Today my grandmother went on a bike ride, all around the Rhondda Valleys. It took her all day and she saw everywhere. She finished it off with a game of bingo with her friend, who won all the money, and then she came home for tea.
This is what she told me when I went to see her in hospital. Her reality is a body that’s so weakened with kidney failure and arthritis that she cant walk, move her hands or even sit up properly. She is totally bedridden and unable to feed herself. In the last few months, she’s started to forget who we are, and go on crazy adventures in her head, but although her body is literally wasting away, her personality most definitely is not.
My grandmother is 94 years old. She has almost that many names too, thanks to the art of pronunciation. Marie Eileen Jones. Maria to some, Mary to her carers. Aunty Mari to almost everyone who lives in her village, even people she isn’t an aunty to. To us, she is Nanna. For the majority of my childhood, every Saturday, my mother would take me and my sister to spend the whole day at my nan’s. I can catagorise the stages of my life based on how I spent those Saturdays in her house. When we were really young, my sister and I would play with dolls all day, first babies, then Barbie. Lots and lots of Barbie. There was a dressing up stage, when Nan would let us raid her wardrobe and we’d spend hours being glamorous in her silk blouses and fur coats. Then came a stage when we were allowed to play with the ornaments in her china cabinet, and every Saturday the ducks, who were actually salt and pepper shakers, would go to school with the glass mice and get an education from the pretty Victorian ladies. When I hit my early teens, and Saturday’s were a break from the trauma of my tumultuous love life, I’d spend the whole day curled up in her bed, reading love stories and pouring my heart into very passionate and dramatic journals, listening to cassette tapes from the library on her little stereo. Sometimes we’d watch films together, old black and whites with awful scenery and great songs. Often we’d have snooker on, and I’d sit by the foot of her chair eating pink wafer biscuits with her while Stephen Hendry showed them all how it was done. She’d always wear those pink gingham work tunics over her skirt and jumper, and she’d wear thick rimmed glasses, like Graham Coxon did, and like I find myself wearing now.
I don’t know if we ever went anywhere with her. I can’t think of any time outside of her house, apart from hospitals and a few recollections of Christmas, when she and my grampy came to visit us. He died when I was very young. As long as I can remember, she had pain in her hips and terrible, terrible arthritis. I can see her standing in the doorway to her kitchen, hunched over and slow, with her bad hips, that two replacement operations couldn’t sort out. About eight years ago she stopped being able to walk altogether, and that’s when my mother and aunty started taking it in turns sleeping at her house every night to look after her. I can think of operations and long months spent in hospital, hearing aids and pain medication. I can think of her house, which is full of mad looking contraptions to help my mother, the district nurses and carers get her from her bed to her chair. All of the pain that she must have been through and not once can I recollect her being miserable or complaining about it. Maybe that’s why she gets more Christmas cards than anyone I know. When she goes into hospital even the little kids, who live on the her street and spit at passing cars, will knock on the window and ask how she was.
Now she’s been in hospital for three months, and it’s unclear whether or not she’ll ever be able to come home. She seems quite happy there though. Sometimes she thinks she is in her own house, and wonders who let all the strangers into her living room. She’ll smile and nod when you explain that the strangers are actually her nurses and other visitors, then two minutes later she’ll order you to offer them a cup of tea. She likes to look at photos on my phone, even though she cant really see them properly, and if you tell her to make a face for the camera, she goes for it. And her adventures…..I love hearing about them, whether she’s been on a steam train down to Porthcawl sands for the day, or whether she’s had a race up the mountain with the man next door. We play a game when I stroke her hands, ask who painted her nails for her and she’ll make me guess (it’s always ‘the little one’, although I’m yet to find out who the little one is). She has the softest hands in the world. There’s always a smile and a laugh, and even though she often doesn’t know I’m her granddaughter, she always tells me that I have a lovely smile and she’d like me to stay with her a while longer if I can.