Losing Grandma to Covid-19

Grandma was one of the Windrush generation – and one of the first in the UK to be taken by Covid-19. The kids’ grandmother – known by all as ‘Grandma’.

It was a cruel way to go, even if it was swift and maybe painless.

It’s been a month now, and we still don’t know the full details. The body hasn’t been released, and there are still no funeral arrangements. There are silent, painful information-blockages between the care home, the coroner, the local authority registry office and the funeral directors. Everyone’s being very nice, but nobody seems to be able to offer much, except regret.

Like a lot of Caribbean matriarchs, Grandma was the centre of a big extended family – a larger-than-life giver of food, warmth and eccentricity. A lot of our family life involved piling round to hers on a Sunday afternoon to eat curried goat and watch Songs of Praise. And me giving her lifts home after she’d looked after the kids. Nothing was never too much trouble. Sometimes very funny, sometimes infuriating – but never a chore.

Throughout a lifetime of working punishing shifts in the NHS, Grandma kept good but judgemental humour, all the while running a busy home. Unswervingly Baptist, she was invariably rude about my agnostic Catholicism, and wasn’t happy until she provoked me into a tetchy response.

After retirement, Grandma developed advanced dementia and was eventually looked after 24/7 in a home by care-workers, who were just like her younger self. In her right mind, she would have been horrified to realise that the care-home, where everyone was so sweet, was run by Sri-Lankan Catholics. She paid her taxes, loved England, its Royals and its people, however vile they might sometimes have been in return.

Then sudden respiratory problems, an overnight diagnosis in hospital, and dead. All within the space of a few hours. It’s almost as if it never happened. And we can’t go to the home and see for ourselves anyway.

It’s not that the virus is unfair – what’s happening across the world is unfair. But I can’t shake off this feeling of bitterness that Grandma and others like her, who gave so much, should be so easily sacrificed at the front of this vicious queue.

From Windrush to Westport in a Day

Despite our marital difficulties, we put our differences aside last Friday and attended the Windrush 70-Year Commemoration Service at Westminster Abbey. And a fine occasion it was too, with Floella Beanjamin making a glamourous entrance, Sadiq Khan clearly enjoying working the crowds and some very moving testimonies about ‘No Irish No Blacks No Dogs’ being delivered from the pulpit.

There were some weird moments too, with Theresa May looking straight down at the floor as she entered like a frightened child. There was also the Ricky Gervais-like awkwardness of hundreds of people sitting still in uncomfortable silence, trying to hear the great gospel music being sung about three hundred yards away in the choir stalls.

I then went from one extreme to the other. By evening time I was in the West of Ireland to visit my Old Man on Westport’s Atlantic coast. As it had been in London earlier, the weather was glorious, and the daylight lasted easily until eleven at night. On my evening walk, the sun was casting shadows of me at least fifty yards long over the Mayo hills, the silence broken only by a few sheep. J and I had spent many an hour walking these hills together in happier times, and I lamented that we we would probably never do so again.

Although the West of Ireland was in so many ways different from London and the Windrush diaspora that I had been among earlier that day, I reflected on how similar they also were in time and place. So many people from the Caribbean as well as from Ireland must have had similar experiences of migration to England, both in the youthful excitement of travel and discovery, as well as the disappointment of discrimination and family separation that followed. It hurts to think about the pain suffered by black people in England, but it also made me proud to think about the irresistible impact made by both peoples on the life of this country. I feel sorry for anyone who has only ever grown up in a monocultural environment.