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My search for life after George

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Diana Melly thought she might be a merry widow. But the gap her legendary husband left in 2007 was hard to fill

‘Sorry, darling, for taking such an unconscionable time in dying.’ George misquoted Charles II every morning of the last three weeks of his life when, much to everyone’s surprise, he hadn’t died in the night.

We had reached that stage when we knew that death would be soon. ‘Prognosis short’, the palliative-care nurse had written in his notes, and we had been given 21 hours of continuing care; the state will pay for that when they know it won’t continue for too long. He lived a week more than he was expected to, the limbo stage; death was inevitable. I wanted it over and I didn’t want it over.

But George was dying the way he had lived, uncomplaining and maddeningly cheerful, even whispering sexist jokes to me between bouts of coughing. People came to say goodbye, including all the old girlfriends, most of them ignoring the note on the door which read: ‘Don’t ask me how I am, I’m fucking dying.’

The morning after George died, his doctor came to see him. ‘He looks so peaceful,’ she said. ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ I replied. ‘He’s dead.’ ‘No, Diana, not everyone does, that’s the best death I’ve ever seen.’

Later that day an old friend came to pay his respects and, when he found me, he was visibly white and shaking. ‘He’s not dead, definitely not, he’s moving.’ I followed him upstairs – sure enough, George was moving in a way that no corpse should. But no miracle had occurred; I’d forgotten to turn off the machine that shook him about to prevent bed sores.

Between his death and the funeral our son, Tom, and I went to the funeral parlour to assist in washing his body. Perhaps I thought that would make up for not always being a good wife. We’d been together for 46 years – it seemed a small thing to do and I’ve always been glad that I did.

When George was alive and I’d gone to a party on my own, people used to say: ‘Hello, Diana, where’s George?’ or ‘Lucky you!’ Being married to such a clever, witty, fantastic man, etc.

So I’d often thought that being a widow might be quite enjoyable. More Bob Dylan and less Bessie Smith, and after all I’d been married off and on since I was sixteen. But I was wrong: I missed him, and every night I dreamed that he was leaving me, which indeed he had done, and the dreams were nightmares.

In the first few months after his death I was incredibly busy: the funeral, the probate, his stuff (lots of that) and the letters (lots of them).

I think it was the morning on which there was no post, not even a bill, when I realised I had nothing to do and had better find something.

I could walk the dogs, see the children, go to the pictures with friends, measure out my life in coffee spoons – or get a job. I had become a patron of a dementia charity while George was alive and suffering from vascular dementia as well as lung cancer. He didn’t exactly suffer – he would proudly announce on stage (and he went on singing until his voice had almost gone) that he would probably forget some of the words. In fact, he seldom did. He’d been singing for sixty years and his long-term memory was good. But the word dementia often escaped him and he would appeal to his audience: ‘What is it I’ve got? It’s something beginning with D.’

Being a patron is rather better than having a title and I was sometimes asked to give some talks about being a carer. The one that seemed to touch other carers the most described how hard it is when well-meaning friends can’t
acknowledge that there is anything wrong. I called this talk ‘He Seems Fine To Me’. Being a performer, it came fairly easily to George to put on quite a convincing show of there being nothing much wrong, just a little forgetful. ‘Oh I forget things like that too,’ the visitor would say encouragingly when George couldn’t remember how many grand-children he had or what day of the week it was. But the letters I got were from wives of men who weren’t performers, except when they wanted to disguise their dementia. This denial leaves the carer more isolated, and sometimes carers can think if it’s not him, it must be me who’s losing it.

But being a patron is hardly a job and I tried to assess what skills I had and what sort of work I would be best and worst at. I didn’t want to travel too far; I didn’t want to work with abused children or tortured animals because I didn’t want to care too much. I couldn’t type, do spreadsheets or spell. Then one day a dance friend mentioned the visitors’ centre at Wormwood Scrubs. They needed someone to serve drinks and snacks, sit at the information desk and help explain the prison regulations to the visitors. It’s ten minutes away, flexible hours. I do care, but not too much, and five years later, I’m still there.

This story was from December 2014 issue. Subscribe Now