On 26th April 2007, my Granddad died. It was not a shock or surprise – I’d been visiting him in various hospital wards on and off since the October before, when he turned yellow and they said he was dying. My Granddad was 87. The death of an old man, I am told, is not a tragedy… and yet here I am, in one of a string of Starbucks branches in my life, on 14th November 2009, trying not to cry about it.
Whatever is about to follow, it is not sane or sensible like CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I make no remark or comment upon religion or the possibility of God. I know what I hope for (rather than necessarily believe) and to be honest, it doesn’t matter. The grief does not reduce if I say ‘I believe in God’ and does not dissolve if I believe I shall be reunited with any of my lost people in Heaven. The grief itself is what it is, and no spirituality has particularly lessened it so far, so I discount it from this ramble.
I feel that I am well-used to grief in its forms. I have to be, listening to the music I do. Just yesterday someone asked if I was ever going to find someone alive to listen to. “Find me someone good,” I replied.
The deep, lasting grief I have for my departed heroes is nothing to this. As ever, all sorts of little things have conspired to get me to this point. It was Remembrance Day on Thursday and all I could think of was my Granddad (who survived) and all his friends of the time (who didn’t). He carried the physical and mental scars of the Second World War for the rest of his life, and not for the first time I mused that in fact, nobody exactly survived the War so much as didn’t die right away.
It’s also his birthday on Monday. He’d be 90. I got the day off to go see him, but my dad asked me to go with him tomorrow (Sunday) and I’m not so set on it that I’d say no to him, right? To add to that, it’s the Lord Mayor’s Show today (right now, in fact). When I was a child, I always used to ask my dad to come up for it from our home in Suburbia. He didn’t always say yes. Truth to tell, I don’t give a rat’s arse about the Lord Mayor’s Show, but I knew then that if we were to go to the Show, we’d go to Granddad’s. The Lord Mayor’s Coach used to be prepared at the brewery where my Granddad worked… the Lord Mayor’s Show to me, is all about Granddad. For the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many-years, I have come outside into the rain to see the Show. Certainly, it’s the first time since he died that I’ve come out for it. We’re not talking about a great deal of effort – I live what, five minutes away from the parade route? Like I say, coming to the Show was always about coming to Granddad.
Most of you know that I now live in the flat that was his home for 25 years. For the last two of those, he had a noisy, messy flatmate who didn’t wash up properly and insisted on watching old movies all the time. Those days were probably some of the happiest I’ll ever know. I had a deep old trough of depression partway through it, but I don’t think (rather, I hope) it didn’t show to him. It wasn’t owt to do with him. I now regret, deeply, spending as much time on the computer as I did, or going back to Suburbia to the parentals as much as I did. I want to claw back every single second not spent in his company. I want doesn’t get, as I have learned bitterly before. The truly terrible thing about death is that finality – there’s no going back, no correction of mistakes, no redressing of balances. There is nothing now that can be done to atone for my shortcomings towards him and that leaves me bitterly, desperately ashamed.
Ah. The Show has passed by this way now, and Starbucks is now full of damp people requiring warm drinks and searching for seats. I am dry and drinking ice at a window table. In spite of wanting to cry, I am a little smug. A lot smug and planning to visit the Bank of England Museum soon…
I’m getting off the point, which is simple: It once more occurs to me that grief doesn’t die. It just changes, or we change.
One More Recent Granddad Moment: I was just talking to someone at work on Friday about random things – she sold me my signed copy of Top Priority by Rory Gallagher – and we got onto the subject of the record store that used to be on *Redacted* Street, where I live. And she said ‘oh, my bloke used to work at the brewery’. Well, you could’ve stopped my heart right there. I asked when that was. The right period of time to have known my old man, it turns out. I mentioned his name to her and asked if she might see if her fellow might remember my Granddad. I hope he does. How unexpectedly the world can twist and turn. Also yesterday, I got into a conversation with my friend at work, Phil, about the year my Granddad died. He said, unsolicited, that I seemed to cope with it all pretty well, especially for one of my tender years. I disagreed, so he said that it seemed that way. I admitted to him that I hardly remember chunks of that time. There’s about six months’ worth of stuff just missing. I mean, I just existed. I know theoretically that I watched M*A*S*H constantly. I could even look on Blockbuster.co.uk and tell you what DVDs I rented. I could read back on this blog for those times… but I don’t really remember a lot of it. The bits I do remember don’t always reflect much credit on me.
Lewis talked about the ‘invisible blanket’ between the world and himself in the second paragraph of A Grief Observed. Two pages later, he speaks of the laziness of grief. These two are my familiar friends. I was lazy enough to begin with, but in those days I hardly moved around at all. Everything felt like an effort hardly worth making. I know it took me months to move into the main bedroom, and even longer to clean out the bathroom cabinets of my Granddad’s stuff – Imperial Leather soap will forever be associated with him – and I still haven’t cleaned out the kitchen drawers properly. I mean, it’s all stuff I probably need, but I haven’t touched it, two and a half years later. Including the boot polish – and I really should polish up some of my shoes and boots… I’m not sure how useful I’ll find the set of darts, but hey ho. The laziness of grief… that old friend which persuaded me to leave everything until tomorrow. Scarlett O’Hara’s motto became my excuse, and I knew even then that actually, tomorrow would be much the same as today. I sat and waited for the tomorrows to pass until another day really did come along.
If my mum hadn’t taken over things and redecorated the living room and the main bedroom (to my specifications, to be fair) in the months following the old man’s deceasement, they’d still all look like they did in March 2007. I wouldn’t have done it. 90% of my possessions are now at home – and this is my home – and the rest is unimportant stuff in my parentals’ attic, but the phone number is still listed as GRANDDAD in my mobile phone. I wouldn’t, incidentally, replace my broken phone until T-Mobile transferred the pictures (of Granddad) onto the new one. Fortunately, my brother works at my parents’ local T-Mobile store and worked really hard to sort it out for me.
Speaking of that younger brother of mine, I also clearly remember now sitting at my Granddad’s side at the hospice. When we realised he had died (it was very slow and gradual. I honestly think me and my brother might have been at lunch when it really happened), it was my brother who hugged me first. He was never as close to the old man as me (who the hell was?) but when it was important, he was there. I don’t even just mean that day – I mean a day a week or so before. It was fucking glorious: one of his last Good Days, me and my dad and Mikey and Granddad sat there laughing, joking and the usual piss-takery that was our schtick. It was glorious and Mikey didn’t have to be there: he chose to be. He’s a good kid when it comes down it. It was a day to remember, man. Maybe that was really our Last Goodbye… one final moment in the sunlight before the dark shadows and clouds closed in on me.
The last week was agony of a sort: the bus from work to the hospice was almost the bright spot, the warm, stuffy hospice, the kind nurses, the uncomfortable chairs, the book of Linda McCartney photographs in the Quiet Room I clung to the second I found my favourite photo of Jim lurking there, the bus back from the hospice home, the quiet of the flat without him in it, the visitors, the rubbish food I didn’t want to eat, the moments I marched into the hospice chapel to beg or berate God at turns. Please, just let him die easy. Why won’t you let him die easy? Take him already, you bastard! The chapel of a religion I had disdained most of my life but which mattered to him, that was quiet and where I didn’t have to put a brave face on or play the perpetual joker for everyone else for awhile. The hurried taxi ride from home early in the morning when the hospice called, the Last Rites administered to him while I was still barely awake, the way he came around to consciousness not long after, how he rallied. The look of surprise on his face when certain people actually turned up. The waiting. Sitting writing my stories but constantly looking up at his face, just in case. The chapel. The pipette I had to give him water because he couldn’t swallow anymore. The rattle. The death rattle that I can still summon in my head and which chills me to the core of my being – whatever that really is. The bus rides. The stories my mum seemed able to finally tell me, good and bad. The exhaustion in my bones reflected in her face. The rattle, the rattle. The book with Jim in it. The text message I sent to my friends afterwards: He is dead. That was all. The soup is hot, the soup is cold. Marc Antony is dead. Taking the batteries out of the clock by his bed, because it reminded me of that moment in Fried Green Tomatoes when Ruth died because I wanted to think of anything besides my Granddad dead in the bed. How I was shuffled into the Quiet Room while they laid him out. Clinging to the book with Jim in it. Jim, it always comes back to Jim. How lucky I was that such a book should be there, waiting for me, as if someone planned it. What a prankster God is – to offer such a sliver of one grief to lessen the effect of another – what a pranking bastard it seems he is. The bus ride home, making fucking tea because that’s what British people do, sitting in his armchair while The Women started going through his stuff. I suddenly can’t remember what tie he was buried in. Being told there was no point having an open coffin so it wasn’t to happen. Being glad I’d gone back into the room after the Laying Out to give him one last cocky salute. The dead yellow face of one of my greatest friends. Listening to Planxty that night because I didn’t want to associate the bands I’ve truly loved with that day. The Lakes of Pontchartrain being described to me as a ‘lament’. Sleeping on the sofa because the Women were there being practical. Trying to go to work the next day and making it all the way to the afternoon before wanting to run away home. Essex Road for flowers. I can’t remember what flowers I got. White roses for Granny, I remember, but I don’t remember for Granddad. Starbucks afterwards, with my glorious and wonderful and capable and most loved Mammy who told me more stories she seemed to be now free to tell but which might’ve been more useful in the years before. I don’t remember the rest. The Women went to register the death, I know. The invisible blanket (and my mother) kept me away from the practicalities. The Crimson Pirate gave me other pain to deflect from the real pain. I remembered clinging to Vanity Fair’s Hollywood at my Granny’s funeral, but would have no such luck this time… how was I to endure? The two minute car journey from home to church which managed to take in sixty odd years’ worth of my granddad’s life. Speeding through a reading at the funeral like I was on the clock. Being back in a catholic church, that one I so vaguely remembered from moments in my early childhood, being two minutes away from home and still desperate to get back so I could burrow under my blanket and watch Errol Flynn movies until it didn’t hurt anymore. The long, familiar journey from home to cemetery where our dead are buried. The hole in Finchley he put his Maria into thirty-five years earlier and into which I then put him. The kind faces of people who cared and who were grieving too. The journey back, the after-show party in which I played the perpetual joker while more people filled mine and Granddad’s home than I remembered ever happening before. The moment when finally, everyone was gone and it was just me. Little Miss Sunshine was finally arrived from Blockbuster – seeing a little girl lose her grandfather on the night I buried mine. Finally being alone. The quiet. Not being prompted to go to bed at one in the morning. Being free, independent and autonomous. No more bus journeys to Hackney. No more warm, stuffy hospices. Free time and being alone.
Sorry, was that almost Joycean in its extended Stream of Consciousness? Won’t happen again.
Grief doesn’t end, it just changes. The invisible blanket has slipped: I no longer sit and just let time pass around me while pretending to watch shit movies that come from Blockbuster. I still waste too much time, but that’s not because of this. I don’t feel the need to cry every time I see photos of him, which is just as well, because they’re all over the place. It is now my home, but it will always be his too. There’s only one place in the entire world that I would leave it for, and that’s forever linked to him too.
It may be that my Granddad was my great love. He was my grandfather, my hero, my best friend and my flatmate. We both liked Dean Martin records and old movies – although to him they weren’t old – and even though we disagreed on Errol Flynn and Peter O’Toole (I was, and remain pro-both, he was anti-both), we agreed on other things. He was an old-fashioned sort of person. He didn’t like the idea of gay marriage, but he didn’t try to stop me having my differing opinion when we saw something about it on TV. He just said ‘I’m sorry, but that’s what I think’. He was old-fashioned but didn’t expect me to be the same. He worried too much, because that’s what our family does.
Seriously, we didn’t generally have conversations, we had a double-act. I was Eric Morecambe, he was Ernie Wise; then I’d be Ernie Wise and he’d be Eric Morecambe. We were both jokers (apparently his dad was the same) and so would have to switch the straight man role occasionally, or surrender to the anarchy of two jokers.
There’s not a person who ever met him that I’ve encountered who didn’t think he was a funny, nice man. Even the guy who came to read the gas and electric meters a few weeks ago remembered him. The people who worked at the medical clinic came to his funeral in their lunch hour and brought flowers. People at the supermarket. The man had a way about him that I can barely hope to aspire to. I don’t for a second claim he was perfect, but he was special, really something special and I don’t think I say so just because he’s my Granddad. This is a man who when he was dying slowly and painfully, just didn’t complain. I mean, he was probably in agony, but I saw men who shared his room dealing worse with less. I don’t know if it was just part of his generation to be like that – he was certainly older than the other patients – or what, but he was stoic and dignified. He remained embarrassed by having to be looked after even when he was dying. He kept joking with the nurses and staff. He said ‘thank you’ when they brought his meals or did anything for him.
Am I in danger of deifying the man at the price of the truth? I don’t know. I saw him and knew him at a specific time in his life. I don’t claim to know everything of him. I’m trying to cling to the truth of it as much as I can, but grief twists things, heightens them. The bad becomes worse, the good becomes better. He is now filtered exclusively through my own point of view, memories and opinions, without the benefit of his presence to challenge or question me. His face blurs a little in my mind, I have to work harder to summon up the sound of his voice, and then largely in select snippets.
Why am I saying any of this? Probably because it’s easier than talking about how it feels now. Most days now, it’s just there lurking, waiting. It emerges at odd times – maybe I’ll see an old man who looks a little like him, or I’ll pass somewhere that has a memory linked to it. Around here, that’s most places. When at the London Metropolitan Archives recently I found a pay ledger for the brewery and he was the first name listed. For some reason, that made me pleased – our surname means that normally we’re at the end of lists! From the same place I bought a copy of a photograph of the corner of our street, where his old house was. I’d never seen it before (it was knocked down when I was a mere baby). Occasionally I end up just staring at the picture, wondering what it was like forty years ago, when bellissima Maria was still here. I walk past the hospital she died in most evenings, and I must be retracing the route he took home from there. I know I am. It takes about three minutes if the traffic lights are with me. Everywhere around me is of the old man, my Granddad. The family history I’ve done so far indicates that my ancestors are all around here. We have been here a long time (the bits that aren’t Irish, of course), my gang. We even pre-date the Industrial Revolution. While most people’s ancestors were still in villages and working in fields, we were already here at the centre of things. I wonder if he felt the same way after his grandparents died, as he walked these same streets. I wonder if he felt the same strange dislocation I occasionally do as I realise how much the streets and buildings have changed even in the short time I’ve been hanging around here – some buildings in the immediate vicinity have been built, rebuilt or redone two or three times in my lifetime. I wonder how he felt, moreover, to return from the war only to find that he was living in one big bomb crater? That’s what it was – I’ve seen the bomb damage maps. To return home after six years of war to find your parish knocked to dust and rubble… that’s a kind of grief I can’t begin to imagine.
I wonder how he felt when his old family home was knocked down and replaced with the flats that are now there? Part of the family had been there since at least 1881… did he feel the same way as I do when I see what is being done to some of the places that mean something to me?
Really the question I’m asking is this: did he feel the same deep grief for his ancestors as I do for mine? He unquestionably had deep and lasting grief as his close companion – you don’t get to 87 without losing people you love – but did he feel the same wrench from his grandparents as I do? I suppose he can’t have done: both his grandfathers died before he was born. Did he have grandmothers who doted on him? I don’t know when Sarah or Alice died, but did he adore them as I adore my much missed Granny and long-gone Maria? Was it just different then?
Did the person I grieve for so deeply feel the same as I have? Would he, if he were here, understand and empathise with me? Would he be one of that group of fellow humans who knows, who has been there and come out the other side? Would he understand how the invisible blanket closed around me? Would the one who caused the pain be able to reduce it, if only he could be here, now? Is that the bitterest truth of this grief business?
I want so badly to sit down with those ancestors of mine and ask them their hopes and dreams. Actually, I just wish I’d plucked up the courage to ask him those things. I never felt that I could ask him deeply personal questions, not because I felt he’d not answer but because I felt somehow that he wouldn’t like answering. It’s not one of those ‘oh it’s not spoken of‘ things, just that I felt it wasn’t in his character to delve deeply into such things – especially not with one’s own granddaughter. I would though, love dearly to know more and the opportunity is lost. There is only one of his siblings left alive, Wonderful Uncle Fred. The opportunity to ask questions is lost, really. I could ask him questions, but again, I wouldn’t want to make him uncomfortable. Wonderful Auntie Margaret always tells me whenever I see her, what a fabulous lady Maria was, probably because she’s concerned that I never knew her and that there are dark things. As if they could make me not love her. Be disappointed? Sure. Not Love Her? No. I’m an Errol Flynn fan – you’d have to work extra hard to make me fall out of love with someone.
I asked even fewer questions of Granny before the arteries in her brain hardened and she could no longer recognise me. I went to the places she grew up in Northern Ireland recently and so dearly wished – wishing again – that she was there with me. More than that, I came to detest more than ever and more personally than ever, the dark stain of violence that prevented me from going there when she could’ve been with us. The so-called ‘Troubles’ robbed me of my legacy, man. Ties were severed with the passage of time, ties that might’ve done me some good. If I close my eyes I can see me, a little child, and my Granny on the beach at Magilligan. There I am, looking scruffy as ever, shouting too loudly and running ahead. There she is, the lady with the handbag, looking immaculately neat as ever, walking at a stately but firm pace. Yes, I can see it so clearly. She’s got one of her self-made hats on her perfect silver hair and that hint of a smile that I got to see more than most people.
I really like walking, you know. I can walk for miles and hours as long as I’ve got the old iPod to provide the background noise. I am my grandmother’s daughter in that respect, although I wasn’t when I was with her – I remember giving up on a walk through Greenwich Park about twenty yards into the bloody park. She must’ve thought I was such a feeble little weakling and I now realise I probably missed out on a really cool afternoon walk through one of the nicest parks in town with my Granny.
All these missed opportunities must surely be part of the grief? The coulda, shoulda stuff that can surely only make a person feel bad but which I keep coming back to just the same. The Big What If that has haunted me for as long as I can remember. What if I did this, what if I didn’t do that, what if I chose differently? Different secondary school, different parents even, in my case. What if Jim lived, what if John lived, what if Philip lived, what if Rory lived? What if I spoke up when I should’ve? What if I shut up when I should’ve? What if this, what if that, what if who, where and when. It seems largely wrapped up in the grief, if only because so much of it revolves around the glorious dead. The Big What If lets them live, if only briefly and theoretically. The Big What If lets me reach out and touch Maria, if only hypothetically. The Big What If puts me at the side of the stage for all those usual suspects. The Big What If puts me on the same streets I know so well, but when they were walked by the ancestors. The Big What If pulls me in every single time because it’s all I have. It’s like trying to build out of Scotch Mist, but it’s all I’ve got for them.
Well, it’s all self-pitying rubbish, isn’t it? It should be terrifying to consider that I feel so badly, so deeply for ‘just’ a grandparent. What should happen to me if it was someone yet closer? The consolation I give myself is that actually: he wasn’t just a grandparent and that it unlikely many people will ever be closer, or so uncomplicatedly, easily loved as he was.
How self-pitying and self-absorbed this is! I haven’t said a word as to how my dad – Granddad’s only son – felt. I don’t know because I didn’t ask. Or how my mummy felt, or my brother, or any number of other people who loved Granddad felt. How selfish and consuming it is to grieve, I think. I didn’t share mine much and so did not try to share anyone else’s. How terribly, arrogantly selfish. How did they feel? How do they continue to feel? Apparently, I care not. I do care, care very deeply, but cannot speak of it because it will bring my own grief back into too sharp a focus. How terribly, arrogantly selfish.
For all the self-pitying self-absorption, I ultimately find the grief almost – almost – comforting. After all, while one is grieving, one cannot forget. So I suppose that if grief is never-ending, so is remembering. That’s a deal I’ll take in the absence of anything better. I would hazard a guess that this is why I keep coming back to Jim and the boys. I can’t let go of them and their music, and so the grief remains. The grief will always remain, but it will continue changing. One day I expect even that it’ll just be there, a little shadow on the back of my soul. Just there, as much a part of me as sarcasm, talking too much and insomnia. One day.