“‘… I’ve had a bad week.’
‘Nothing’s happened. I’ve had a bad week in my head, is all.'”
(Quotes are from ‘High Fidelity’ by Nick Hornby. Go and read it. And don’t just cheat and watch the film again – it’s good, but the book is better.)
I need to say sorry for such a pathetic breakdown. And I know it’s hard to tell whether I’m still going to be apologetic in a few hours time, or if I’m going to be acting like someone else entirely and suddenly upset for no reason… I can’t help that. There is crazy in my bloodline (The surname Byron isn’t exactly synonymous with sane, good and unhazardous to know), I’ve got a stupid fucking “personality disorder” because I have terrible parents, I have panic disorder with agoraphobia because of I-don’t-know-what, and then there is this: my contribution to the end of my grandad’s life.
Listen to some gospel. This is my all-time, number one, best worst secret. This is also the worst thing I have ever done in my life – and I’ll tell you about the second, as well, just for good measure. I may have to break this down into two parts, but the juicier stuff is in this one.
See, I forgot you don’t know this bit. I’ve been reciting the words over and over in my head for so long now, I’d forgotten this part hadn’t been turned into a story yet. I’ve been painting myself as a victim; an innocent party who wasn’t responsible for any of the events that unfolded. Well… I was responsible for this one and I find it so fucking hard to live with. It makes my heart sore.
It was New Year’s Eve 2006. My grandad had been diagnosed with cancer by then; he knew he was dying. I was doing pretty much everything for him because he went downhill so fast. I don’t want to disgust you with the details, but he needed 24-hour care at this point. When people say that they don’t want to get to that state, to be cleaned and fed and taken to the toilet because they are no longer capable, what they don’t consider is how terrifying it is to have death hovering over your shoulder. You don’t want to die. You’re scared. You’re in pain and everything is awful, but you don’t want to die. You want to live. You want to wake up tomorrow. So you go through the indignities, hoping for a miracle.
I was struggling. I was just shy of 23, and although I had worked in a nursing home for six months when I was 17, nothing had prepared me for this. When it’s your job, you have colleagues and support and protocols in place. We were just alone and suffering.
The timeline here is hazy; I had fallen out with my mum and her boyfriend – yet again – in June of that year when my mum’s boyfriend tried to start a fight with me and got angry and threatened to hit me. He backed down when my grandad, not yet incredibly sick but still frail and shrunken with age, jumped in front of me and threatened to knock him out. He backed down. This is an important point to remember about my mum’s boyfriend. Sometime towards the end of the year, we were on speaking terms again. I know I called my mum once we knew something was wrong with my grandad, because she was still his daughter and family meant something or whatever.
The terrible thing about this is that the thing I’m trying to use as a guidance point for this part of the timeline is my affair with my mum’s boyfriend’s – very married – boss. I was creating him a website; he was trying to woo me by showing off diamonds from Dubai and talk of casinos and helicopters and some guy who used to be on Eastenders. I wasn’t interested in that. He wanted a threesome with me and some other woman. I didn’t understand why he wanted me. He’d send my mum’s boyfriend on errands and we’d fuck in his office, barely sorting ourselves out in time before he came back. And I know he got me a Christmas present, so it was still going on then… I just can’t remember when it began. Never mind.
I fell out with my mum and her boyfriend over Christmas. I forget when we went over, but I’d begged for help from my mum and she said she’d help but only if we went over there. Fine. She then basically put him to bed and left him. I was receiving the same amount of [no] help, but now we were surrounded by total bastards in a place we couldn’t stand. One night – either Christmas Day or Boxing Day, and I forget which because I had taken to feeding my grandad in bed and then just napping next to him until he needed me to wake up for something – he suddenly couldn’t piss anymore. At all. He started swelling up, and panicking. He asked my mum to call an ambulance; my mum said ‘I think you can only call an ambulance for an emergency’ and I called the damn thing myself.
At the hospital, I called my mum. I said he was okay, he had a catheter and they were sending him home. Her boyfriend was in the background saying we had to go back there. My mum repeated the message. I said no, we were going home. She repeated the message back to him. He called me a stupid fucking bitch, and some other stuff which I can’t repeat because I’d already hung up the phone and gone back inside. Was I a stupid fucking bitch? They weren’t helping us, I didn’t see the point in going back.
We went back for New Year’s. I made my mum promise to help. I can’t do this by myself. She promised. She fucking promised, but the same thing happened – except this time it was chest pains. He couldn’t breathe. The paramedics had a terrible time trying to get him down the stairs from the bedroom we had been banished to, and then the Sat-Nav tried to direct the ambulance into the Thames. Somehow we made it to hospital, with ten minutes to spare until midnight. We were in triage when the clock struck 12. The doctors and nurses disappeared briefly to see 2007 in as civilians; my grandad and I held hands – he was half-naked, stuck with squares which connected to things that uncovered information, and I was wearing mascara tears and filthy pink ballet slippers.
They couldn’t figure it out. They said it might have been a blood clot in his lung. They gave him a bed, in the dark, where all the other sick people were already asleep or drugged-up. I asked if I could stay. How would I get home tonight, of all nights? The nurse said she couldn’t give me a bed but handed me a couple of blankets and watched sympathetically as I curled myself up in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair. He slept. I listened to music until my batteries run out.
So. This secret. Look how much I dance around it.
Two days later, normal workdays began, buses started running and phone lines became operational. I visited, took clothes and snuck in nice food. My grandad smiled weakly. ‘They’re sending me home,’ he said. ‘There isn’t anything they can do for me here.’
I remember sitting outside. I think it was sunny, that low winter sun that gives me a migraine and blinds me on the road. I think I had just gone outside for a smoke. I pulled the number of the consultant from the pocket inside my bag, the person who said the genuinely upsetting ‘C’ word at us, and I don’t remember what I said or what they said, but I know I bawled down the phone and said I couldn’t do it alone and no one was helping and could they please find a bed here because I can’t do it.
Because I’m a terrible, awful person. Because I couldn’t even take him home and look after him and let him see out his last days in the bed he’d shared with my nan for so long, even though he’d been the only person who had ever cared about me and genuinely wanted the best for me.
The second worst thing I’ve ever done was going to America while he was in hospital. This possibly sounds even worse out of context. I had met someone – we’ll call him Ryan – and we were in love and even though there was a fucking ocean between us this guy wanted to see me so bad and wanted to hold me through the trauma I was facing that he was willing to take a weekend off from touring and fly me out to see him. And I went. My mum’s boyfriend – in spite of never actually going to the hospital himself – threw this viciously in my face after my grandad died. I responded by spitefully pointing out that my grandad literally, genuinely, only ever refered to him as ‘The Arsehole’ and wouldn’t want him at his fucking funeral anyway.
My grandad begged me to go. He told me I might never get a chance like that again. He knew he wasn’t going to die while I was away.
And that was how I repaid him. You might be reading this thinking, ‘Yeah, but you couldn’t cope. And they have drugs in hospital, and nurses, and it must have been the best place for him…’ but that’s neither the point, nor is it entirely true. I couldn’t cope, but I don’t think I tried hard enough. I should have got some speed and blazed through it, or stopped talking to Ryan when I had a moment spare and our timezones were in sync, or just ANYTHING. I didn’t explore all the options; I assumed they would have told us all our options but all they said was that there was no room at the hospice – perhaps if I’d tried harder to find something then I would have actually found it. As for drugs, I don’t think he really got any. He was in constant pain. Maybe he was too weak for painkillers; maybe Basildon Hospital is full of sadistic bitches. I don’t know.
What I do know is that one day, while I was brushing my grandad’s teeth over the sink on the ward and having a little bit of a cry, one of the old boys on the ward my grandad had been shoved onto (they never figured out where to place him so he went on three or four different wards over those few weeks) came over to me and said that I might need to ask about more painkillers because his moaning and crying was keeping everyone awake. I was taken aback by what I registered as totally inappropriate cruelty, and he noticed this and quickly moved to explain: this sick old man, along with another sick old man on the ward, had been taking it in turns to stay up with my grandad to rub his tummy, to try to give him some kind of human comfort and reprieve from the unending pain.
And that should have been me.
No pain I inflict on myself will ever match the pain I have inflicted on others, no matter how many cuts I make or how many emotional disturbances I manufacture with my interactions with other people.
I never told him that I was the reason he wasn’t allowed to go home.
I am so sorry I tried to distract myself from this with you. You see, when I first started writing all this down, I felt like I had your support, like you gave a fuck. Just as a friend, but all the same… And everyone who has ever given a fuck has inevitably left me, so – in order to protect myself – I do stupid shit like this. You were so nice to me and I don’t believe I deserve it so I performed this epic little show for you. I told you from the start I was awful and that you were way too good to be spending your time talking to me. You were never anything but awesome, and I don’t regret a moment of this… aside from the way I’ve treated you.
In the next installment, I’ll explain how my mum still managed to upstage my rottenness. But I need a couple of days off first.
“I lost the plot for a while then. And I lost the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits and the exit sign.”