Death is fortunately something I’ve not become particularly accustomed to over the years. For all my embittered grumblings, fate has at least smiled upon me to the extent where I’ve not had to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one – the sole exception to this being my grandmother passing when I was four years old.
As undoubtedly a traumatic time for the family as this was, having occurred entirely out of the blue as she was enjoying her mid fifties watching her young grandchildren grow, I myself was at such a tender age whereby somebody departing your life forever remained a concept my then infantile mind simply lacked the capacity to even consider, let alone grapple with. I could see the upset all around yet the gravity still eluded me. Some would perhaps say I was fortunate to have had my shield of childish ignorance but alas, twenty five years later it is with some regret that my memories of Grandma are painfully limited. All that remains are a few hazily recollections, a yearning for a family member I had little chance to know and a lingering memory of the moment I was informed her “batteries had run out”.
It’s fair to say this bubble of naivety remained intact for some time – just under two and a half decades in fact. Not to say heartache has entirely passed me by; I’ve had my fair share of angst, experiencing the many different flavours on offer, but I’d yet to consciously experience that most despairing of sensations – a much cherished loved one departing; suddenly and irrevocably.
That all changed this past weekend when my grandfather died.
I’ve since discovered the existence of a certain curiosity which occurs in the immediate aftermath of an elderly and frail relative finally succumbing to time. While the accompanying sadness is an obvious inevitability, you’d think the shock would be lessened by circumstance. Grandpa, already in hospital after a fall at home had left him with a broken hip, did regrettably bear the look of a man whose time here was drawing to a close. Severely hampered by the stroke he suffered nearly two decades ago and having soldiered on beyond the ninety mark, he’d been hanging on in there for a hell of a long time. However my mental fortifications, with decades of preparation behind them for the eventuality of his death, were immediately and resoundingly breached the moment my mum uttered the words “Grandpa has passed away”. Irrespective of the objective likelihood indicating that such news was increasingly inevitable with each day that ticked by, the shock was none the less palpable – excruciatingly so.
Expected or otherwise, the reality of the situation had been set in stone – he was gone. Having awoken to an admittedly imperfect world, at least it was a world in which the people who meant the most to me were all present and correct; but now there’s a painfully notable absentee and, in the company of my parents, I was on the way to say my final goodbye to him.
It was a good forty minute drive to the hospital, though I find myself being unable to recall a single detail. To the passing observer I likely resembled a man struck dumb by catatonia yet my stupor, as outwardly tranquil as it may have appeared, wasn’t especially representative of the desperation in my mind; lurching from one suddenly bittersweet memory to the next, all the while attempting to scrape together a case for the current predicament somehow all being a figment of my own imagination.
Alas, it was in vain and the grave circumstances remained sadly unchanged; thus ensuring a fear I’d held for nearly twenty years had finally been realised.
It was perhaps unsurprising that I held such worries. His stroke way back in the year 2000 had somewhat fittingly coincided with my own cognitive realisation that, at eleven years old, life was more than just computer games and aimless bike rides. Seeing Grandpa suddenly struck down mid retirement grimly confirmed within my young mind that the onset of tragedy wasn’t just possible, but would inevitably befall people I know; people I cared about.
The change in him was stark and, ultimately, permanent. Gone were the days of him letting me win at cricket for hours on end, punctuating each session with an apparently inexhaustible supply of off the cuff tales detailing his days as England’s top spin bowler – every once in a while slipping in offhand remarks implying that he’d actually invented cricket during the war. This era had, sadly, come to an abrupt end.
As if as a thanks for the endless patience he had afforded myself, the sorest of sore losers, I was fortunately mature enough to adapt to Grandpa’s new needs. There was to be no pestering for him to indulge in the every ridiculous whim of my eternally distracted brain, though this perhaps more down to the lingering sense of heartache I felt whenever I bore witness to his condition than any wisdom beyond my years. Once the effortless raconteur, ready to unleash a hilarity inducing one liner at a moment’s notice, he now found himself confined largely to silence – with nearly all subsequent attempts at conversing tailing off after no more than a couple of strained words in a midst of tears and endless frustration. Severely restricted movement will have been a bitter enough pill to swallow for a man who loved nothing more than a long ramble in the countryside accompanied by his cherished dogs, but it was his inability to communicate that undoubtedly pained him the most. One of the sharpest minds I’d come across was now forever hindered, almost entirely hidden away with nothing but time to originate the most wonderful of zingers that he’d rarely be able to express.
It is this acknowledgement of suffering that mum immediately recognised and seized upon in a bid to soothe my grief:
“He’s at peace now. You know he’s not been happy for a long time, he wanted this.”
She was right, he did. As if the initial stroke hadn’t been crippling enough, a further one had followed – and age had only served to assist with the deterioration. While there was always happiness in his eyes whenever he saw family had come to visit, there was also a sadness present. Having once been the life and soul of each and every Christmas gathering, fate had consigned him to a role of increasing (and indeed, involuntary) passivity. It had gotten to the stage where even the yearly card game was beyond him. Granted he retired the champion, having sat proudly at the head of the table with a tea cosy on his head (a prize inexplicably awarded to the winner, as well as a garment I had little contact with), but as the years had rolled on it was yet another of his few remaining pleasures that time had regrettably taken away.
However, despite recognition that his torment was finally over, it did little to soften the blow of what I was about to witness. Having finally arrived at the hospital and rendezvoused with family already present in the adjoining Costa, it was now time to see Grandpa. For the last time. In any capacity.
I was pretty familiar with the hospital, both from having spent a week there myself some years back and the numerous visits to see my grandparents in recent weeks. You’ll note the plural and it’s not a typo, my grandmother had been in there at the same time with them both suffering separate falls within a day of each other. Accidents aside, her life had also become one of perpetual challenge in recent years, dementia reducing her memory capacity to little more than twenty seconds. Her perception as to where she actually was changed every few minutes, with the only constant line of questioning being to query the whereabouts of Grandpa. This inquiry was often answered with the news that she’d just been taken up to see him no more than ten minutes ago, prompting either dubious acknowledgement or further befuddlement before the scenario was triggered once more moments later. How she’d take the news of Grandpa’s death was beyond anyone, though there was a begrudging acceptance that any pain would be temporary – her memory banks being inadvertently wiped clean within minutes. Perhaps, in this case at least, ignorance would provide some small crumb of comfort.
However she wasn’t present at the hospital at this point. She’d since been moved onto a care home with the round the clock support our family, despite our best efforts, were unable to provide – and Grandpa had been all set to join her. In fact, I was anticipating my next encounter with him to be in somewhat homelier surroundings, albeit distinctly lacking in his favourite armchair. Bidding a final farewell to his lifeless remains wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind.
Yet there I was, stood with both my parents outside an open door desperately trying to maintain some degree of composure. The bed remained cloaked by a dark blue curtain, beyond which lay my grandfather – who I’d been assured was finally at peace. I’d never seen a dead body before and yet beyond that thin veil there was one waiting for me – and it was my Grandpa.
After what seemed like an eternity, a nurse stepped out and motioned for us to enter and say one last farewell.
My dad led the way – he was the son after all – and my mum followed. I was considerably more hesitant, finding myself almost dawdling by way of instinct as opposed to definite intent; though my stupor was immediately shattered by the sound of my father’s reaction. At that point it was now or never; time to say goodbye.
So in I walked, breaking down within seconds in an inevitable deluge of helpless blubbering. It was Grandpa alright, but at the same time it wasn’t. Oh so painfully thin and wrapped up tightly in an obligatory white sheet from the neck down, the brutal reality of what was now most definitely not a bad dream became acutely apparent. His face, while still instantly recognisable as the one which had brought so much joy to my formative years, was now lifeless and bore a complexion not dissimilar to that of a porcelain doll. For the longest time I couldn’t look, instead reduced to sitting in the chair beside his bed with my right hand clinging to his chillingly cold shoulder as the left was attempting in vain to plug the flood of tears.
The nurse had since returned:
“I know this is tough but you’ve got to remember – this isn’t your grandfather. He’s gone now, this is just an empty body. He’s gone to be at peace.”
Admirable intent certainly, but it didn’t especially help. I knew he was gone and that was exactly the problem – I wanted him back here. My dad meanwhile, was now sat in silence, hunched over his father and taking in every last possible moment.
At this moment mum said her goodbyes, thanking him for treating her like a daughter, and urged me to do the same – giving my dad a few moments of precious alone time with his old man.
So I did. Not that I especially knew what to say – anything at that point would have seemed insufficient. Regardless, I picked up whatever fragments of composure I could muster, planted a kiss atop his forehead and managed croaked out how much I’d miss him. All that was left at that juncture was to stumble out the room and slump onto the first chair I could find. That was it – goodbye forever.
The mood in Costa as we rejoined the rest of the family was unsurprisingly sombre. A few smiles were raised as we remembered the good times but these were quickly smothered by a reluctant acceptance of the days events. I don’t remember if I said much; I probably didn’t say anything. I just remained locked in a trance, almost entirely oblivious to the talk of funeral arrangements and how to break the news to my sister who was away with work. These concepts are relatively mundane and an inevitable part of life yet it still didn’t seem real. Perhaps I just didn’t want it to be.
In any event, we said our goodbyes and returned to our respective homes – albeit with one notable stop off along the way: a visit to my grandparents house.
It was only a brief visit. It was even suggested that I perhaps wait in the car for fear of inducing another breakdown, but no – there was one thing I absolutely had to get from that house.
Without word or pause, I made a beeline through the fully furnished yet now unpopulated home to my Grandpa’s study, immediately zeroing in on the object of my desire – a simple photo of my infant self and Grandpa at my aunt’s wedding.
I knew where it was, it had been on that shelf for years and become somewhat faded by sunlight. There was no way I was going to allow it to become lost when the house is inevitably cleared out and sold off. Now it was safely within my possession, it seemed fitting to wait out the visit sat in the back garden, clutching the photo tightly as my gaze drifted across to the patch of grass upon which we’d played cricket all those years before.
My cousins are both considerably younger than me and, as a result, didn’t ever get chance to know Grandpa prior to his stroke. In fact, the oldest once inquired as to why Grandpa could only sit in his chair all day, physically unable to join in with his youthful shenanigans.
My answer to this was always the same and remains unchanged to this day. While he may have appeared quiet and distant through no fault of his own, it never changed what a wonderful grandfather he was to me. Whether it was time spent sat on his knee as I forced him to read me the same train book for the millionth time, or the impromptu tours of the house he’d treat me and my sister to (in which he’d try and pass off a tatty old vase as a priceless Chinese Ming), those memories with remain both forever unblemished and eternally cherished within my mind – and it is perhaps one of my most sincere regrets that neither of my cousins were granted to opportunity to create their own special memories with Grandpa.
I’m just glad I was so lucky.
Goodbye Grandpa, I’ll always miss you.