Opinion //

Vital signs

Ang Collins placed third in the 2016 Opinion Competition, judged by Guardian editor Lenore Taylor.

Ang Collins placed third in the 2016 Opinion Competition, judged by Guardian editor Lenore Taylor.

My grandma has this thing called a “Vital Call”. It’s a little white machine made out of cheap plastic that sits on the counter next to the fruit bowl that holds only fake plastic fruit. It’s got three different LED lights on it, a speaker, and a big red button that says “HELP”.

The machine comes with a button that you wear like a necklace – it’s so old people can send directly for an ambulance if they have a fall, like my grandma did. She tripped over a flowerpot throwing tea dregs into the garden.

Grandma never wears her button because she thinks it’s ugly. She keeps it next to her bed instead.

“If I have another fall I’ll just crawl my way to the bedroom, or something.”

The way Grandma treats her Vital Call, you’d think it was her children who encouraged her to get it. But believe it or not, my grandma requested it specially. For Grandma, the machine isn’t a life-saving device – she’s perfectly able-bodied and tough as nails. No, Grandma’s Vital Call system is a statement piece – a conversation point that she springs upon me, my uncle, her hairdresser, anyone who’ll listen.

My grandma is very, very lonely.

When I visit her house on the lake for the first time in months, she tells me at length about her fall, relishing the chance to recount it (again). She tells me how it was night time, and how she didn’t bother calling out to anyone “because it was winter”, a point of logic which I have never bothered to question. She shows me the machine and tells me how she has to test it once a month by calling a hotline and saying to the receiver “I’m okay, I’m just testing.” I think she likes the drama of it all.

She shows me pictures of my granddad’s grave on her iPad, and points to a blank space on the right side of the headstone, saying “That’s where I’ll go.”

She’s got about twenty photos of the grave, and flicks through each one individually. Then she opens Words With Friends and curses my dad who got the triple word score last turn.

I find it really hard to understand my grandma’s apparent fascination with death. She swerves the conversation from what she ate for dinner two weeks ago at the yacht club (barramundi with beans and mash) to how grandpa’s ashes were placed inside the pre-existing grave of her son who died at eighteen in a car accident (they drill through the bottom of the grave and put a little canister inside). She talks about how terribly sad she is without grandpa to a point which drives us both to the edge of tears, only to reel back instantly by talking about her Pope John Paul roses, which are blooming beautifully this year.

I try to decode the subtext and find it hopelessly contradictory and confusing. I think to put her behaviour down to thinly disguised self-pity, or the stoicism of a generation who rarely talk about their feelings or the hardship they faced. When we talk, I can sense my grandma fishing for feeling from me, beckoning me to grab hold of some thread of the loneliness and grief she’s trying to convey.

She’s an eighty-five year old former housewife who has never read a book in her life, has only ever worked at school tuck shops, and who had been together with my grandpa since they were both fourteen years old. For the first time in her long life, my grandma feels utterly alone.

The deep pain she must feel each waking day without the familiar presence of her lifelong companion and only love totally rocks me – I can’t begin to fathom it. This is a woman, like all working class women of that generation, who has been told since forever that she is not an independent body, who has been told that she is one half of a whole, who has been told that she is defined by her relationship to a working man.

I am sad that my grandpa is gone, and I am angry that life never told my grandma that she’s someone without her husband. More than that, I want to tell her it’s okay to cry uncontrollably and talk about grandpa non-stop until she feels like she’s grieved enough for one day.

But I know she won’t do that. I know she’ll keep covering up her tears with cups of tea and family gossip and details of how she arranged the flowers at church.

I want to tell her she doesn’t need the Vital Call machine, but if it’s a comfort in some way, then who the hell am I to tell her otherwise.