It wasn’t so much that my great-grandmother had given up on life, as she’d paid her fare, ridden the ride, and now couldn’t get off. The thing about Great-Granny was that she wanted to die. On her ninety-eigth birthday, she had shrunken to her essence, small and sparrowlike. She wasn’t plump and jolly like my other grandmothers. She was tiny, fine-boned. Hugging her, you almost thought she might snap – if you didn’t know any better.
She’d pin you with her eyes, watery with age but with a laser-focus. Her hands were small but steady. She clenched them together under her chin while she spoke and the effect was unsettling – like she could see right past your grandma grin and was still deciding whether she liked what she found. The thing about Great-Granny was that she wanted to die, and she wasn’t shy about saying so.
Great-Granny had plenty of time to think about death. She was waiting for it, welcoming it, and for some reason that she couldn’t fathom it wasn’t coming for her.
‘I waited for death at home but it didn’t come, so I moved here in the hope that it will come for me,’ she quavered, matter-of-fact.
We were perched in the corner of her room in the nursing home. Great-Granny had the window bed, no coincidence, which looked out onto a small patch of blue sky and the red brick wall of the hospital next door. Her roommate was a Spanish woman who had suffered a series of strokes that left her unable to make any intelligible sound at all.
‘Oouuurgghhhhaaaaa,’ she moaned from behind the curtain. ‘Baaaaabaaaaaaaaarrrrgghh.’ Great-Granny was oblivious.
‘I keep asking why God won’t take me,’ she said tremulously. ‘What’s he trying to prove by keeping me around so long?’
The thing about Great-Granny was that she got what she wanted. Death is the one thing that has consistently eluded her.
‘She’s a tough old bird,’ said my Dad, ‘But a terrible mother. All her life, she’s gotten exactly what she wanted, to be taken care of.’
And she had been. Now here she was: in a nursing home on the Northern Beaches, waiting for a death that was dragging its feet.
In the common room, H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y drooped in glittery letters across a doorway. A woman rocked a baby in her arms. I smiled down at it, only to see its plastic features and glassy eyes. The woman looked vacantly past me and burbled at her doll.
An old man tapped convulsively on the arm of his wheelchair, a staccato syncopation that only he could follow with jerks of his head.
On the wall was a chart, reminding the residents of where they were when they slipped back and forth from that nebulous waiting room, where everything is fuzzy and time doesn’t mean what we hope it means.
It told them the date.
THE SEASON IS SPRING, it read. THE WEATHER IS FINE.