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Carry on Dying

Till death us do part. That’s what we vowed at St George’s Church, Forest Hill back in 1969 and we both kept that promise. Our marriage ended 50 years, five months later when Ms Alzheimer’s took her final, fatal bite last week.

Nick, as most readers will know by now, died at dusk on Tuesday 20 August in Lewisham hospital. His given names were Nicholas Donald George but almost everyone, including his children, called him Nick and I’ll drop all pretence of anonymity now that he’s no longer around to have a view about it.

These days, apparently, you can negotiate the cause of death with the doctor which seems odd to me. Who’s meant to be the expert? Anyway, they rang the following day and spoke to my elder son, Lucas, saying: “We’d like to put Alzheimer’s down for the death certificate. Would that be all right?” I heard him take the call. More patient than me, he politely agreed. I would probably have said: “Well of course it’s all right. What else were you thinking of putting? Yellow fever?”

It’s interesting, though. Received wisdom says that you die with Alzheimer’s not from it. But there was nothing else wrong with Nick at all. Medics earnestly tried to find other causes when he was first admitted to hospital –  to no avail. He didn’t have Parkinson’s, heart problems, cancer or anything else. It was simply a disease which rapidly destroyed his brain thereby, eventually, jeopardising all other body functions. Never let it be said or implied that Alzheimer’s is just a bit of memory loss by sweet old folk who go a bit dotty. It’s an utterly hideous, degenerative, terminal disease which, in Nick’s case, galloped at obscene speed. He died only two years and four months after diagnosis.  He was just 74.

So how am I doing now that I’m a widow? I seem to be OK-ish at the moment although it’s very early days. Both sons, who are just as bereft as I am of course, have been wonderfully supportive. I’m relieved that Nick finally managed to go the week after Felix’s family holiday in Devon and the week before Lucas’s in Wales so that neither of them had to cancel and one or other of them has been there for me throughout.

I struggle a bit with what I’m feeling, what I’m meant to be feeling and what I might soon be feeling because this is terra nova and the mind can play strange tricks. At the moment I am, it seems, getting back to normal life, doing what needs to be done – including, at last, some Work Work (as Nick and I used to call the stuff which pays the bills as opposed to doing the ironing or shopping) –  and catching up with a few of the things I haven’t been able to do for months such as practising my violin and seeing friends. And, obviously, the three of us are funeral planning and sorting out post-death admin but not too frenetically.  One of my coping mechanisms is to tell myself very firmly that Nick no longer exists (other than in our memories). What is, at the time writing, lying in the morgue at Lewisham Hospital is not Nick. It is just a few bits of left over skin, bone and other body parts. It helps.

I weep a bit over the many kind, thoughtful cards and letters which are still arriving every morning. And the Facebook and Twitter support has been utterly, movingly astonishing. Otherwise I’m not falling apart. I suspect I did much of the grieving process, including anger, months ago.

My sense of the ridiculous is returning too. Nick, I reflect, would have enjoyed the sit-com of his own death. Lucas, Felix and I were sitting with him, screens drawn. I’d been at his bedside for most of the previous 36 hours having popped home only once for a quick change of clothes. The boys had done shifts. So we were pretty peckish. An hour or two earlier Felix had nipped out and bought pizzas because we had no idea how long we were going to be there. At the moment that Nick took what became his last breath I was holding his right hand with my left. a pizza box on my lap, a mouthful of mushroom pizza and another piece in my right hand. Very romantic. Not quite how it is in the films. You’ll be relieved to know I never finished what was in the box. And it might be a while before I can look mushroom pizza in the face again.

For three weeks before his death one of Nick’s neighbours in the ward was Peter (not his real name). Suffering from frontal-lobe dementia and consequent disinhibition, he shouted all the time, constantly yelled inappropriate things, openly masturbated and tried to grope the unflappable nursing staff. It was sad and I was desperately sorry for Peter’s wife and family but it was also hilarious. As Felix said, it was like falling asleep and waking up in  1966 – in a Carry On film. On the afternoon of Nick’s death Peter disappeared. In his place arrived a very sick man who vomited noisily and frequently and whose lungs had to be audibly sucked out. All this was going on fortissimo, a few feet away, as we sat with Nick watching, and listening to those last tortured breaths, the intervals growing ever longer. “ Oh, I asked the nurse about Peter. They’ve moved him to another part of the ward” I whispered to the boys against the sound of yet another bout of retching. “Please, can we have him back?” said Felix laconically, reducing Lucas and me to fits of giggles.

Meanwhile the man in the bed immediately next to Nick, well enough to read the Daily Mail avidly every day, was chatting to his wife on his phone telling her cheerfully – and to our amused horror –  that it was getting a bit dark in the ward because both the new arrivals opposite were black men. “No, we’re not outnumbered yet” he continued. “The chap next to me is still with us. His wife stayed all night last night and I think she’ll be here again tonight”.

She wasn’t. I was, as things turned out, home by 10pm.

This isn’t the last of these blogs. I think there will be a few more things I want to share as we approach and go through the funeral next month and there’s at least one guest blog in the pipeline.  Moreover, I’ve been asked very often when I’m going to make them into a book. Soon, folks, I hope. Soon. I just have to get my head over the parapet and talk to the right people. I also have to find the emotional strength to do all that rereading and reliving. I’ve written over 100,000 words here.

We’re collecting for Ash Ward at Lewisham Hospital in lieu of funeral flowers. There are four ways of contributing if you wish to: 1. Go Fund Me 2. Cheque to my sister who’s coordinating the appeal (message me privately for her details) 3. BACS to my sister (ditto) 4. Cash at the funeral/memorial at which anyone who knows us and wants to come will be warmly welcome. Details will be announced very soon.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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