“Did you come alone?” Jeannette asks. I know this code. My conversations with Jeannette have been rare since I left Bristol, left home, limited to Christmas pop-ins or off-chance visits. But our interactions always share a common theme. Questions include “shall I get my wedding hat?”, and “is she the one?”, though this is more subtle. “Yes, I came alone,” I say, and we both understand the language between words, the communicated yet unspoken, the space between lines.
By the law of the family tree, Jeannette was my auntie. But by the law of heart and the law of feeling, she was my grandmother. Sadly, by the laws of nature, her body was slowly giving up on her, the effects of a stroke compounded by rapidly-developing cancer and old age. Physically she was frail; bones protruding, cheeks hollow. But in spirit?
Spirit is ageless, eternal, infinitely strong. Spirit can’t be contained by material flesh: be it aging and frail or young and mighty. The presence of Jeannette’s spirit that day somehow added a new meaning to her question. I wasn’t alone, and neither was she. We were blanketed by presence, supported.
Braced For Goodbye
“So, what kind of meeting is this?” I ask mum before we set off, more unspoken communication, more code. “It’s a normal visit,” she says, and I instantly know what she means. Living away from home, in another country, has its share of challenges. Not least the necessity of balancing the warmth of the heart with the need for practicality in certain life-or-death situations.
In this instance, this was realisation that due to practicality, in all likelihood, this visit would be the last time I saw her. I wouldn’t return to Bristol for some time, and time was something Jeannette lacked. The finality of the visit was implicit. Told in the space between lines.
I’ve never been a fan of goodbyes. Even “see you soons” cause my eyes to glisten. This was the first time I met a loved one, braced for goodbye. I’ve had a lot of loss, a lot of grief. Coincidentally, I was visiting Bristol for the anniversary of my nan’s death last year. When she died, as was the case for others, the “last meeting” is retrospective, a realisation, a bittersweet “oh, that was the last time.”
With my nan, memories of Boxing Day spent with family, a rare moment. With my grandad, the peculiar, spontaneous feeling of knowing, a prophecy rising and falling like memory of the future. But with Jeannette, I knew. I fumbled getting ready and spoke broken sentences to my mum as we travelled in her car, the same car she occasionally took me to sixth form in.
My jaw trembled, my body shook, I said it was the cold but it wasn’t, not really.
My mum pre warns me Jeannette’s appearance has changed as we sign in to the centre where she lives. I struggle to talk and my breath is shallow. Up the elevator, a few strides, we’re outside the door. A final look. My mum’s well-rehearsed in being strong for others, delaying sadness until after the caring takes place. Now it’s my turn to delay sadness — it’s a normal visit.
In entering the room I enter an altered reality, as time stands still. My breathing is deep and my jaw is relaxed. Jeannette sits delicately in her chair, facing the TV, wrapped in blankets. I hug her lightly and warmth washes over me. There’s no need to rehearse. I thought I was coming here to be strong for her. But right now she’s being strong for me, and I feel it — still, light — powerful and profound in its reassurance, supportive in its magnitude.
The TV Was Off
Jeannette always has the TV on. The background noise offers company. I, on the other hand, bathe in quiet. When I’m at my parents, I periodically turn off the kitchen radio, overwhelmed by pop songs and DJ chatter. In those moments, when the sound shuts off, something settles. Another language surfaces. I relax into that language, the communicated yet unspoken.
Living in Berlin, I’m used to background noise. Going home reminds me of turning off the extractor fan; it’s only when the noise stops you realise how loud it was.
This morning, our last meeting, I’m struck by silence, like something stopped that was loud but I didn’t know what. It’s familiar and unexpected. The TV is off. The TV is off? Surprised, my mum asks Jeannette if she wants the TV turned on. “No, do you?” she says, looking at me. “No,” I say. She probably already knew.
My heart’s full of gratitude as I drink it all in. I try not to steal these moments but register them fully, allowing them to imprint my heart, a piece of this moment to keep forever locked away, a place to return to in the realm of imagination.
My mum may be in her 60s but she’s still Jeannette’s little sister. She tells me she’s pleased she can repay Jeannette for looking after her when she was young. I witness her balance the dual roles — mum and little sister — swapping between them with pride. There’s a third role, too. At 16 years her senior, by the law of heart and the law of feeling, Jeannette’s another mother to my mum.
I’m moved by my mum’s sweetness as she projects a jolly, can-do attitude, though I see the pain beneath it all, an indication of love shared, a reminder that grief is the loss of something worthwhile and in some ways, grief has already begun. My mum checks the cupboards, prepares food, scoops ice cream, blends tinned soup, its already-fine pieces too much for Jeannette to swallow.
One by one, the jobs Jeannette’s no longer able to do, worked through with love and care. Together, my mum and I attempt to clean Jeannette’s glasses, removing the marks so she can see clearly.
Mum and I pre-agreed, during this normal visit, that she’d go out so Jeannette and I could enjoy one-on-one, quality time. More code: my mum mentions the shop, and I ask for contact lens solution from the nearby Tesco. I need it to see clearly, I say. Mum leaves and I talk with one of the carers for a while, there to visit, there to support. When the carer leaves, Jeannette and I are alone.
The View Of Where She Grew Up
In front of me, to the right of Jeannette, is a huge window, through it a view of Bedminster, the place where Jeannette grew up, a lifetime ago. We sit and look out of the window for a while. We talk. I talk, mostly. Jeannette asks and I tell. Conversation ranges from current life events to memories of sleepovers and morning rituals of pop-tarts for breakfast.
Pop-tarts. A brand name for pockets of toasted sugar, yet to my sister and I forever symbols of happy memories. The sickly sweet scent as the chocolate melts, the ‘pop’ of the toaster, was as sweet as the space I was in, almost like I could smell it again, nostalgia through the nostrils, time-travel to lost years.
When Jeannette asks about my romantic situation, I’m usually coy. Today I decide to fully indulge Jeannette in my escapades. Jeannette beams and nods in encouragement. She’s limited in movement but as far as her body language allows, she dances expressions of resonance, signs she’s with me on this journey, enjoying the indulgence, smiling when I smile, frowning when I frown.
Fuelled by her enthusiasm, I get carried away. I talk of the myth of romantic love, codependency, the need to find fulfillment within. I don’t pause to think if I’m off on a tangent before the conversation leads to the existential.
Before I know it, we discuss what it means to miss, how hard it is letting go of someone you love, not knowing if you’ll see them again. “What’s meant to be will be,” she says, and I realise we’re no longer talking about romance, we’re talking about life and love and loss.
As the conversation evolves, it’s the space between words that really begins to speak, loudest when we both fall quiet. We sit in presence, looking out of the window, with the view of where she grew up, a lifetime ago.
Now her lifetime is reaching its end, I’m struck by the sacred moment, a cherished moment, with no TV, no hustle and bustle. It’s quiet, so quiet, and it rains outside but it doesn’t matter.
I feel at ease. I feel still. And I know Jeannette feels the same. I don’t want to leave this space. I don’t want to say goodbye.
“It’s peaceful, isn’t it?” she says.
Jeannette died on 12 March, surrounded by family. I turned to words as a way to grieve, and told my mum I was writing this as a way of honouring, of processing, of trying to capture the last meeting, something to return to if imagination fails.
She reminded me, in a PS, that by the law of choice, Jeannette was also my Godmother.
And I was reminded, again, that none of us are alone.