In a remote hospital on the peninsula of Pembrokeshire in South Wales, an elderly man lies dying.
He is sickly pale and illuminates softly under the clinical lights of the emergency ward. Cocooned in white hospital sheets his small withered face peaks out over the blankets. Welts of black fading to blue line his weathered bony hands and face. A laceration above his left eye is encrusted with stale blood.
I inhale a deep breath and try to retain the well of tears behind a stoic mask. The air tastes stale and the harsh smell of bleach and a lingering odour of urine permeate the ward.
The elderly gentleman’s prominent Roman nose surfaces towards the light and his fading white locks have been parted to the side. Evidently fastidious about grooming, his nails freshly buffed, claw with gentle agitation at the bedclothes. His eyes close, he gasps for breath.
The heart monitor beeps erratically, 50 beats per minute. It is slowing.
At a fading and drawn out ‘thump’ of the heart monitor, the nurse rushes to his side.
“Your grandfather doesn’t look too good love,” she says in a thick Welsh accent.
I don’t respond.
The deathly silence that saturates the emergency ward bar the irregular ‘beat’ of the heart monitors is in stark contrast to where I sit now. Seated at a grand dining room table decorated with religious memorabilia and bottles of Chianti an assemblage of nattering Italian Nonnas encroach on me. As the foreign girlfriend of the prodigal Italian son I have made the inevitable pilgrimage to the family home in Milan. Here in a Milanese suburban dining room I am exhibited and flaunted to a rambunctious crowd of candid seniors. Nonna Tina, opposite is gesticulating wildly, decorated with gold rings, her crimson talons project eagerly towards my face. Her sister, Nonna Adua is scrutinising me from across the table.
Only day’s prior I had been stationed in the elderly care unit of Withybush and now I was surrounded by a group of boisterous elegant aged Italians. Yet the recollections of the hospital remained ingrained in my core, a souvenir that I will always carry with me. No amount of Italian vigour would erase it.
In ward 6 my grandfather was the only one who remained unresponsive. His ally opposite, Allen certainly made up for grandpa’s lack of gusto. In what can only be described as the ‘wild card’ of the gang, Allen would repeatedly prowl the halls looking for unsuspecting visitors to bail up and interrogate for a cigarette. Entombed by the impenetrable brick walls of Withybush and held down by the riggings of a blood transfusion, Allen nonetheless planned an escape. One unsuspecting wet afternoon he was successful. Dressed in his Levi 4 by 4s and plaid farmer shirt, Allen and his transfusion made their way towards the gleaming lights of the exit hall. They found him two hours later at the pub.
The fact that Allen had successfully escaped from the stoic 1960 complex was unfathomable. The nurses of Withybush banded together all speaking over one another, hands pointing and faces exasperated. It was a commotion not unlike the one occurring before me, the Milanese elders are arguing over the sacred Piedmontese recipe Vitello Tonnato. Desperate to share their gastronomic knowledge with the confused foreigner they do battle amongst each other, each Nonna desperately trying to capture my attention. Thin layers of tender veal concealed by a creamy mayonnaise sauce accompanied with capers and a sliced limone, the essence, Nonna Tina argues, lies with the sauce.
Slices of simmering veal steaks with a thick rich puree in a terracotta bowel are presented and met with ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ from the candid crowd of Milanese seniors. Antique glasses are removed from 80s Prada bags so the signature dish can be fully assessed.
As I stare at the rich assemblage of Italian cuisine I am jolted back to the memory of dinnertime in the hospital ward. As the trolley cart slowly made its way around, the smell arriving first and the food second, identical servings of weathered meat and tired potatoes on plastic plates would materialise in front of the patients. As a special ‘treat’ a congealed pot of thickened pastel desert under the guise of ‘ice-cream’ would be served following the main course.
Currently I could not be further away from the impartiality and monotony of mealtime in Withybush.
‘E’ Pronto!’ the rising call indicating to all that dinner is on the table awakes me from my recollection. Aware that no Italian Mamma and her food should be kept waiting, Nonna Tina eagerly takes my plate and begins serving. She has soft olive skin and at 89 is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Short white-cropped hair elegantly styled, dangling emerald earrings encrusted with diamonds and bohemian tinted necklaces adorns her voluptuous physique. Stylishly robed like all northern Italians, Nonna Tina wears a soft violet cashmere sweater exposing just a hint of cleavage.
After spending so much time buried within the sterile elderly care unit and standing like a pylon 12 hours a day beside my grandfather’s bedside, I am almost astonished to see an elderly woman with so much spirit. At 89 Nonna Tina is still aware of her sex appeal. In confidence she confides how she and her and husband keep the passion alive by experimenting sexually in their physical relationship. She suggested I try the same.
Instead of squirming at this intimate proclamation I stare in awe. At 89 Nonna Tina refuses to succumb to society’s tedious expectations of the stereotypical elderly, sheltered away in a residential care home and making the odd appearance at a festival family occasion. There is more life and laughter in front of me in these nattering decorated Nonnas with pencilled eyebrows and rouge lips than in people half their age.
The elderly are so much a part of our lives; they are our revered history textbooks, our most colourful raconteurs and our family memoirs. I remember distinctly every conversation with my grandfather, ever letter and phone call. I recall the memories of camping outdoors and getting up to walk through the streams of the Scottish Highlands. Finding the tarn, we would drop the line into the plunging whirlpool while the filtered sunlight flickered on the water. Fronds of aging oaks and leafy bracken entombed us within the remote woodland. After catching our breakfast we would make the journey back to camp and cook the sizzling trout over the smouldering embers of our camp fire, a knob of creamy butter added for just a hint of flavour.
We were at one with nature; he adored the physical world and much of his life’s work and vision must be attributed to the natural elements. Despite this zest for adventure and the outdoors, in his final moments he lay in Withybush Hospital in a cold sterile setting. Wired to a heart monitor and being force-fed congealed processed jelly from a cup, my grandfather was slowly fading into an anomalous abyss. He was hardly living, remaining unresponsive, eyes closed. On the rare occasion he did open them he would stare into the oblivion, unaware of anything or anyone around him. However, the heart monitor suggested that his spirit was still there, trapped beneath impenetrable layers of infection and ailment.
As I looked around at the other elderly men incapacitated and gradually succumbing to their infirmities I was struck that despite their sickly conditions a spirit remained effervescently present in ward 6. To be sure it wasn’t as vibrant and vivacious as Nonna Tina who stands before me with her slightly exposed bosom and her Marlborough Lights serving her ravenous Milanese crowd, but the spirit of these six elderly gentlemen fatigued and wearied nonetheless pervaded.
Roy with his baby blue eyes and chequered wrinkled shirts sprawled on the bed next to grandpa. Every night at 8pm he would look at me and ask if I would join him in bed. His eyes welling up and his face in hope, I later learnt that Roy’s wife Doris died two weeks before and they shared a bed for 55 years. Roy doesn’t want to sleep alone anymore.
Farmer Ted lies in the bed closest to the window. Ted owns four farms throughout Wales and his sons visit every night at 7pm. Animated conversations of ‘castrating cows’ and giving birth to lambs saturate the room. It makes a nice change from the repetitive ‘beat’ of the heart monitors and the wheezing gasps for breath, the usual background clamour of the number 6 ward.
Every night I go over to Ted and hold his knotted bony hands. He is scared. Scared of his operation, scared of his age and scared he will never return home. In the wee hours of the early morning while the patients lay fast asleep dreaming of loved ones lost and present, Ted and I talk. He speaks to me of his cows, his farms, his childhood and his children. You can see Ted’s spirit in his eyes when he recalls his life outside of Withybush; a life not clouded by sickness, blood tests and soiled nappies.
“You are a good girl,” he tells me.
Old age and the fading of strength and vitality is something we might all encounter. The ability to exercise the same independence and freedom once occupied is a rarity among the elderly. Even Nonna Tina at 89 with her effervescent spirit and flamboyancy confided in me her heartbreak over the fact she can no longer travel. Like the elderly occupants in Withybush, Nonna Tina is also scared. Scared that one day her liberated spirit will be trapped like my own grandfather inside the concentrated walks of an impassive hospital ward.
As I sit there slowly masticating the great pile of Vitello Tonato on my plate, no matter how many times I declined another spoonful would be served, this spirit of the Milanese elders once again struck me. Encroaching on me around the grand wooden table each Italian Nonna wanted to share stories of their families, their cooking and their way of life. It was no different to ward number 6 at Withybush where the elderly men wanted someone to talk to about their loved ones and their existence both past and present. To be sure the environment was certainly different, but the spirits inhabited inside these antique elders remained the same.
Two weeks after my return to Welsh soil, once again I set foot on the Pembroke peninsula. I did not go to Withybush Hospital. Instead I climbed the steep hilltop of the coastal path and looked out at the roaring sea below me. The icy wind slashed at my face as hawks circled the hedgerows. Clumps of sea thrift were emerging from their damp roots hunting the sun and braving the elements. I stood there on the exposed cliff top and looked out at the great expanse of grey ocean before me.
I opened the casket and threw the ashes to the wind.
The spirit of Robert Alexander Kennedy was once again in solidarity with the natural elements.