The Friday Poem
We chose ‘The Last Time’, Ann Gray’s monumental poem in memory of her mother, because of its unflinching honesty, its profound compassion, and the way it deals so frankly with dementia and its consequences. We love the great unspooling sweep of it. Long, detailed, conversational, even confessional, the poem shies away from nothing. And it feels like a privilege to be allowed to share in this terrible, lovely, muddled, exhausting celebration of a life.
The Last Time
The iPhone photo says University of Cambridge, Trinity Hall
19th October 2018, which tells you nothing of the last day
we took our mother over Garrett Hostel Bridge, stopped to
watch the ducks and punts, lazy on the river. The photo shows
each in turn behind her wheelchair, each quilted puffa coat
a different colour. Hers is grey to match her little hat, soft
brimmed and pleated with a rose to match the tartan blanket
we’ve snuggled on her knees. All three of us are smiling, she
at the ducks and passing cyclists, sounding bells or calling out,
Good Morning! We are in another time, Before, before all this
became so difficult. Before we carried emergency supplies in
a bag on the handle, pads and wipes, spare knickers. Coming
through, she shouts, excited by her status in the chair, Old Lady
coming through, as we scatter small crowds of flag following
Japanese. Determined, Jenny stops to haggle at the gate
of King’s, explain our mother had a Members pass but has long
since lost it. The quad is quiet, full of grass. She drops her voice
to a whisper, I never thought I’d be here again. She touches
her hanky to her eyes as we push up the ramp to the Chapel,
tip the chair to take in windows, the vaulted roof, the nave.
I bend to ask if we should take her somewhere quiet to pray.
She tells us, I’m with my daughters, I’m praying thank you all
the way round today. We lunch outside, the market corner,
where she is baffled by the pizza, tells us eating with our
hands is quite disgraceful. As lorries cut in close, she laughs,
laughs that I am nearest, called me expendable, said she
herself is Queen, in her chair, and much more important.
So much of that, so precious now. The day was effortless, the
change of clothes, washing hands; just the noisy drier made her
shout, Get Out! I want to Get Out. We couldn’t know then, it’d be
the last day, the last day of the sun, the last day of joy in going out
the last day before I knew I had cancer, though that night was a night
of drenching sweat and exhaustion. I put it down to pushing her, her
yelling, Faster! as we bumped up kerbs and careered over cobbles.
Everyone wants to know what happens next. There are, let’s say
12 different options and anyone of us can have all at once, or none,
or any number in any random order. Random is the word I use to try
to tell my brother, don’t keep trying to make sense of it or explain it,
just love her how she is, today. Today she doesn’t know us. I’ve struck
lucky with a teddy bear I sent her with her flowers. She sits him at the
table, talks to him with tenderness, replies in his own squeaky voice.
She surrounds herself with cards but has no idea that it’s her birthday.
She is, perhaps, six years old, waiting for her mother who is waiting
up the road where she lives now with her brother. Before we had to
hide the keys, she slipped out at night through the dark and snow
in dressing gown and slippers, clung to railings, Don’t you touch me!
when her carer came, I’m going to my mother’s. Now it’s Norwich.
She’s back in Norwich, All day she talks of going back to Norwich,
and all she wants to do all day long is get to Norwich. She says, I must
go to Norwich, every 2 minutes and starts to get her coat, so when
the Tesco man arrives at 6pm and it’s getting dark, she fights her way
through the back door and says, see, I said he’d come! He’s come to take
me to Norwich! and my father dies of shame as he buckles at the knees,
as he apologises through the door as he shuts it, because he can’t explain
what’s happening to a stranger and he’s torn between his worry for
her safety and his horror of a stranger thinking that she’s mad.
What do I do? I listen to him. He tells me she’s bogging in the bed.
And I, miles away, talk him through pads, pull ups and commodes.
I try to always be there, but I’m not, and I can’t be. He understands.
I’ve sent him a booklet and a letter, explaining I have CLL, hope
not to die but won’t get better. He understands this scientifically
so much more easily than what is happening to my mother. He
asks me how I am every day, if I’ve rested. In turn, I ask him how
he is, how things are with him. He always answers, Grim.