It all started when the woman living next door to me, who is in her 90s, became bedridden. She is cared for at home by her widowed son. Her bedroom shares a wall with mine and I can hear her: sometimes she watches the telly, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain.
She is having what most people consider to be a ‘good’ death: in her own home surrounded by her family, something many people are not lucky enough to experience. In a culture where we readily brush death under the carpet (and the dying off to hospital) her dying presence has necessarily become part of my life.
I began to wonder about how we expect to die in our highly medicalized culture where our choices may be constrained by hospital treatments, and whether this ties up with what we would hope for. This led to a project for The Wellcome Collection in London and a residency at Sobell House Hospice in Oxford.
"This is a picture of V. Like her visitors, J and I, V has a first name that no one is called any more: a name you never meet on anyone young. V has more visitors than anyone else. She has just celebrated her 70th birthday in the hospice. She received over 100 birthday cards."
"She looks at my work: 'I like it. It's sharp. I don't like that Impressionist stuff. I don't like rock and roll: I like Shostakovitch. My boyfriend bought me tickets to the ballet. I couldn't go because I had to come here. I gave my ticket to a friend. But it was that Matthew Bourne thing. I don't like that. I like it romantic: frill and tutus...'"
"V's visitor asks her, 'Will she give you the drawings?'
V answers for me, 'No. She has to have them for an exhibition.'
I say, 'I can get a print made and bring it the next time I'm here.'
V says, 'You'd better be quick. I won't last long you know.'
I say, 'Do you think you could last 'til Friday?'
I return on Friday with the print as a late 70th birthday present."