It's Autumn, well and truly. Equinox fell the weekend before last. Autumn is always new year in my heart. Not for me the arbitrariness of a new year in January when the Northern Hemisphere is in darkness. Rather, Autumn, when the air is full of life and death, possibilities and change. That's my new year.
This year, perhaps more than ever, I've felt tuned into this cycle of beginnings and endings as Autumn sets in. As the leaves on the trees have turned the colour of blood and fallen to the ground, there's been one particularly distinct part of this life/death cycle hanging over me: the death of my grandmother. For a while now my grandmother has been dying.
We don't talk too much about death or dying in the Western world. Sure, we touch on it, but really, no-one's quite sure what to do with it; how to broach it. Somehow we separate death from life in a way that makes little sense to me.
The story of my grandmother is the story of so many elderly in our society. For several years she suffered from serious arthritis which severely restricted her mobility. Her quality of life gradually diminished. Then about a year and a half ago, she fell; fell badly. She broke her hip and had to have a hip replacement. She was in her eighties. This wasn't minor surgery.
My grandma never fully recovered from her hip op, and as she lost her mobility, dementia set in. These last months and years we (my family and I) been losing my fierce, bull-headed grandma to the memory loss and confusion that stole her spirit.
My mother and aunt have been functioning as her part-time carers and in recent times she's also had a much needed twenty four hour care team in (she'd become less and less safe in her home).
My grandmother died last night. She was in her home, as she wanted. I'd said my goodbyes on my last visit to her; given her the gentlest hug and the strongest: "I love you" I had in me.
She died, lucky enough to still have family to love and care for her, but still semi-forgotten, in the way we often forget the elderly and the sick in our society. She'll be buried on Monday. I'm knocked sideways with flu at present and unlikely to be able to make it cross-country to her funeral unless I recover very quickly.
For now, unable to do much but rest and write, I'm taking the time to reflect. Not just on her death, but the life that went before it. My kickass cockney grandmother who'd bite your head off if you weren't careful. My grandma, who'd yell at young people on the bus to turn their music down.
My grandma who - well into her seventies - dyed her hair platinum, set it in curlers and teetered about on stilettos, a fag in her mouth, cleavage bursting from her top; more than a hint of Barbara Windsor about her.
With my grandmother, several years ago:
My grandma as a young woman:
Life and death are all part of the same story and I'd like not just to mourn but to celebrate. May we remember our elderly and may we acknowledge death in its enormity as well as life in all its complicated glory. As the leaves settle on the ground, changing colour again, I know my grandmother will be peaceful now in a way she hasn't been in a very long time.
Here's to life. And here's to fierce, bull-headed grandmothers.