I got the phone call in the supermarket. I was in a bad mood already as I pulled the smartphone from my pocket to stare at its screen and a number I didn’t recognise. Too pissed off to decide to ignore it, I pressed accept. It was a call from a tearful female ‘Is that Jane?’. ‘Yes, who is this?’. ‘We’ve never met.’ (Really, I need this?). ‘I found your number in some old papers.’ (Not helping).’I work with Jeff’. (Mist clearing) ‘I didn’t know who else to call. I have some bad news’ (Right, I’m your go-to gal,then). ‘Can you talk?’ (Can I ever?). Taking a deep breath, I told her to go on, please. She did, thank you. ‘We thought it was an abscess and he just needed a tooth out, but it’s mouth cancer and it’s too far gone.’ So, she was calling to tell me Jeff was dying and at a much faster rate than us. I said no, no I didn’t mind that she was calling me and not to worry that she was in tears but that I was in Asda and it was all a bit much to take in. ‘Why don’t you text me with your mobile number and then I’ll come visit? We can talk face to face and I can see Jeff.’ She stopped crying and apologising for long enough to agree and for me to ring off politely but firmly.
I picked up my shopping basket and I put in a bottle of Jack Daniels. On the short walk home, I decided I felt guilty for not visiting before receiving Jeff’s death sentence. While waiting for the promised text, I entertained myself with the notion of how hard I’d punch the next person who told me that it’s best these things happen to me ‘because you’re a strong person, Jane, and you can take it.’ I stared at the still unopened-in-spite whiskey bottle, harder and harder – I used it as a lens to look around my room, an amber filter for my rage. The text arrived. It was signed off with kisses. I’d never met this woman. I replied yes, yes, of course I’d visit xxx.
It’d been almost three years since I’d last seen him, and that was at Grandad’s funeral. His Dad. Jeff had come to the crematorium with Dave. Dave had approached me as I received condolences in the rain ‘We need to talk, what happens when Jeff dies? Is there a funeral plan?’ He wanted to tell me about Jeff. It wasn’t the time or the place for that conversation. I gave him my number and my mother’s (wishing him good luck with that one, but hey, she is – technically – next of kin) and then continued accepting sympathy and stories as Dave drove Jeff home. Grandad took care of everything, he had told me so. I was his executor, so I knew ‘officially’, too. But I had no details, so I minded the gap and that bothered me. I resolved to visit Jeff and to find out. But I didn’t. I left the country again and on fleeting return trips he wasn’t a priority – Grandad had taken care of him.
I made an appointment and I visited. From my house to his was an hour’s walk either way. The address was an unassuming pebble-dashed bungalow in a residential part of town, next to a bus stop and opposite a large pub. I rang the doorbell and, after a few minutes, one of Jeff’s housemates answered. He was chatty and wary and eventually stood aside to let me in to meet the woman who’d called me. Jeff was on his reclining chair in the corner of the sitting room watching a musical on the television. He looked up when I went in, looked at her, then we all smiled at each other. I walked over and hugged him and then she told me the story of Jeff’s cancer diagnosis. A shockingly short story. He had months left, at best. Someone else came in and offered me tea, I accepted. It was a good cup of tea, I told him. By this time, I’d met Jeff’s other housemate, who’d been in to check me out – to be certain I had Jeff’s best interests at heart. Everyone had stories of Jeff, yet wanted to know more. Suddenly, we all minded the gaps.
I thought, well, he’s my mother’s brother, he’s 19 years older than me, I haven’t seen him for three years – that’s it, really. All I know. But, of course, it wasn’t. Not at all.
Between then and Christmas I visited regularly. I met more of the growing team who were caring, and cared, for Jeff. As I did, we all tried to find him, to know a Jeff which matched all memories, none of them in common. He looked on; smiling, then frowning. But in striving for ‘Jeff always…’, we could only hit ‘Jeff, as far as we know’. I knew what I’d been told and what I’d witnessed from childhood to my twenties, until Jeff had to go into care. When my grandparents, ageing, could no longer cope physically day-to-day. His carers knew him from the time he’d gone to live in his shared bungalow. One of his housemates knew him from the time they’d spent together in an institution (the mere sight of which now caused an expression of horror to cross Jeff’s face). We all tried to find him though he was right there with us.
Jeffrey was autistic, and he never spoke. His silence and our not knowing was quite the burden. Yet it was all the blame that could ever have been laid at his feet and even that based entirely on our expectations, not his demands. Not knowing had eaten away at my grandparents: they’d looked tirelessly for answers, for help. Finding little, they’d provided their own and then some for many others. Grandad – A Tribute outlines some of their work. Grandad said he’d made sure that Jeff would always be taken care of and that he was proud to have a son who would never let him down. Jeff was there with me for my Early Learning, I’d sit with him and recite my spellings and we’d draw letters together. He could communicate just fine to a receptive audience (can’t we all?) and I was always left with the impression that he was simply too good (or thought he was) for the rest of us.
As his condition worsened, I sat with his carers to plan his funeral. Grandad had taken care of it, of course. It was fully prepared, yet we had to choose music, hymns and readings still. We did. In the end it was so simple to provide everyone with a breath of air, a glimpse into a blameless life and one which taught us all so much about ourselves whilst giving away so little of its own. The last time I saw Jeff was a week before he died. I kissed him on the forehead and wished him ‘Good night, God bless’ as I left. It’s what Gran always did for me and him and one thing I had remembered quite clearly in finding Jeff.