I swam at Easter, across the scallop bay I’d swum all my adult life until five years ago when I saw a shark in the water below me. I’d tried swimming since seeing the shark and hadn’t been able to finish, overcome by fear. But in that late gasp of summer we were treated to this year, I managed it. I wasn’t graceful; frankly I remained just beyond the break the whole way, but I was so proud of myself. At one stage, as a way of spurring myself on, I stopped and thought about how much life I might have left, how much my fear of sharks was stopping me living that life. It didn’t take away the fear but it helped me stay in the water. And it made me think of my grandmother.
In her final weeks, at the age of 99, my grandmother stopped eating. She was in a nursing home and on one of the last times I saw her, there was a woman, another resident, from a lower floor, standing by Nana’s bed trying to feed her. I suggested Nana didn’t want the food. “But if she doesn’t eat, she’ll get sick,” the woman said, genuinely worried. At that moment the woman got the spoon close enough to shovel food into Nana’s mouth. Nana spat it straight out. “It’s disgusting!” It was the last lucid thing I heard her say.
This final indignity – being fed mush by a stranger – at the end a long and vital life struck me as unjust. Nana was not only a great cook in her able years, she’d also been a nurse. I can remember being fevered as a child and staying at Sunnyside, her house in Fortitude Valley. I was in the daybed on the verandah, sunlight making lines on the covers through timber slats. I got up to find Nana, vomited water over the floor, and then worried I’d be in trouble. But there she came, helping me back to bed, sitting by me, her warm dry fingers on my wrist. I felt safe.
After she left Sunnyside, left the unit that followed, and moved into the nursing home, Nana and I went out together one afternoon. Her room was on the ground floor then. As you went up floor by floor, she said, you were closer to the end. The top floor, with its view of the river and the Story Bridge that few of the residents actually saw – most were bedridden – was closest to Heaven, she said, “unless you’re going the other way,” pointing down, with a sly smile; towards Hell, she meant. We visited New Farm Park. “I used to take the roses from here,” she told me. “You’re not allowed to do that,” I said. “I know,” she said whimsically, and it was the way she said it; I started laughing and so did she. And then, we couldn’t stop, even as the gardeners stared at us. I have few people in my life I can laugh like that with. I hold them dear.
Nana’s memory played tricks with her for years but she never lost her way altogether, not until the end. On one of those last visits, she told me she forgot recent things, who might have come the day before, the names of the great grandchildren. “But I remember the grapes that grew on the trellis at Risdon when I was a girl, the bitter taste, like yesterday.” To me she was the invincible summer Albert Camus spoke of. Every child ought to have a grandmother like her, and if you are a suitable candidate and know a child who needs you, I can only suggest you be that person.
When I finished the swim, I felt more than anything that I am my grandmother’s granddaughter. I don’t know what she’d have made of my swimming, whether she’d have been proud or nonplussed, but I know that if she’d wanted to swim herself, it would have taken more than fear to stop her. I see her now, that young girl tasting those bitter grapes, the beautiful woman sitting by my bed at Sunnyside, the little old lady laughing in the roses. Happy Mother’s Day, grandmothers. You make more difference than you’ll ever know.