Diminished numbers

19 Sep

I knew I was lucky to have reached the age of 33 and still have all four of my grandparents still with us. Very few of my friends had been as fortunate – most having lost at least one before reaching their teens. But I was also very aware that I was perhaps a little complacent. They’ve been here all my life, and to think of a world without them seems unfathomable.  And now, at last that world has manifest itself.

The Three Robert Simpsons, c. 1983

The three Robert Simpsons, c. 1983

I’m Robert, son of Robert, son of Robert (son of James, who was himself son of another Robert). My grandfather’s birthday is the day before mine. The result being, I’ve always felt a strange closeness to him, even when we hadn’t spoken for a few months. There’s a photograph of me, my father and grandfather outside granda’s shed when I was only a couple of years old, and I’ve always loved it. Three generations sharing the same name. In recent years we took some more photos together – three Roberts as adults, in the same garden (though not quite in the same spot). How wonderful to be able to do that, to chat and laugh with them both, to learn from them and to share my own teachings in turn.

Our numbers are now depleted, and I’ve said goodbye for the last time. My grandfather died just over a week ago, and I still can’t quite believe it. It feels like he’s just left the room for a bit – so much of his clutter still litters the family home. We had our last proper conversation only a few weeks ago, and our last shared words the day before he died. Such was his presence that its hard to let go.

We knew he was ill – the cancer diagnosis was a long time coming, and we could see the physical toll it took on his body these last two years. We’d had a couple of hospital scares already, rushing up to see him on what we thought was his death bed at least twice in 2012, only for him to bounce back, weaker but still fighting. His mother had lived until she was 91 (and I have fond childhood memories of her), and looking through the family tree, we seem to have strong genes. Although we expected the cancer to win eventually, he wasn’t going through chemo or any similar operations and the deterioration was slower and more subtle. When I got the call saying things weren’t looking good, a few days after he’d arrived in hospital, I realised the end was imminent, but still wasn’t prepared.

As I come to terms with the events of last week I expect I’ll have a few thoughts to share over several blogs. Please forgive the personal indulgence. Granda was a humble man who downplayed his life, but he taught me so much, especially in that last week, that I feel compelled to say something publicly.

I’m not normally a superstitious man. But walking home a couple of weeks ago, I spotted something unusual at the bottom of our street – an immaculate green Saab 96. I tweeted about it immediately:

I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t believe myself otherwise. I found myself wondering if it was an ill-omen because I’ve only ever seen a couple on the roads. Seeing one so close to home struck a nerve – it was the exact same model and colour that my grandfather used to drive (the rotting shell of which still exists). Later that evening I was told granda had been taken into hospital following an incident at home.

He’d been in and out of hospital for a while, so with a couple of gigs already in place I didn’t pop up to visit, instead finding a gap in the calendar for later that week. He seemed to be improving, and we expected him home.

Then came the message that all was not good. After a frustrating delay I headed up to Derry/Londonderry with Dad and rushed to his bedside. He was talkative but visibly weak. Weaker than I’d ever seen him before.

During the next few days my cousins and siblings all visited, along with several of granda’s siblings, and old friends and neighbours. We were given a 24 hour prognosis and prepared for the worst. Messages were sent out to various members of the family and urgent returns were arranged.

As the pain increased so too did the cocktail of medication, altered as and when he needed it. The morphine made him incomprehensible for a while, frustrating because his mind was evidently very active, but not necessarily in complete sense. But as time progressed he made sense. Weakened by the cancer his speech reduced. His words more selective, until they became virtually inaudible.

It would have been easy to write him off I guess, but he was still responding. He was able to throw in the odd one-liner and epithet. He managed to jibe me, my dad, and my great-uncle about our weight. He was as cheeky as ever with the nurses. Most humbling, he thanked everyone for their coming to see him, their tiny acts of kindness. His last audible words to me on the Saturday came after I’d been giving him some water, “Thank you, that’s lovely”.

I cried as I’d been doing so relentlessly since the start of the week – always trying not to let him see me doing so. The entire family came together as we’ve never done before, so many embraces and shared tears. We all had the opportunity to hold his hand for hours, providing what little comfort we could through the pain. I kissed him – something I probably haven’t done since childhood. There were all-night vigils with a rotation of family at hand to take care of him and my grandmother.

His humility and humour as the disease took its final kicks last week shall remain with me forever. He remained gentle and courteous to the end.

Around him the family shared stories of happier times, talked about the future, and shared jokes. I have little doubt that there are those who would say that it is disrespectful to laugh around a death bed, but granda always had a wicked black humour, and he responded favourably to our antics. We followed it though to the funeral itself – including one line of dubious taste in my eulogy. I’m sure he’d have approved.

85 is a fantastic age to reach, and yet we wanted more. Selfish I know. Our worlds have now changed forever, and the adjustment must begin. At 33 I have lost my first close family member. I’m still not ready to loose any more. But for the first time I appreciate properly how utterly devastating such losses can be.  There is a break in our family line, a cap unworn beside a chair, a cigar unsmoked. Our numbers are diminished, but the memories remain.

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