A saccharine, synthetic smell filled the suburban Boston nursing home where my grandmother spent the last two years of her life. It came from the cleaning supplies, though it was so pervasive that I sometimes suspected the staff had it pumped through the ventilation shafts, to mask the scents associated with decayed bodies and men and women slouching towards death.

My grandmother – we called her Maman Farah in the family – lived on the floor reserved for the neediest patients. These included a wheelchair-bound lady in her eighties, who spent her days petting and mock-nursing a baby doll. Another, about the same age, parked her chair by the reception and dozed off while holding a phone to one ear; there was no one on the other end. A tall, kindly looking man with a thin mustache walked about muttering obscenities at an unseen antagonist (“Bitch! I’ll show her!”). As for Maman Farah, Parkinson’s disease imprisoned her in bed, yet she retained her mental faculties. She was thus fully aware of her condition and of time’s slow crawling.

Her decline had been rapid. One day in 2014, I had come home – I was working in London at the time – to find that her left hand convulsed involuntarily every few minutes. “Don’t be alarmed by this,” she tried to reassure me. “Mrs Toni had the same thing, remember?”

Mrs Toni was an Armenian friend of hers in the old country, Iran, who suffered from Parkinson’s but lived independently almost to the end. Alas, my grandmother’s disease was far more aggressive. When I returned a few months later, her nervous system had declared total war against her, and the convulsions had all but debilitated her. Getting her from her bedroom to the bath was a Herculean effort involving me, my mother and my almost 90-year-old grandfather. My mother and I would each grab hold of one of my grandmother’s legs, while my grandfather buttressed her upper body with his own, to prevent her from toppling over.

“Just three more steps,” I would say.

“Your next step is right there,” my mother added.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection