Not what you were expecting on my transfer day. Sorry in advance for this downer.
My Great Aunt M is dying. She wasn’t a nice woman. Indeed, in the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s a psychopath. Not as in “Oh my God, she’s a psycho, that one” but as in clinically. No empathy, super-manipulative, super-egotistical, takes no responsibility for her actions etc etc. Someone lent me Jon Ronson’s (excellent and very funny) “The Psychopath Test” recently and, though I wasn’t reading it with her in mind, she ticked many of the boxes. Unfortunately for my mother, they shared a house while growing up so, to a degree, my mother has been controlled by this psychopath for all of her life.
Despite outliving three husbands, my Great Aunt is childless. That and her advanced age of 89 are not the only reasons she’s alone. We all know elderly, childless people who are surrounded by love, good will and support. M has alienated most of the people she has encountered and is basically left with my family members and the son of her third husband. His wife won’t speak to her; neither will their daughter.
No one should be alone, so my mother has stuck by M. This became especially burdensome when the first husband died around the time I was born. In the last four years, as my Great Aunt has lapsed from fierce independence into frailty and dementia, the burden has taken a huge toll. My mother has advocated for her, getting her admitted into hospital (after a brief and disastrous period in which M lived with my mother while recuperating), and then a nursing home, when she broke her wrist, and then her hip, and then slowly descended into dementia. A dementia in keeping with M’s personality – nasty, strong-willed and hyper-critical.
Thus, my mother and I found ourselves yesterday at M’s bedside, where she’s now in the care of a palliative team. Wanting to die and strong-willed as ever, she went on hunger strike in the hospital after her broken hip became infected, ripping out her IV line and spitting out tablets. They transferred her back to the nursing home on Monday to die.
The incredible nursing staff called us in at 5pm yesterday, as her breathing had deteriorated and they were expecting the worst. Someone had done her nails; they had set up an altar and candle, and had gentle music playing in the background; and she was warm and comfortable and morphined up. We spent five hours talking to her, comforting her, even at times singing and whistling to the CD so she would know we were there. A priest arrived and we gave all the required responses while he conducted the last rites.
By 10pm, she had stabilised, and we left, expecting to be dragged out in the middle of the night. That didn’t happen and she’s still alive, though not expected to last the day, as I write. I woke at 3.30am after an uneasy few hours’ sleep and spent the next four hours listening to the radio, drinking tea and doing the crossword.
So now I feel melancholy and dispirited, not just because of the way a lack of sleep hits you but also because of the images in my head of a dying woman who, even if she had registered that we were by her side, would probably have been criticising our singing, remarking that we had put on weight or complaining that we had the covers pulled too tight. As distressing as it has been to witness M in the last days of her life, the conflicting emotion is that, although frail and vulnerable now, she is still the complicated woman she was. And both my mother and I feel guilty for having such negative thoughts about a dying woman. While awake in the wee hours, I practised a befriending meditation and directed ease of mind and comfort to M as best I could, but it wasn’t easy.
With this post, I’m aiming to exorcise these thoughts and emotions and images and to move onto the positive that this afternoon will bring. In three hours, two five-day embryos will be transferred into my womb. This day might mark the beginning of new life. People in the know are rooting for me: I’ve had four good luck texts, one from my sister saying “Lucky embryos to be heading your way!”, and two cards.
If it doesn’t work, I’ll try again. And if it never happens for me, I’ll remember that it’s still possible to live a life of love and fulfilment without children and to be glad that I’m a human being who feels emotion and experiences love and guilt and pain.