh air whilst the women did ‘women’s work’. Had they forgotten I was a nurse? This time, however, we were alone. I took her hand and laid my forehead on her bony knuckles, not squeezing, just being. Her hand felt cool, clammy. The stillness was broken only by the occasional whirr of the small morphine and anti-emetic pump, now her constant companion. The palliation dripping into her vein, like a mechanical hour-glass, a constant yet superfluous reminder of time slipping away.
The constrained bedroom closed in on me. No natural light penetrated this confine. Mid-afternoon winter skies in the north easily succumb to darkness. The bedside lamp faced away from Gran, it illuminated nothing, only highlighted the bareness of the wall. When had the matrimonial bed changed to two singles? It saddened me to think they were being kept apart like this after over 60 years of marriage, depriving them of intimacy in their final days. A space of only a meter between beds but it was so much more. The top of the dresser once was crammed with personal effects collected over decades; wedding photos, Gran’s hair brushes, the tiny glass vase with a plastic pink and dusty chrysanthemum and Grandad’s ever-present jar of Brylcreem, was now almost bare, stripped of personality, devoid of their shared history. I recognised now the boxes of medicine; antidiarrhoeal medicines, anti-emetics and a mouth wash. Their past replaced by my Gran’s present.
“Duncan. Am I dying?” Her words rasped from a dehydrated mouth, a croaky question I should have been expecting. “Yes, Gran.” My words escaped before I could catch them, before I could grab them and pull them back in. Wasn’t it always the best idea to be honest in these situations? What was it we were told as nursing students? What was it I told my own students? Be empathetic. Try to ascertain what the patient already knows. What do they think and understand? What is their actual prognosis? Do you have all the facts at hand? Don’t lie. Don’t patronise. None of that entered my head. I looked up at her and with more purpose whispered, “Yes Gran.” She smiled at me and I knew I had said the right thing. I smiled back. There were no barriers between us. I kissed her hand. A conversation of fewer than 10 words but an unambiguous, umbilical, understanding between us. I knew it was the answer that she had been looking for. She just wanted someone to verbalise what she had already conceded. Had no one spoken to her about this before? My own mother told me my first words weren’t with her but with my gran, how fitting now that some of her last meaningful words were with me. Her other hand reached across and stroked my head, soothed me like I was the one in need, forever a grandmother. She closed her eyes again and I took this as my sign to retreat. I joined my Grandad for another whisky.
The house is full of flowers now. They’re in every corner, they cover every surface. They’re crowding us out. Someone has brought Arum lilies, beautiful, pristine snow white, Arum lilies. They would have looked more at home in the hands of a bride starting a new life. I have no idea if she liked lilies or not but I think they’re beautiful, majestic. I might take some up to the tower later.