I think I’m ok with death as a general principle. That’s easy for me to say, because the only death I’ve witnessed personally was my beloved Great Aunt Winifred’s. She died peacefully and beautifully, like the man in the John Donne poem, towards the end of the Christmas holidays when I was free as a bird and able to go and be with her. I held her hand and recited psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, while the care home staff looked in from time to time. The only moment that the enormity of death struck me was when the men from the undertakers zipped up her body bag and hefted it onto the trolley. I couldn’t help feeling that she would have found the jolting undignified.
She was very big on dignity, my Great Aunt Winifred. She’d wanted to be an actress, but her family wouldn’t permit it, and so instead she spoke very dramatically at all times and insisted on travelling in the back seat of any car, because as she said, ‘You never see the Queen in the front.’ She drove her son and her grandchildren mad, insisting on the exclusive use of specific chairs when she came to visit, criticising their bookshelves and making requests that came across as imperial decrees. When my cousin developed an allergy to nylon, Great Aunt Winifred announced archly that there were more elegant ways of securing brand new bedding. I loved her, partly because I was envious of my cousins, who travelled the world with their father’s work, went to expensive private schools and made confidence look easy. But mostly I loved her because her drama needed a foil – someone to come running with handkerchiefs and improvised footstools and clothes brushes, to serve her tea in a real china cup with a matching saucer, to drive her to the church two hundred yards from our home and bring her home again. And her needs were a perfect fit for mine. It’s hard to explain without going into the kinds of detail about my childhood for which this is neither the time nor the place, but My Great Aunt Winifred’s visits were a kind of holiday, in which we were united in a game against the rest of the world. Starching her handkerchiefs and putting flowers in her room and baking really small cakes, so soft that she could eat them in one mouthful, were pressures I chose for myself, which made them very precious. My mother wisely left us to get on with it, and if she noticed the way I curated our bookshelves in advance of my great-aunt’s visits, she never let on.
My Great Aunt Winifred had little to leave beyond her wedding and engagement rings, and those, of course, went to her grandchildren. But as I was clearing her little room, I found, hidden behind her irreproachable collection of classic novels, several paperback detective novels and a Mills and Boon. And at the bottom of a cupboard were an ornate blue cloak and a silk folder of ostrich feathers.
I didn’t go to church with Great Aunt Winifred to find God. I expect he was sitting on a cloud laughing at the pantomine of a young woman settling an old one into the back seat of a battered navy Mini Metro as though they were clad in silk and lace with liveried footmen to drive the greys. But in amusing him, I found an acceptance that I struggled to find elsewhere. And when she left me to go to him, she didn’t go in a paisley crepe button-down dress,studiously objecting to every proffered chair and clutching a copy of Dickens. She went as the person she was always meant to be, smiling and comfortable, reading The Millionaire and the Pregnant Pauper, wrapped in that blue cloak with ostrich feathers in her hair.