TOM UTLEY: What an absurdity for my wonderful mother-in-law’s death at 99 to be included in the daily Covid toll
Many of us have long grown bored and irritated by the daily incantation of the latest Covid death figures, read out to scare us on the evening news bulletins ‘like football scores’, in my colleague Richard Littlejohn’s memorable phrase.
I suspect, therefore, that few will have paid much attention last Saturday, when it was announced that in the latest 24-hour period, 131 people had been reported to have died within 28 days of testing positive for the disease.
For my family, however, that bald figure had a terribly sad resonance, since one of those 131 was my wife’s beloved mother, who had died the previous evening at the venerable age of 99.
The fact is that when I last saw my mother-in-law in hospital, three weeks before she died and a fortnight before she developed Covid, I knew at a glance that she was well on her way out [File photo]
Despite all the precautions taken by the devoted NHS staff, she contracted Covid in the Oxfordshire hospital where she’d been taken with a broken arm, which she’d suffered in the latest of a series of recent falls.
To my wife, of course, and to her huge extended family, my mother-in-law was not a mere football score, a number to be filed away in the records of the pandemic kept by the Office for National Statistics.
She was the adored and adoring mother of five daughters and the grandmother and great-grandmother of legions.
By my calculation, she had 35 living descendants at the time of her death, with another on the way (if I’ve missed any out, I can only apologise; maths was never my strong point).
I wouldn’t presume to give readers a full portrait of her character, let alone an exhaustive account of her very long life.
Though I knew her for four decades, from the day I asked her permission to marry her youngest daughter, others saw more of her and knew her story better. All I can offer are a few snapshots, to help put flesh on that one-in-131 figure.
During World War II, for example, she worried that she fell short of the Armed Forces’ minimum weight requirements for recruits. But so determined was she to enlist that she turned up to be weighed for her medical in a heavy fur coat.
It just tipped the scales in her favour (presumably, the medics turned a blind eye to her outfit), and she served out the war in the Army as an ambulance driver.
In the years I knew her, she was a permanently benevolent presence, rejoicing in the modest pleasures of her faith, the Daily Telegraph crossword, the occasional treat of her strange favourite tipple, gin and ginger ale — and above all, the family she loved and who loved her
After the war, she married a handsome fellow Scot — Mrs U’s father — an officer who had been wounded at Monte Cassino and decorated for his courage. When hostilities ended, one of his jobs was to keep an eye on the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII, during the latter’s visit to Rome.
There’s a wonderful photograph of him dancing with the duke’s wife, Wallis Simpson. So my mother-in-law could truthfully boast, in the words of the famous old song about Edward: ‘I’ve danced with a man / Who’s danced with a girl / Who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.’
But, though they never divorced, the marriage was not a lasting success. After bearing her fifth daughter in seven years, my mother-in-law decamped from her native Ayrshire to Oxford, where she took a job in the university’s nuclear physics lab and brought up the girls alone. Her husband died very young, and I never met him.
As for my own memories, how can I describe my mother-in-law to readers who didn’t know her?
Well, physically she bore a truly striking resemblance to the actress Angela Lansbury — famous, among many other roles, for playing Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the film The Mirror Crack’d. So much did she look like her, indeed, that I often thought they could have been identical twins.
Though endlessly tolerant and forgiving of her wayward daughters, she was a devout Roman Catholic who disliked foul language and, like many of her generation, was very uncomfortable with sex scenes on television.
I vividly remember squirming with embarrassment, when she stayed with us to help out after the births of each our four sons, as every programme we watched together seemed to be thick with expletives and steamy lovemaking.
I recall thinking that if I switched off the set, or turned to another channel, she would have felt even more uneasy, knowing that I would be doing it on her account. What is a poor son-in-law to do?
Where matters sexual were concerned, she preserved her innocence to the last. On one famous occasion, she was baffled by the laughter that greeted her announcement that she was off to the hairdressers for a ‘wash and blow **b’ (naturally, she meant a blow-dry). To be fair, though, she laughed uproariously when it was explained to her.
But my most lasting memory will be of her radiant, electric smile — a smile inherited by all of her daughters — as she presided over gatherings of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In the years I knew her, she was a permanently benevolent presence, rejoicing in the modest pleasures of her faith, the Daily Telegraph crossword, the occasional treat of her strange favourite tipple, gin and ginger ale — and above all, the family she loved and who loved her.
A long life, then, and I like to think on the whole, a very happy one. As my wife says, we were just lucky to have her for so very long.
All of which brings me at last to the point I wish to make this week. For I reckon it’s deeply misleading of the BBC and others to reel off the daily Covid death figures, without putting them in the context of how old these people were at the time of their deaths.
The fact is that when I last saw my mother-in-law in hospital, three weeks before she died and a fortnight before she developed Covid, I knew at a glance that she was well on her way out.
She was painfully thin, tired, and only intermittently lucid. Though she was delighted to see her youngest daughter, she also made clear that she’d like to be left to sleep.
I got the firm impression that she realised her time was up. She’d had enough — and I knew that this was the last time I’d see her alive.
True, Covid may possibly have shortened her life by a few days. But then a mild cold, or another fall, would almost certainly have had the same effect.
Like so many of the very old, who appear as numbers in the daily Covid death toll, she would have died very soon anyway — with or without Covid. One day, after all, we’re all going to die of something.
Wouldn’t those daily figures be less alarming if the broadcasters made clear that so many of those who die after testing positive have already outlived the average lifespan — in my mother-in-law’s case, by around 17 years?
Meanwhile, shouldn’t we worry more about the Covid-free peripheral casualties of the pandemic, whose time in normal circumstances would not have come?
I’m thinking of the breast cancer victims in their 40s and 50s, and others condemned to die because measures intended to deal with the pandemic have meant their tumours have gone undiagnosed.
Yes, every death of our near and dear is extremely upsetting, no matter when it happens.
And it’s very sad that the joyful celebrations my wife and her sisters were planning for their mother’s centenary next year will now come to nothing.
But let’s face it, the death of a much-loved nonagenarian, blessed with a firm faith in everlasting life after the grave, is not nearly as traumatic as a life cut down in its prime.
Though my dear mother-in-law may have tested positive for Covid, I reckon it would be more accurate to say simply that she died of old age. God rest her soul, and let light perpetual shine upon her.
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