There has been too much death this past year. As I write this, 111,264 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK alone. Whilst grieving for lost family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, or fearing for the loss of our loved ones, we have been forced to face our own mortality. For most of us, there is a realisation that life is a precious and fragile gift. We do not know how long we have. We must make the most of every moment, appreciate even the mundane or simple stuff. Striving for success or wealth or recognition is maybe not as important as we once thought. Some of us have been made to reconsider how we live our lives, whether we are in the place or the relationship or the job we want to be in. Others of us have reconnected with nature, the environment and community. We’ve remembered what we are here for, that we are part of the world and every living thing in it, not separate or special.
The virus, and the terror at possibly losing someone close, has made me think about how much I love my family and their importance to me. It has brought back memories from my childhood – occasions spent with my brother, Mum, Dad, cousins, Nanna and Grandad. Watching the film, The Dig, made me sob at the soft Suffolk accents, like those of my grandparents. Living in Wales, I rarely hear ‘silly Suffolk’ now. The sad news of Captain Tom’s death particularly made me remember special times with my Grandad, and his death over thirty years ago. Happy memories and upsetting memories.
My Grandad was a gentle man. A little ‘hen-pecked’, as they used to say, by my Nanna’s sharp tongue. He was an animal lover. His father had kept a donkey and cart. He grew up helping to care for the donkey and often talked of how he missed it. After he retired from working in a factory, he became a pigman. I loved the smell of him when he returned home from tending his pigs but Nanna used to shout, “Jack, get your overalls off!” at the back door. When I visited, he liked me to ‘do his hair’. I would stand behind his upright armchair and rub Brylcreem through the few grey strands around the side of his head with my fingers, brush the hair until it looked glossy with his special wooden, handle-free hairbrush, polish his bald pate with a little of the cream on a handkerchief, then take a long hard sniff of the warm, scented skin on the top of his head.
Sometimes, we would sing. He taught me the old songs – Roll Out the Barrel, Knees up Mother Brown, Show Me the Way to Go Home, The Pub with No Beer and, my absolute favourite, My Old Man’s a Dustman. Sometimes, he would tell me stories from when he was a boy, out delivering in the cart with his Dad, vegetables from their garden for the local people. Or other times, stories from the war when his factory started making munitions and he had a reserved occupation due to the skills he had operating complicated machinery. Nanna worked there too. He became an Air Raid Warden and was kept busy because my grandparents lived near Ipswich Airport (sadly now replaced with a housing estate) and there were plenty of US air bases in Suffolk which were often bombed. I had two favourite stories, one funny, one terrifying. The funny one was the time when my Grandad and Nanna were cycling home from the factory when the air raid siren went off. Nanna let out a scream, jumped off her bike, threw it towards Grandad then belted off down the road to the house. For some reason, she thought she could run faster than she could pedal! The terrifying story was when the air raid siren went whilst Grandad was gardening. He called to Nanna to come to their Anderson shelter and she got to the backdoor with baby Uncle Jack in her arms, as a German plane swooped in from the direction of the airport. Grandad said he must have released his bombs, as he could hear an explosion over the rooftops, then miscalculated as he turned his plane. He flew so low, the wings nearly touched the house and managed to steer upwards just in time to avoid a collision. Nanna said she could see the pilot’s frightened face looking at her from the cockpit as she comforted her bawling baby.
In my late teens, Grandad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For some while, there had been signs that something wasn’t quite right. We noticed a slight tremor in Grandad’s hands, a tapping of teacup on saucer, the sweet brown liquid escaping, a telling off from Nanna for spillages. Grandad became slower. He shuffled in his slippers over the carpet. Sometimes, he got stuck, frozen and rigid rising from his chair. Once diagnosed, Grandad quickly worsened. His speech slurred or he stammered or he whispered breathily. He began to be stuck more often. He started being vacant, staring into space and seeing things that were not there, people and conversations from his past. Sometimes he would join in and talk about things that had happened years before as if he were in that moment. Grandad lost himself. Then came the dizziness and falls. When home from university, I visited Grandad to find him black and blue. We still sang together though and he remembered all the words.
At the end of my first year at university, enjoying a restful summer holiday in my parent’s sunny back garden, we got a phone call. Grandad had fallen down the stairs. He was in intensive care and things did not look good. Mum, Dad and me rushed to the hospital. We arrived to find Grandad in a coma. Apparently, he had died in the emergency room but been brought back to life by the doctors. I understood that was their job, but looking at my Grandad, face blackened with bruises, tubed up, heart and vital organs monitored in that white antiseptic room, I wondered why. Why had they brought him back to this? Why hadn’t they let him go in quiet dignity? His body was broken and suffering. His mind was wandering and confused and now retreated deep into himself. Seeing him lying there, I wanted to shout out in angry misery but I choked down the enormous painful lump in my throat. Mum and Nanna needed me.
The hospital staff said they were not sure Grandad would make it through the night, so Nanna could stay in a special flat for relatives if she wanted to. It would save her having to rush back if anything changed. I agreed to keep her company. She looked so small, her face pale and afraid. It hit me then how much she loved him, although she had often appeared cross with him. Dad offered to bring us the things we needed for the night. The flat had a kitchen area, a bed and a small shower room off. The staff had made me a put-up bed on the floor. Nanna fussed with her nightdress and toiletries then sat down on the only chair. She looked spent. I made us tea. We didn’t feel like food. Nanna talked anxiously about whether Grandad would be all right. I didn’t know what to say but tried to reassure. I felt sick with anxiety and was glad when Nanna suggested we got to bed. I lay awake with worry. Nanna managed to sleep, I supposed it was her age. Soon she was snoring and I resigned myself to a restless night. For a while, I wept silently for my Grandad, for his sweet-smelling head and gentle singing. Then, in the way that tragedy can often become comedy, Nanna began to break wind, probably due to the stress of the day. Suddenly, I found myself giggling as each fart erupted. I think it was some sort of hysteria. I bit my lips and dug my nails into my palms to stop myself.
Grandad made it through the night. The rest of the summer was spent visiting the hospital with Mum. We sat with Grandad. Day by day, his situation was unchanging. The staff said we must talk to him, and keep chatting amongst ourselves too, as he could hear everything. It was difficult, thinking of things to say when we were bereft. Sometimes, to fill the silences, we put the radio or TV on. The nurses came in and out doing their checks and care routines. We ate dreadful canteen food with little appetite, washing it down with cups of tea. With nothing to say, I began to sing to Grandad, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. Roll Out the Barrel, Show Me the Way to Go Home and My Old Man’s a Dustman. With that one, I noticed a flicker of the eyelids. I looked at Mum. She hadn’t noticed. Not wanting to raise her hopes, I said nothing but sang it again. A small miracle! Grandad’s lips began to move. He was mouthing the words. I leant near his face and kept singing. I could hear his breathy whispering – ‘He wears cor-blimey trousers’. Tears trickled down my face, “Mum, get the nurse.”
After that, the whole family sang with Grandad every day. He slowly woke up. One morning when we visited, he was sitting up in bed. It was a shock. He was awake but a shadow of himself. A ghost of Grandad. An empty shell. He did not know us. He looked around blankly. He didn’t really speak again. A few words. But Grandad never came back. In many ways, the following weeks were worse. He moved to a ward. He remained in bed. He was fed, bathed, given drinks through a straw. He developed bed sores and a nasty case of thrush in his mouth. Everyone was celebratory – he was getting better – but I was relieved when I had to return to university. Guiltily, I wished I had never woken him with a song.
A couple of weeks after I left, I got a phone call at my bedsit. Grandad was dead. It was terribly sad. It was also a huge relief. For me, Grandad died when he fell down the stairs. His prolonged stay in hospital had not been living at all. I went home for the funeral and cremation. Poor Nanna, alone after fifty-three years of marriage. We buried his ashes in a garden of remembrance. I bought a small statue of a pig to put next to the small plaque to remember him by. Grandad loved his pigs.