My aunt told a story at the dinner table the other day of how the mother of a colleague of hers died sitting in an armchair while a birthday party in her honour bubbled gently around her. She might have been dead quite some time before anyone noticed her sitting motionless amidst the throng of friends and family. She was pretty elderly, so the story occupied the warmer end of the tragi-comic spectrum and we laughed. The consensus at the time, apparently, was that she would have died happy, perhaps expediated slightly to impending demise by her excitement at seeing all the people she cared about gathered in one place.My grandmother, who died two years and three days ago, didn't have such a luxury. Cancer robbed her of her hair, a breast and her weight before it took her entirely. And her words. My mother and I sat with her one evening in the hospital as she tried to tell us something, both of us straining for meaning in her well-formed, well-spoken nonsense. But there was no sense to be made from the words she used whatsoever and she deteriorated into further gibberish as she grew more and more frustrated at this breakdown in communication. Already wracked with guilt over a previous occasion when she had woken up only to catch me crying over her, I was determined that she wouldn't feel that our inability to understand was her fault. "I'm sorry, granny," I said, after this had gone on for about fifteen minutes, "I think we're just not listening properly. We must be tired."
She smiled patiently. "Yes, I expect you are."And with this, the last thing I remember her saying to me, she refused to let cancer take the politeness and consideration that had been her hallmark for over eighty years from her.