20 January 2021
We’ve graduated from The Sopranos to The Crown. A brief mention of Anthony Eden needing urgent surgery in Boston whilst traveling home from America sinks my stomach as my heart beats fast. I feel anxious and worried and although it takes me a few seconds to identify the source of this dread, I chase it around my memories enough to land on the realisation that it’s because of what happened to my grandma. More specifically, what happened to me when something happened to my grandma.
It was probably only some time in the past few years that I understood what happened to me in my friend’s small under-the-stairs toilet, and at the same time I accepted I’d simultaneously never understand it.
We’d had a nice enough day for a pair of 10 year old girls. We’d played some Sonic on the MegaDrive, been driven around on various parental errands, played with her rabbit and dog, and as soon as the sun went down and her mum suggested we order takeaway pizza for our sleepover I felt gripped by an instant terror. I blurted something about not feeling very well before suddenly finding myself hyperventilating, crying, clutching at my tight chest, asking the upset reflection in a strained and pleading whisper if it knew what was wrong with my grandma.
I had no reason to think that anything at all was wrong with her. She was in Florida, with my grandpa, visiting friends and hopefully buying me the pair of white and mint green high top LA Gear trainers I’d asked for.
A knock on the toilet door. I crumble out of my cramped cave of panic sniffing, red and puffy and distressed asking for my mum to come and pick me up. I blame it on a stomach ache.
In the car home, I can’t explain anything to my mum. She prods and prods interrogating the intricacies of the day spent with my friend trying to fathom if there’s been some sort of falling out. We get home and I set on the folding stool in the kitchen and feel instant relief and calm. I ask if we can get takeaway pizza, but my mum is clearly furious at having her evening ruined, having taken advantage of both me and my brother being out of the house at sleepovers by arranging a gathering of her own.
The panicky feeling passed. I spent the night reading in my bedroom and listening to the radio and not really thinking about my grandma anymore at all, like it had been an out of body experience. Ashamed and embarrassed, I apologised to my friend at school on Monday morning and blamed ‘some sort of 24 hour bug’ and with terrible primary school acting skills, asked her if she’d experienced any symptoms herself after I left.
Some time later - it could only have been a couple of days - I overheard my mum having a similar-sounding panic to mine, gasping through confused sobs on the phone to her sister. She’d opened some important-looking post on a visit to water the plants at my holidaying grandparents’ flat and discovered a confusing hospital bill, or maybe it was a note from an insurance company, alluding to some emergency surgery. After trying and failing to contact their friends in Florida, she’d pieced together enough clues to deduct that my grandma had suffered a cardiac arrest, and been rushed to hospital, eventually leaving with a poorly-installed pacemaker which caused further complications on the first leg of their journey home.
I wouldn’t have known any of that when I was shaking with worry in that tiny downstairs toilet.