Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma dies

Nigel Savage


I’m writing this on Tuesday 26th August 2003, on a plane en route back to New York. I came back to Manchester last Thursday to see Grandma and to say goodbye to her. She’s 95, has liver cancer and, according to the doctors, she has at most “weeks rather than months” to live. So when I said goodbye to her last night that will almost certainly have been the last time I see her.

My other grandparents died more suddenly that this, when I was younger and at a different stage in life. I’ve never had this experience of “saying goodbye” to someone in this way.

I don’t know how I feel. Sad, certainly, though I’ve only really felt the feelings, as opposed to thinking the thoughts.

One thing that was very moving was seeing Grandma, knowing that she was dying, visibly opening up in various ways. One small example was that she wanted flowers in her room, and I brought her roses. Until recently she said she was allergic to flowers, didn’t want anyone to bring her any.

A more significant example was seeing her, for the first time in my experience, becoming much more physically expressive. I visited her at Heathlands every day I was there in Manchester: Friday through Monday (on Shabbat I walked there and back), and every day she held my hand, wanted to hold my hand, kissed me, went out of her way to say that she wanted to hold my hand. “I didn’t do this when you were little, but I want to do it now, isn’t that funny,” she said to me on Shabbat.

No-one in our family asks private questions, least of all Grandma. But before I visited her, Mum reported that Grandma had asked her about my relationship with Jo – “how come he’s come over by himself, without Jo?” Then, when I was there, Grandma asked me directly how we were. And she was happy, repeatedly, to talk about dying, about knowing that she was dying, about hoping, at this stage, that death would come soon.

Some of the time Grandma seemed in good spirits, talking and fairly animated. On Sunday afternoon it was beautiful and we wheeled her outside in a wheelchair. She took great pleasure in the garden and the flowers and a kid playing ball with his parents.

But some of the time, including most of yesterday, she was weak and very vulnerable. Prone to tears. In considerable physical pain and discomfort, and suffering also from the horrible loss of dignity involved in her situation – unable at times to move or to drink without assistance, sometimes wetting herself or soiling herself, needing help to fulfill the most basic human needs. She knows that she has cancer and is dying from it. Her greatest fear is to be like this for a long time. It seems clear that she won’t, in fact, have to endure this for long.

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Image: Akiva Kenny Segan, Ceshia Burstyn Mendrelawska (1994)

November 2004

This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
James Russell

Am I Religious?
Jay Michaelson

Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Joshua Axelrad

Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Lauren Wilson

Money-Back Guarantee
Samantha Stiers

Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Nigel Savage

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