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  • A slight shift in the mood told me it was almost time to go. Small though it was, the little sanctuary had none of the vaguely oppressive closeness that you often find with hospital rooms. Instead, it felt homely and kind of safe. Just the family and now me, the imposter, seated companionably at her bedside.

    I looked around. Since I’d last visited, two days earlier, more flowers had arrived, their heady scents combining; amplified by the shimmering heat outside. The wall opposite the end of her bed was now almost completely covered with cards. One or two bore the command ‘Get Well Soon!’ in expressive, loopy italics. I wondered whether it was vain hope or if their senders had kind of missed the point.

    I became aware of her hand holding mine, warm and firm despite her frailty. This was the same hand that had continued to paint the beautiful canvasses until the very last moment before she’d collapsed, breathless, just managing to dial 999 before lapsing into unconsciousness. That had been 4 weeks ago. After a spell in hospital they’d moved her straight here without going home. I wondered if she regretted never saying goodbye.

    Alice was already in the corridor waiting to get moving. What does a ten-year-old mind make of this kind of thing? I struggled for the memory and found some threads, gossamer-thin and fragile: Me, aged seven, seated at my grandmothers bedside, not understanding that we’d never speak again; my father on the other side, his face stony and remote, masking all emotion; my mother a shadow in the background. I remembered the hollowness of loss.

    Aware of movement I stood to leave. Anna kissed her mother goodbye and went to check on Alice. Lizzie, my oldest friend, had gathered her things together and was now getting their dad ready to leave. I’d momentarily forgotten about him; this quiet, frail man, often lost in sleep. At 95, he’d lived two full lives, raising three children to adulthood before losing his first wife to a swift and brutal illness. Six months later he’d met a twenty-five year old Veronica and they’d married in a whirlwind, Anna and Lizzie following soon after. He remained mentally alert; the Guardian cryptic crossword part of his daily ritual, but the tiredness was etched on his face, present in every stiff movement of his limbs. Since the diagnosis 2 years before, he’d been hanging on for Veronica.

    I leaned over the bed and kissed her cheek. As I went to draw back, she held me there for a moment, her eyes fixed on me.
    “I love you”, she said, so quiet I could barely hear. “You really are almost another daughter.” She paused and I could feel my throat tighten. “Promise me you’ll look after Lizzie. She’s always so strong for everyone else.”

    Unable to speak I nodded and kissed her again, feeling the warmth of her face against mine.

    “Come on then Dad. Let’s get you home”

    Lizzie’s voice brought me back. She was helping him to stand so that he could manoeuvre himself into the wheelchair they used for getting him to and from the car. He was a little unsteady at first but once upright, found his footing again. Then, he gestured to us to wait and stopped at his wife’s bedside. He took her hand and with infinite tenderness brought it to his lips. When he spoke, his voice was strong and clear.

    “I love you so much my darling” he said, eyes never leaving hers. “You are my world.”

    I felt a sudden, intense privilege at witnessing this simple testament to forty-five years of marriage. I looked over at Lizzie and saw her eyes fill with tears, so looked away again. Picking up my bag, I walked out into the corridor, leaving them in their moment.

    Veronica died last night, quietly and peacefully with Anna, Lizzie and Gerald at her side. She had made her peace with the world and now we must make ours.

    (this photo is of the tiny library in the town in New Zealand where "Veronica" grew up. In time we may return her to the place she loved)
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