How to say goodbye
3 Febuary 2003
How do you write emotions on paper? Even worse, how do you put them on a screen, when each typed character comes out identical, whether you're hammering the keys in frustration or crying into your monitor? Whatever you do, it all comes out flat, like Stephen Hawking doing a dramatic reading.
I was trying to write about the last time I saw my grandfather alive, the physical and mental sensations I encountered; but for something so absolutely massive at the time, putting everything together just seems so damned trivial. All the details that went to making it what it was, all the turmoil of the days following; when it appears in black and white on a crappy monitor, you just wonder yourself why it felt like it did - and you can be sure it won't mean a thing to anyone else reading it. I know there's something to be said for understatement and for bathos as literary devices blah blah blah, but that doesn't make it worth five minutes of anyone's time.
So what can I say about it that has any real substance? No words can convey seeing his almost total decline, from the lithe, tanned Desert Rat of his war photos, standing monochrome in the sea holding a jellyfish aloft in triumph, through the playful sixty-something who'd do anything (including terrifying his wife with slow-worms on the lounge rug) to amuse his grandchildren, to this empty shell. It was always not knowing what to expect - whether you'd be recognised, or even have your presence acknowledged - that was the terrible thing, and knowing it must have been twice as heartbreaking for my mother, his daughter. Like the time he sat and stared right past us, oblivious to anything and anyone around him; and then the golden labrador walked in and had his undivided attention for the rest of our time there.
But back to that last time. For some reason I did know it was the last time I'd ever see him alive. Nothing rational told me why, he was on marginally better form than he'd been for a while - but there was just a sense of finality about the whole occasion. Maybe it was something to do with the fact that it was a Sunday, that I was home from school for those precious few hours and rather than going straight into roast dinner and firing up my old Spectrum, we headed across to the home, five minutes by bike from our house. Some people suggested he'd just given up: he'd been slowly slipping away since my grandmother died, and there was a feeling that once he'd seen me get the scholarship and my sister on her way to university, there wasn't a hell of a lot left for him to hold on for. Whatever.
There wasn't much in those goodbyes that day. I think it sunk in slowly for the rest of the afternoon, into the evening, through the night. It didn't help that the evening chapel service featured a sermon where the preacher was spouting platitudes about death not being the end, and I just thought - yes it is. It didn't matter what he believed about an afterlife, I just knew I wasn't seeing him again. I seem to remember struggling through the last couple of hymns and calling it a night.
So, the postscript. It was about the middle of that week that my housemaster caught up with me as we were leaving lunch, asking me to go to his office after the final class at 4pm. I had my suspicions, as you would, but it seemed a strange way to put it, so I took a couple of report cards I needed him to sign as well.
It was when I saw my mother there in with him that I knew for sure, but it wasn't a shock, and I remember walking round the grounds with her in brilliant sunlight for half an hour and not crying until she'd gone home. I don't know if I was doing it so she wouldn't get upset, or because I wanted to show that I was grown up and could look after myself; all I know is that after that, I managed to hold it together right up to the funeral, even when the coffin arrived and I saw all his old friends, right up to the one point where I heard my mother and sister crying loudly next to me. Then it just got embarrassing; just like it's embarrassing now, to be sat in front of a monitor with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes. It's just not dignified. Thankfully, none of that will come across.