Before my last visit I’d stopped to look up Connie’s hospital number on the patient database. When I entered her date of birth, twenty or so names came up. I could immediately see which was Connie, because her name was the only one not greyed-out, the only one with a blank space in the Date of Death column. Sometimes it helps to see these things laid out in a simple graphical representation.
Connie was very old.
She’d been looking better that day. She was out of bed, sitting in an armchair in the sun, a half-eaten pineapple jelly on the table beside her.
‘You’re up!’ I say as I come in to the room. ‘Wow! That’s fantastic!’
‘Is it?’ she pants. ‘I wouldn’t know.’
But it was fantastic, in the truest sense of the word. Because only in the most fanciful story could you expect a person of ninety-eight, skeletonised, wracked by chest infection and organ failure, bumping along on a blood pressure of seventy on forty – only in the realms of fiction would such a person make it out of bed and across the room to the chair in the sunny spot by the window.
‘Great! That means I can put the pressure mattress on and not disturb you.’
‘Don’t you go messing up my things,’ she said, finding the wherewithal to flash me a look. Then muttering something unintelligible, she laced her bony fingers across her belly again, closed her eyes, and went back to sleep.
A couple of days later I asked the Co-ordinator how she was getting on.
‘Connie? No – Sorry! She died in A and E.’
I was shocked. Not that she’d died, of course – anyone could’ve told you Connie was fading. But in hospital? It felt like a failure. Whilst it was true that we’d all followed procedure, forging ahead with all the nursing, occupational and physiotherapy reviews, with all the blood tests, observations, urine dips, weight checks, and sent in any equipment we thought might help; whilst it was true that we’d been careful to make sure she had the additional carers she needed, and that the necessary referrals had been made to the District Nurse teams to monitor in the longer term, still, in spite of all this fuss – a fuss Connie hated, of course – at the end of it all she’d been hauled off to hospital and died on a trolley in A and E.
Some of it was down to poor communication, a difference of opinion with Connie’s son, Don. He wanted to take his mum out of the sheltered accommodation and moved to a care home near him, hundreds of miles away, the other end of the country. Connie had repeatedly said she didn’t want to go. Don said she’d told him on the phone she did. By this point it was difficult to know either way. There were several reported conversations with clinicians, but nothing was signed, nothing official. And now Connie was an unreliable witness due to her failing health, and it had to be said, for other, less obvious reasons, so was Don.
The Scheme Manager was bracingly clear, though.
‘Why he’s suddenly so interested, I don’t know,’ she said, carefully shutting the office door behind me and speaking in a scandalised, lip-sticky whisper. ‘He’s had precious little to do with Connie up to now. I don’t think there’s anyone here could tell you who he was if he stuck his head round the door. But yesterday when he rang I said to him, I said Don, love! Don’t. The move’ll kill her. He didn’t like that, but there you are. What else can I say but how I see it? Connie’s happy here. She’s warm, she’s comfortable, she’s surrounded by friends, and we can all keep an eye on her and make sure she’s got everything she needs. If she makes a hundred that’ll be absolutely bloody marvellous and we’ll have a big party, but…. well… anyway. You get my drift.’
But those ninety-eight years were made up of weeks and days, hours and minutes, and it was just a fact that as they ran their course, out to the end, no-one managed to be clear about what was happening, to lay things out as neatly as Connie had laid out the things she wanted on the bed around her: an old stuffed rabbit, a speaking book, a handbag, a box of hankies, and a silent, big-buttoned, clear-faced clock.