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2011: Monica's last year and death

Kathryn and I married six years ago, each into large families. With hers came her mother’s younger sister, Monica. She would absorb more of our time, in more ways that we could have imagined.
Kathryn became her only UK relative when cousin Jennifer returned to Johannesburg. The first Christmas Monica stayed, she was just the dotty aunt, a cancer survivor, with a mastectomy she could laugh about. ‘You’re in the “one part missing club”, like me’, I told her.
Tall, always elegant in red or autumn shades, classically spoken, loving sherry, she was the English epitome. She had Kathryn’s strong family chin and her laugh. She had been an editor, a wordsmith, had written problem pages for women’s magazines. Her flat was full of books she had received for review. Now they remind us of her, as some are with us.
At the funeral, her friends said, ‘Kathryn’s just like Monica twenty years ago!’ I hope Kathryn doesn’t end the same way.
Years before, returning family brought tales of chaos back to South Africa. We knew things were wrong, but not how wrong. But she resisted all investigation. Everything was fine, she was managing well.
The last Christmas we spent together, nearly two years ago, was hard. As usual I arranged to meet her under the Waterloo clock. Her multiple sclerosis stopped her using the tube, so she 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 that common 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 she failed to ‘make it’.
Just before last Christmas, when her Belsize church friends told us of her worsening smell, that being in a car with her was difficult, we invited her to a meeting at the flat of her best friend, Mary Shakeshaft. The time arrived. She was not there. I walked down Belsize Lane, turned the corner, and saw her. She was lost, on a short walk done countless times before, asking a man how to get to Belsize Lane. I led her over the ice back to Mary’s. She did not recognise Kathryn.
This confirmed our fears. 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’s for when we returned from our Christmas holiday in Cape Town. The social worker was 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, with your brother Michael from Jo’burg. Open the door!’ The social worker agreed we should 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 a policeman to use his foot to keep it open. The smell was rancid. She tried to close the door, but we stopped her. We told her to come out, and she did, in a filthy dressing gown and nightdress – it was 2pm. She sat on the stairs, her anger mixed with tears. Kathryn went in and photographed the flat. She showed the picture 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 worker arranged respite housing. We went there by bus, lying to Monica that we were taking her to lunch. Within a day she was clean, clothes washed, a different person, less angry at loss of liberty. She looked elegant again. The ear wax plugs had gone and she could hear again. Our conversation was intelligent. She understood that she might not be able to return to her flat – ever.
Owners of flats in Belsize Park don’t get low cost council care, so Kathryn arranged care in a private home and supervised the removal of fourteen tons of waste by white-garbed workers. I lost Kathryn for most of the month in which Monica was in a private home.
Then Monica died. The cancer 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 wrote a humorous sonnet, addressing Monica’s red-draped coffin.
Her influence is still with us. The last sticks of her furniture arrived from London and are in our garage, awaiting burning or restoration, her best furniture in our cottage. Mary - a lifelong teacher of English literature – is a firm friend and has encouraged my writing – a great legacy from Monica. But it’s hard to believe she’s gone.
The sonnet I wrote for Monica’s funeral, with her brother Michael’s approval, is on my Mourning page. It’s not smooth flowing (especially that “come to view” – ugh! – though it sounded better when read aloud), but it was written the day before the funeral. It made family and friends smile and was in tune with her life.