My grandmother experienced strokes towards the end of her life. She was already bedridden from sciatica, a painful condition not easily treated in the 1950s, so her strokes were an added complication. Her first happened when she was still living in Edinburgh, an hour train ride south of Dundee where we lived. I was seven at the time and her stroke was explained to me, but I didn’t fully understand.
In 1957, she came to live with us for what would turn out to be the last year and a half of her life. When her second stroke occurred, her presence in our house helped me to understand more clearly its significance. Her speech wasn’t slurred, but it did slow down because she had to focus to speak the words she wanted to say.
At that time, there was a debilitating flu epidemic resulting in my mother, a social worker, being assigned to teach in a classroom because of the shortage of teachers out with this flu. She didn’t get the flu, but she contracted shingles from a student with chicken pox. She, too, ended up in bed in significant pain with what was then an unpreventable disease.
When my grandmother had her third stroke in 1958, my mother couldn’t leave her bed. By then, I was ten and knew how to call for an ambulance. I dialed 999 (the UK emergency number at that time) and along came the ambulance, a converted black maria, a van we all took for granted as we still had various weird shortages post-World War II.
The driver, the only one in the car, loaded my grandmother into the back and I had to climb in with her so she wouldn’t be alone. There was a small pull-down seat for me. When the driver closed the doors, we were in pitch black (no windows in a black maria). My grandmother was groaning and periodically gurgling, some of which was masked by the start-up of the engine, and we began our journey to the Dundee Royal Infirmary. My grandmother’s groans and gurgles increased each time the van hit a bump or turned a corner.
At one point, she gurgled, then uttered a sound that was a combination of a loud groan and a long sigh. Then there was silence except for the engine and the tires on the road.
I knew she was dead, but there I could only sit there and wait as the van trundled along. When it came to a stop, the driver opened the back and saw what had happened.
“You seen someone deid afore, lassie?”
I shook my head.
“Dinna worry. It’s like she’s asleep. Come out of there, now, pet.”
I climbed out and stood nearby. An orderly had come out with a gurney and he and the driver lifted grandmother out of the back and wheeled her away. They took me inside and gave me a cup of tea with a lots of sugar and milk. I didn’t like it. Then they gave me bus money and showed me where to stand to get the bus to the transfer station where I could get my number 33 bus home.
I went home in a daze, wondering how to tell my mother that her mother was dead. I hadn’t thought about losing my mother before and thought how bad she’d feel to learn what had happened to her mother. I didn’t admit to myself that I now had the same fear of losing her as well. Perhaps she knew because she saw my face when I walked into her bedroom and held out her arms to me, despite the pain of moving any part of her body. I lay on my side next to her, lowering myself as gently as I could to cause her the least amount of pain.
We lay together for a long time. Still. Silent. Then I got up and went to make our tea.