2011: Monica’s last year and death

Kathryn and I marriedsix years ago, each into large families. With hers came her mother’s youngersister, Monica. She would absorb more of our time, in more ways that we couldhave imagined.
Kathryn became heronly UK relative when cousin Jennifer returned to Johannesburg. The firstChristmas Monica stayed, she was just the dotty aunt, a cancer survivor, with amastectomy she could laugh about. ‘You’re in the “one part missing club”, likeme’, I told her.
Tall, always elegantin red or autumn shades, classically spoken, loving sherry, she was the Englishepitome. She had Kathryn’s strong family chin and her laugh. She had been aneditor, a wordsmith, had written problem pages for women’s magazines. Her flatwas full of books she had received for review. Now they remind us of her, assome are with us.
At the funeral, herfriends said, ‘Kathryn’s just like Monica twenty years ago!’ I hope Kathryndoesn’t end the same way.
Years before,returning family brought tales of chaos back to South Africa. We knew thingswere wrong, but not how wrong. But she resisted all investigation. Everythingwas fine, she was managing well.
The last Christmas wespent together, nearly two years ago, was hard. As usual I arranged to meet herunder the Waterloo clock. Her multiple sclerosis stopped her using the tube, soshe took the bus to Waterloo. I had told her to stay under the clock as before,but she had not. Tall, silver-haired, red-coated elderly women are not thatcommon at Waterloo. It took me minutes to find her. We knew things were worse,by the smell of unwashed body and dirty clothes, the urine trail when shefailed to ‘make it’.
Just before lastChristmas, when her Belsize church friends told us of her worsening smell, thatbeing in a car with her was difficult, we invited her to a meeting at the flatof her best friend, Mary Shakeshaft. The time arrived. She was not there. Iwalked down Belsize Lane, turned the corner, and saw her. She was lost, on ashort walk done countless times before, asking a man how to get to BelsizeLane. I led her over the ice back to Mary’s. She did not recognise Kathryn.
This confirmed ourfears. We contacted Camden care workers. They said she was on their risk list,but had refused to admit them to her flat. We organised a case review at Mary’sfor when we returned from our Christmas holiday in Cape Town. The social workerwas there, her manager too, but Monica didn’t show.
We went to the flat.I called Monica on my mobile, leaving her a message. ‘Monica, we’re here, withyour brother Michael from Jo’burg. Open the door!’ The social worker agreed weshould call the police, in case she had fallen. As the sirens approached,Monica telephoned me. I told her to open the door, and she did, in time for apoliceman to use his foot to keep it open. The smell was rancid. She tried toclose the door, but we stopped her. We told her to come out, and she did, in afilthy dressing gown and nightdress – it was 2pm. She sat on the stairs, her angermixed with tears. Kathryn went in and photographed the flat. She showed thepicture to the social worker. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘you can see she needs help.’The flat was filthy, knee-deep in paper, rubbish, human soil and tubs of urine,mouse droppings everywhere.
The social workerarranged respite housing. We went there by bus, lying to Monica that we weretaking her to lunch. Within a day she was clean, clothes washed, a differentperson, less angry at loss of liberty. She looked elegant again. The ear wax plugshad gone and she could hear again. Our conversation was intelligent. Sheunderstood that she might not be able to return to her flat – ever.
Owners of flats inBelsize Park don’t get low cost council care, so Kathryn arranged care in aprivate home and supervised the removal of fourteen tons of waste bywhite-garbed workers. I lost Kathryn for most of the month in which Monica wasin a private home.
Then Monica died. Thecancer had spread to her brain. Poor Michael flew over again for the funeral.We celebrated her life and return to humanity. Michael gave the eulogy. I wrotea humorous sonnet, addressing Monica’s red-draped coffin.
Her influence isstill with us. The last sticks of her furniture arrived from London and are inour garage, awaiting burning or restoration, her best furniture in our cottage.Mary – a lifelong teacher of English literature – is a firm friend and hasencouraged my writing – a great legacy from Monica. But it’s hard to believeshe’s gone.
The sonnet I wrotefor Monica’s funeral, with her brother Michael’s approval, is on my Mourningpage. It’s not smooth flowing (especially that “come to view” – ugh! – thoughit sounded better when read aloud), but it was written the day before thefuneral. It made family and friends smile and was in tune with her life.