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The emptiness of Father’s Day

18 Jun

Its Father’s Day here in the UK today. All day long my social media feed has filled with messages from doting children talking about how great their fathers are, or how much they miss their dead dads. Friends and relatives closer to my age are celebrating recent births and there’s hardly a bad word to be spoken.

My own relationship with my father is frequently fraught, long-time readers know this already. But it is my own status that leaves me a little torn up as each father’s day passes.

I’m not a father. I haven’t passed on my genes into a miniature person. I’m still very much alone in the world, and while that’s mostly okay, its also a little sad. I’ve been a stepfather, I am a godparent, I am an uncle. But it isn’t the same. Every father’s day I find myself dwelling on the children I didn’t have. Not the decision to not reproduce, but a series of miscarriages between me and partners. I’ve talked very little about this publicly over the years out of a desire to protect myself, and the other people involved. Not all the incidents as it turns out were pregnancies at all, and that has left its own mental scars. But at least one seems to have been an actual foetus that terminated its journey. I’m still reeling from that if I’m honest.

We talk so much (and rightly) about women’s experiences with miscarriages – they are the nurturing vessel that protects the developing child, and the ones with the most intimate bond. But we too often forget that fathers-to-be have a place in the stories too. The knowledge that we created a life that came and went too quick, is overpowering. I wept, wandered confused, completely stricken by the events that unfolded for me. Looking to confide and talk to a partner that was also trying to deal with the situation in her own way. I still wonder what might have come of the relationship and that family unit had events not overtook us. I wonder was that my last chance at bringing a life into the world with someone I actually trusted and cared for, and knew would be a good mother. It wasn’t in the life plan at that stage for either of us, but I am sure we would have made it work.

The only way to keep going seems to be to push it to one side. To bury the feelings that a conversation about it encourages. I’ve had to write off biological fatherhood in my head, as something that simply isn’t for me. The reality is, that after being lied to, to then go through the whole process again with someone who was being open and sincere, I’m not sure I could cope again. One day I guess I’ll have that conversation with the person I need to.

So Father’s Day – the day that reminds me that I’ve failed at being a dad. Meh.

 

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Who am I? (Part 1)

3 Dec

During the annual summer tensions in NI this year a relative asked me why I was so “against [my] own people.” That is, why so critical of the protestant/unionist population that I ostensibly hail from? The answer at its most basic is simply because I don’t feel that the so-called representatives and leaders of unionist, loyalist or protestant people actually do speak for me and my views. The more comprehensive response is probably based in a tortured sense of identity.

A statue of William III in Carrickfergus. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Symbol of protestant resistance in Northern Ireland – a statue of William III in Carrickfergus. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The exposure to ideology I had growing up was almost exclusively protestant/unionist. The rhetoric of ‘Ulster says No’ and ‘1, 2, 3, DUP’. Orange bands on 12th July. My father worked for Bill Henderson, the owner of the Belfast Newsletter and former Ulster Unionist politician. My grandfather’s shop in Derry had been firebombed by the IRA and left a lasting impression on the family. This was the world I knew.

But I was also removed from much of what went on. We lived at the foot of the Craigantlet hills during my formative years in a fairly isolated house. Trips into town weren’t overly frequent, and I only recall a couple of instances of evacuation owing to bomb scares. My bit of East Belfast wasn’t known for its tension.

Once the quiet lane behind our house was on the news as someone was shot in his car. I remember the police coming to the door asking questions, telling him we’d heard nothing then telling mum we’d heard all sorts of things. I’ve no idea if we actually heard the shooting or not.

By the 1990s we had moved into the Garnerville housing estate right beside the RUC training barracks. A mighty wall of green corrugated iron with cameras all round faced our living room. The sound of their band woke us many a Saturday morning. I took it all for granted that this was how things were.

Somebody else was shot in the alleys behind the new house. An internal loyalist affair.

I accepted security checks in shops – the queues outside Debenhams as bags were searched. I didn’t think twice about the presence of soldiers on the streets, or the fact that the police carried guns. They scared me, but I wasn’t a law breaker so I didn’t worry excessively.

At some point in my teenage years my attitude shifted. I questioned the assumed unionism I had been brought up in. I watched nightly news reports of tit-for-tat attacks between Catholics and Protestants and knew none of us were safe. If I was stopped in the street by thugs I was screwed either way. I couldn’t sing any tribal anthems. I felt unsafe watching the bonfires. I didn’t like the hatred of Catholics expressed by many.

My Christian development changed how I thought. I became wary as I devoured Jack Chick publications and attended a Brethren church. Both fountains of intolerance and hate. But I also had a Methodist minister at school. My BB and youth club was at a large pentecostal church. Our Scripture Union group at school was a real mix of backgrounds.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I began working with a peace group – the Horizon Project. A cross-boarder, cross-community group aimed at bringing different young people together. I made friends for life here. I saw an alternative future. We were basically all the same. No thoughts of violence. Plenty of hormones.

I read Augustine. I refused to join the school’s Combined Cadet Force (CCF), a way of preparing school boys for the British military. Instead I ended up head of our Social Services unit, working with disabled kids, elderly folk and the like. I outed myself as a pacifist, a conscientious objector.

I am working class protestant by birth. As a child of the 80s we had the upper hand. The population majority. The majority representation in government. Historically unionism had maintained control through gerrymandering. Internment had targeted republicans almost exclusively, ignoring crimes committed by loyalists. While I couldn’t fault the police chasing bombers and gunmen I still cannot condone the prejudiced persecution of the wider republican community and the comparative lack of pursuit of the loyalist bombers and gunmen.

I am a Northern Irishman. I hold a British passport but I am not British. I am happy to be called Irish because that’s more like what I feel. But given the option (and this should be widely recognised officially) I am Northern Irish. This country is heavily influenced by cultures of Ireland and Britain. Since before partition NI has felt different from either parent nation- but with overlaps. Ideology means many here refuse to accept the impact that that heritage has had on shaping them, how much they carry, to the point where they shout you down when you speak up for that inheritance.

I’m a modern day mudblood. In my veins courses Irish catholic heritage, and Ulster-Scot protestant heritage. I’ve recently taken a DNA test as part of my genealogy research, and I’ll be interested to see what the science says about my family’s make-up. Most of my Scottish line I’ve traced back to Ireland. My grandfather used to joke (at my grandmother’s expense) about her having Spanish forefathers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the results lean very heavily towards an Irish ancestry, with perhaps a little Scottish. I’ll share the results in the new year when they come back. Maybe they’ll suggest something else, but right now I feel it would be disingenuous to disown my Irishness.

We are products of the society we are born into. We don’t make a choice in that – nature does that for us. Most of us inherit the politics and religion of our parents. Some of us will move away from that faith, mostly into atheism, but few will shake their politics. As a nation we need to learn to move past this original sin mentality that keeps us fighting each other, dividing us up into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We cannot keep brow-beating this generation for the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. We cannot treat every republican or unionist as if they are militant with a grudge to spend. We cannot repeat the errors of the past.

Twelfth bonfire, Newtownards. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Twelfth bonfire, Newtownards. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I acknowledge the injustices perpetrated by my perceived community in the past. I understand the feeling of disenfranchisement by the perceived other community. I understand why people on both sides got caught up in militant struggles, defence and retaliation. I understand we are not a healed society. But we cannot continue like that. I’ve heard such anger and bitterness from both protestants and catholics this last year – the fears of the other haven’t gone away, with both firmly believing themselves to be right and the others bitter and vengeful. Its scary to listen to. If only they could hear themselves.

I listen to lines about how the Twelfth celebrations are an example of pageantry and aren’t sectarian. Then I see the bonfires becoming adorned with flags, election posters and other weighted symbols and they become totems of hate once again and I cannot be a part of that. Tribalism and sectarianism only cement division and mistrust. They weaken us. They allow us to be manipulated by those in power. For a Christian order, Orangeism stands out against Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matthew ch5 v44).

I believe in dialogue. Listening. Trying to understand. When someone tells me I’m wrong I’ll listen to their argument, I’ll try and research the areas I’m faulty in. And either I’ll reaffirm my position or it will change. Being able to stand up and say, ‘Yup, I was wrong’ is important. I want to understand, to move forward. I’ll listen to any politics, any religious exchange, and I’ll stand and ask questions of myself and others. Testing one’s faith, one’s understanding, is important. I have broken my own rules, my own prejudices repeatedly, and been happier for it. I’m not betraying my ‘people’ because tribalism is something imposed on us by societies and the xenophobic. I’m being true to myself.

A rose by any other name…

5 Oct

Rose in Winter. Image © Robert JE Simpson.

It’s a matter of public record that I am a divorced man. There’s little escaping that, and I will be reminded of it from time to time in legal matters. But I’m lucky. There’s nothing to tie me to that past, no messy alimony or children or shared property to deal with. And so, I don’t see why that former contract should define my existence.

I don’t get why (at least in my situation) I need to fill in forms or declare myself as ‘divorced’. I’ve had other relationships that lasted longer but they aren’t acknowledged in any way formally, and yet people can look at you a little different when they know you were married. Breaking apart from a long term stable relationship doesn’t carry the same taboos or connotations. Is it because with formerly married couples there is often a baggage of financial and domestic ties? I have friends who were never married but who carry similar experiences, so why this prejudice? 

If asked to define my status I would say ‘single’ because that’s what I am. I might be dating, seeing someone etc, at any given moment, but I’m not quite ready to say this is me in the throws of full-blown relationships. Unless I am, in which case I’d probably make that clear. The mental scars I carry from the past are hardly unique to ex-marrieds. 

One of the problems with relationships is that people do tend to view you purely within the context of that coupling and loose sight of you as an individual. Asserting independence is desperately important. You’re with someone (hopefully) because you like them, because you enjoy those shared experiences, but you have to keep a sense of self that exists outside that coupling. 

Marriage as a convention still places emphasis on the mingling of individuals – fusing them together in a display of patriarchal persistence. It remains the man’s family name that becomes adopted by spouses (in heterosexual marriages) and there is a sense of giving over to that. 

I’m still surprised by the number of strong feminist friends that have bought into this status quo. I wouldn’t want to change my name for a partner, so why should we men demand that our women should?

Regardless of my relationship or marital status I remain me. I carry the name I was given at birth and which identifies me. But for a woman it can be more complicated. Statistically nearly every other marriage ends in divorce. So adopting the name of your betrothed can lead to an association that lasts long after the decoupling, maintaining a psychological and perceived tie that is potentially harmful. 

I can just about understand why partners of some celebrities have kept their married names – it gives them a weird celebrity status by proxy and can ensure a career in the media (Angie Bowie for example – a woman from whom husband and son both have distanced themselves).

Beyond the marriage it might suggest a stability and dependability that is otherwise undermined by the embracing of a maiden name. Certainly flitting back and forth as relationships come and go could get complicated. It’s for these reason I wouldn’t ask a partner to take on my name. Kids might be different – and I might be more likely to suggest double-barelling and creating a new dynasty with a unique identity.

Names have meaning, and a change of name may indicate a different aspect of personality. Maybe a nom de plume for creative purposes? A way of avoiding unwanted intrusion into one’s private life, or to evade perceptions.

Being the third person in three generations to carry my given name it’s little wonder I cherish my middle names as my personal identity stamp, but to be subsumed into that of another, no thank you.

Ultimately does it matter? One can change one’s name or status as one might an outfit or hair colour but there’s no hiding the person inside. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

A Parting of the Ways – part 1

24 Sep

Parting is such sweet sorrow. Or so Shakespeare says.

Certainly, even with the various warnings we’d had over the last couple of years, I wasn’t quite prepared to part. As I’d gotten to know more about my grandfather’s life, I’d come to know his personality again, and we’d shifted the balance slightly. There were times when I felt he was talking to a friend rather than a grandchild, though that may simply have been because I was finally of an age he could relate openly to. Or perhaps it was because I was paying close attention to everything he said to me, jotting down facts and interesting points for further exploration.

When it came to it, I didn’t say goodbye while he was alive. I couldn’t, it just seemed so absolute that to do so would have been drawing a firm line under his life. When we visited at home, we always assured him we’d be back to see him soon, to which he would remind us in that mid-Antrim brogue of his “The door’s ae open”. In hospital, I simply told him I’d be back shortly.

Once he’d passed I tried talking to him, but it seemed strange. I’ve talked to myself since childhood, so that isn’t particularly new for me, but the absence of his spirit was so pronounced it felt more like talking into a vacuum.

From death, the actual goodbyes become symbolic. Its important to make sure one gets a proper goodbye in person – on the phone, or face to face. My own proper goodbye came a few weeks earlier, in person. It felt like a parting then, and history proved it to be so. But for the wider circle of family and friends we must come together to see them off together.

In talking about these personal experiences at all, I’m aware there are those that will regard it as a somewhat dubious task to undertake. For me, this is a way of processing my grief – the scale of which I’ve not previously encountered. He is the first close family member I have lost in my 33 years. I’m an adult dealing with something many first do in childhood. There is much that I’m choosing to keep private, but others may be going through similar experiences and may find a comfort here. I guess that’s the hope at any rate.

The funeral is for most people a public affair. One doesn’t have a guest list in the way that one does at a wedding. A book of condolence on display at the funeral home records many of those in attendance, but that isn’t surveyed until after the fact. Anybody could walk in and claim knowledge of the deceased, or a close family member, and it wouldn’t be questioned.

But it is also something of an exclusive occasion. Only the handfuls present really fathom what has gone on, and it isn’t that unusual to find attendance dwindles as the deceased gets older. We were fortunate in that a number of individuals made the trip out of respect and to show support to my grandmother, uncles and other family members. Granda seemed to strike a chord with many of those he met, even briefly. Some arrived after many years apart. All were welcome.

We’d talked about the funeral before he died. I’d tried talking about arrangements and so on in years past, but he acted as though as I was writing him off before his time. As I explained, if he had certain wishes it would be sensible to make them known and put them down on paper so we did the right thing. In the end, we had to question him in hospital and were able to ascertain one thing – his intention to be buried in the family plot in Portglenone.

I’ve always wondered what happens when someone dies. It seems a lot can be left to the funeral director. This takes much of the pressure off the family, who are in many cases novices to the whole dying business.

Once I’d had time to accept the events of the morning, I made a call to the 24 hour number for the funeral parlour so details could start being defined. As a family, we discussed and negotiated with the Derry-based funeral director just hours after Granda passed. They were efficient and friendly, and put us at ease. Only minor problems were posed while taking into account the various views of the family – with a series of compromises facilitated. Timings, locations, rough order of service and choice of coffin were all finalised. The only thing that I never heard mention was the cost of it all – a week after we buried him, I have no real idea how much the process has cost his estate. And we were relatively modest.

The first goodbye came in the form of the death notice. A formal announcement to the citizens of NI that Robert/Bob/Hubert had passed and the arrangements for the funeral and burial. He’d have appreciated his notice appearing in the Newsletter on the Monday alongside the notices for Ian Paisley. Both were mid-Antrim men in their 80s. Paisley had died on the Friday, Granda on the Sunday. Paisley celebrated his birthday the day before Granda (although was three years older). [I’ve often wondered if Paisley encountered the evangelistic preachers in my own family before he started his ministry – something I’ll never know for sure.] The death notice is simple, detailing children and their spouses, grand-children, great-grand-children as being principle mourners. You could do it yourself, though the Funeral Director will add this to his tasks.

Most newspapers will publish their death notices online too. We were asked if we wanted an online memorial page, but that wasn’t Granda’s scene at all – I’m not sure he ever went online, though he did Skype on occasion. I suppose when I go, someone might write something vaguely complimentary on my Facebook page. And other people will lie about their connection to me, and yet more will tell you I was an utter shit. But that’s how people remember the deceased. One doesn’t take that into account when planning a funeral.

The Funeral Directors also pick up the body from the hospital and prepare it for viewing. We elected not to have him at home for various reasons. Instead he rested in an ante-room at the funeral parlour where pre-arranged friends and family could visit. I called twice – on the Monday and then on the morning of the funeral. Seeing the body at rest in the coffin one is struck by the absence of self. The energy that existed around him while he was alive – even when dying – is now utterly absent. Unlike some bodies, I thought he looked more like himself than he had down for quite a while, but ultimately he wasn’t there.

Attitudes towards whether one should touch or even kiss the deceased vary between individuals. I can’t say what the best response is – those who don’t sometimes regret not making a final contact, and some that do are haunted by the change. For me, the certainty of absence has been affirmed by the stone-cold touch of the body in repose. I can understand where the detachment can sink in. How can I love this shell, when the man is no longer present? It may look like him, but this is no longer my grandfather. I didn’t want to embrace him, hold him, talk to him, because he no longer existed, just the shell he inhabited. There were no farewells here.

The main goodbye is the funeral itself…

to be continued….

My Future Family?

21 Sep
Baby on Scales - image from Flickr commons

Baby on Scales – image from Flickr commons

I’ve been thinking about kids again recently – probably due to the recent arrival of my niece. I now have one of each – a niece and a nephew, and with that there is a strange sort of completion in the family unit.

I’m fast approaching my mid-30s, and the eldest of the family, and yet its my younger siblings who are responsible for the next generation. Life of course doesn’t follow strict rules of chronology. This first born son of a first born son of a first born son has no offspring of his own. And finding myself resolutely single, I’m quite content with that fact.

There was a time, perhaps, in my teenage years, where I assumed the thing to do would be to settle down, marry and have kids, just like my parents did, and all before I reached 25. But as time grew on, real life interactions bring about a rethink.

I wouldn’t even blame it on bad relationships, because while not meeting the right person to have a family with is no doubt part of it (or not the right person at the right time), other things – education, work etc. – also play a part.

I’m sure many of us looking to our next event birthday as 40 (still some way off thank goodness, but a scary prospect all the same) begin to panic about a seeming lack of direction. No steady job, excessive debt, no partner, no children, no hope?! And as friends start to pair off, settle down, buy houses and have families one begins to feel left out. On the shelf. Alone.

Curiously while most of my male friends and relatives have settled down, I have acquired a select few female friends who find themselves in a similar boat to me. They’re all in their early to mid 30s, unattached, and unburdened. It is reassuring for the moment, at least until they too start to find new partners and families (yes, I’m assuming they’ll do it before me) and then like my male friends, we end up speaking maybe twice a year – at children’s birthday parties which I’m tokenistically invited to, only to feel awkward in the corner.

Do I sound prematurely jealous? Perhaps. Somewhat selfishly I appreciate being part of a wee club – bucking the tribal trends that dictate our domestic existence. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects which I can appreciate and to some extent aspire towards. There remains a misconception in our society that children equals happiness. While I have no doubt for some individuals that is the case, I’ve witnessed too many couples for whom children have aggravated relationship sores, leaving wounds open to further infection.

Being a man I’m aware that I have considerably longer than women (in theory) in which to reproduce – providing of course I can find a suitable female willing to take on the task with me. But as I get older, finding a suitable other will prove more difficult. With the advances in our technology I’m assuming children are an option for me at least for another decade, after which I’ll be on the way to 50 and less willing to take on such a task.

In the meantime I can rebuild my life after the mistakes and emotional turmoil of the last few years, and maybe even do some of the things I’d always talked about doing. If somewhere along the way I find myself acquiring a girlfriend then I might consider settling down and building a family, but it isn’t a priority.

As the family genealogist I’m very aware of the various genetic lines and the constant cycle of reproduction that is human existence; that position also leaves me feeling slightly guilty that my own branch of the family tree looks set (at present) to come to a stop. Is that an ironic state of affairs?

My life would have been very different if I’d had children by now I’m sure – I look at my siblings and friends with some slight envy as they embrace parenthood and bring up their own tiny terrors. I sit down and I play with their kids, feed them, put them to bed and chill, and a little part of me is in awe at their existence. But I don’t envy the responsibility, the commitment, the unending protectiveness. I can’t see that it would have been a viable option for me in the past, and as far as I am able to control it I refuse to reproduce simply for the sake of it.

That is of course the real risk as we get older. The body clock starts ticking, and as we find ourselves in a shrinking minority we panic. We make ourselves parents through some brief encounter that fizzles out either just before or soon after the birth, satisfying the ‘family’ need in a lacklustre manner. Or we make the decision and settle down in a mundane relationship with a partner we sort of care about a bit, but would rather not have bothered with. We form families because we feel we have to.

Maybe that’ll be me in ten years. Tired of being alone I find someone in a similar situation and we make a pact to end our respective solitude and form a relationship – warm but not sizzling – and build a safe family. When all is said and done, that does sound slightly more appealing than spending the rest of my days in isolation.

Grieving

20 Sep

I’m not exactly a stranger to death. I recall the funeral for my great-grandmother Sarah (Sadie) Simpson back in August 1992. She’d made it to 91, and while I was fairly young (11), I felt a loss at her passing. We were too late, and probably too small, to be allowed inside to see her body, which left a strange sensation of something unfinished that took years to shake off.

Around the same time a young friend of mine called David, who I knew from the Boys Brigade, died suddenly of a heart condition. While I we weren’t bosom buddies, I looked forward to chatting with him on Wednesday nights up in Glenmachan, and I cried a little at his funeral, packed with friends and loved ones. A year or two later and another David died, this one a boy in my 3rd year class. I was one of the contingent of school mates that went to the funeral, though I had barely gotten to know him at the time. I was upset, but not as much as his proper friends who I recall being in floods of tears at the funeral. All in all it was very strange.

But it has taken until now for me to feel a personal tragedy so close to home, the demise of someone I didn’t just know a little, or admire, but one who I can say with all honesty I loved unconditionally.

Two years ago when it was first suggested that granda had cancer, we were told the doctors wanted to speak to the family. Naturally we assumed that the prognosis was probably only going to be a couple of months at best. I phoned round my brothers and sister with the information and the recommendation that we make our goodbye visits as soon as possible. Those phonecalls were incredibly difficult and I could scarcely hold back the tears as I talked.

But he pulled through, came home, and details on prognosis were sketchy. We’d effectively said our goodbyes, so each and every visit and conversation subsequently was a bonus. Further hospital stays occurred, and at home he grew gradually bed-bound. Always talking about getting up and doing something, but not able to act upon those words.

The second week of September has been the emotionally fraught in my entire life to date. Aware that things had taken a turn for the worst, already prepped for the news, once we were given a prognosis in the hospital all manner of emotions took over.

Sitting in the hospital room with him was difficult. Without the least bit of warning my eyes filled with water which seeped across my cheeks without any hesitation.

The emotional minefield that is death is something which I hadn’t really anticipated. Seeing someone you know and care about before you, knowing that your time with them is limited in days or hours (and eventually minutes), shakes you to the core. One drifts off on a tumultuous sea of conflicting thoughts. Happy stories and memories clash with the imminent ending of a life, promise clashes with finality, regrets and sorry lift their bold head high. One must try and savour every moment left while dealing with the build up of sadness.

People talk about grief in the wake of a death, but what doesn’t get mentioned is the pre-grief. The sorry one has while the person lives. While one still feels as if they should have the power to act, to make changes, to say things.

I wandered around the corridors of Altnagelvin hospital in the middle of the night, sustained on vending machine coffee. In something of a daze, I stumbled blindly into the cold outside air. I tried to stifle my sobs, not quite ready to let go completely. How can one weep when the person one weeps for remains alive?

Once again I made the phonecalls. Only this time they were daily, if not multiple times each day. Keeping the close knit family aware of developments as the day grew into an unexpected week. Glad for each additional moment with him, and yet aware that we were well into borrowed time.

I’m not convinced we human beings are prepared for death. Even with advance warning of the inevitable it still comes as a shock. There is endless talk of regret, sorrow, abandoned conversation. We can’t just flick a switch and move from “person alive” to “person not alive” in our understanding. Seeing them in pain brings us frustration, anger, sorrow. But seeing them peaceful arouses similar sensations. We cry for their presence. We mourn their departure.

I’m still going through the process now. The last few days have been a little easier. Possibly a disconnect caused by seeing his body. I didn’t feel his presence there in the side room at the funeral home, and so I cannot connect it to him as a person – even though the figure in the coffin looks like him. But there have been moments, bits of conversations, images, which have stirred the emotions once more. I’m looking at photographs and cannot fathom there being no more to come. Perhaps it is the continued presence of my grandmother that makes it okay. I’ve seen her without him before, so it doesn’t totally register yet.

I don’t think anyone goes through this sort of thing and not feel something. I continue to reach out for an embrace, a comforter to help me through. Someone to listen to my stories, my memories, my grief.

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.