'Ta ta, Ducks.'
‘Mum can’t talk anymore,’ my cousin tells me when I ring to see if I can visit Auntie Joanie, ‘so it can be quite tough. If there are a couple of you, you can have a conversation around her which she can follow.’
Auntie Joanie has now been moved to a small cottage hospital. Inside it’s clean and bright with views across a field. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful. The staff look up and smile when they see Ma and I’m glad that my aunt is in a place where someone’s taking notice of what’s going on.
I’ve thought about a few things I want to say but it all goes out the window when we turn the corner. Auntie Joanie is propped up in bed, supported by pillows. The general hospital, where she was previously, lost all her clothes so she is wearing a new cornflower blue nightdress which brings out the blue in her eyes. Her hair, which was once a rich gleaming auburn, frames her face in silver waves. From this angle you can’t see what radiotherapy has taken away but Ma bends over her big sister and rearranges her curls just to make sure. All the time Ma’s talking softly, calling Auntie Joanie by one of the pet names they shared and which I’d almost forgotten. Watching them just breaks my heart. Tom catches my eye and I can see how moved he is too. I have to make my excuses and leave the room, briefly – I want to be brave for Auntie Joanie, and especially for Ma. Crying all over the place isn’t going to help.
When I return Auntie Joanie stares long and hard into my eyes; her gaze reminds me of a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time, trying to take everything in. Maybe it’s the same at the end of life too. Tom manages to raise the faintest of smiles by teasing her for not offering him a whisky as she does usually, whatever the time of day, but mainly she watches us with a clear, steady gaze until sleep starts to overcome her and we have to let go.
Letting go is the hardest part. I didn’t manage to talk about the things I’d planned but it doesn’t matter; Auntie Joanie will always be there in everything from my earliest sun-kissed memories of a beach in Cornwall, through being given a thorough telling-off for some inconsiderate behaviour as a teenager, to being cared for by her when I was convalescing after an operation. I will miss her. It’s hard enough saying goodbye to Auntie Joanie when she’s on the end of a phone as neither of us wants to be the one to actually break the contact but I can’t keep her here forever. Bye bye, Auntie Joanie. Ta ta, Ducks.
Painting is 'Chapel Window' by Tom Tomos