I never knew my Grandad before his hair went white. I didn’t know him when he smoked and I certainly didn’t know him when he had all his teeth. By the time I was old enough to see and remember him, he was already impossibly old to my small child way of thinking.
He drove an old Ford Escort with child locks. He had a thick rural Norfolk accent made harder to understand because of his missing teeth and tendency to mumble. One year, when he and my Nanny visited in the summer, we had Christmas in the sunshine and he went out to the ice cream van in a paper hat. I can’t have been more than six, because we were living in our old house at the time and we’d moved again not long after.
My Grandad was what poetic folk would probably call irascible. He dared to defy my mother on numerous occasions which gave him hero status, but I was also forever in anticipation of receiving a ding over from him if I misbehaved. A ding over is a punishment of legendary status in my family, and when I was little it seemed a terrible thing to imagine, prompting visions of being turned upside down for hours, when in reality it was a sharp clip on the back of the head. Though I never ever got one, it was always a dark cloud on the horizon; often muttered about but never delivered.
Grandad wasn’t particularly tall, but he had a strong presence and was a very physical person. He worked on a farm before he retired and meal times followed a farmer’s routine: early breakfast, cooked lunch at bang on half past twelve, sandwich tea not long after five. More recently, such regular eating was necessary to help manage my grandparents’ diabetes, but it is the only schedule I have ever known them to have.
Easter, summer, or Christmas, he was there. He played cribbage with my sister, he combed my hair in a way seemingly designed to cause the most possible pain, he made us listen to the Boxing Day football on the radio.
He died today, probably in his sleep, before Nanny and my aunt arrived to visit. Yesterday was his birthday. They brought his cards and read them to him then, unsure if he really knew what was going on. Mine was not amongst them. As usual I’d posted it late, thinking that a day would not make a difference here or there. So my card would have arrived this morning, too late, and my biggest fear is that he died thinking I’d forgotten.
He must have known he was so loved. He must have known, because the more we tried to take care of him the grumpier he got, which is a standard reaction that both my mother and I share. He hated a fuss being made. I spoke to him a few months ago on the phone, for possibly the last time now I come to think about it, discussing my own birthday which falls at the end of June. I said that July was a much better month for a birthday, and he replied with the excited realisation of a child “My birthday is in July!” I know, Grandad, I know…
He didn’t have dementia, but he did have diabetes, two busted knees, minimal kidney function, deafness, a worn out heart and arthritis that meant he lived the last year of his life in Velcro shoes and zip up cardigans, his swollen knuckles leaving him unable to tie laces or fumble with buttons. He drank his daily dose of tea from a plastic mug because he couldn’t get his fingers through the tiny ring of a tea cup, and he was ever more likely to drop it in any case.
The last time I saw him, at Easter this year, I spent an afternoon keeping a tense vigil and pretending I wasn’t, as he slept and dreamt of God knows what, but whatever it was it was making him cry. Hearing my strong, funny, grumpy Grandad crying in his sleep is one of the worst things I have ever experienced. I prayed he wouldn’t die, not then, not right in front of me. He didn’t. He woke up and told me about the piglet that lived with them for a while when he was a boy. It was a runt and they brought it in to get it big and strong. Grandad said it waited for him at the bottom of the stairs every morning and rubbed its face against his legs like a cat.
It was one of many stories that came out on that visit. I think I learned more about him in those four days than I had in the previous twenty-six years. I think we were all pretty desperate to keep him with us. We laughed a lot that week, to counteract the frightened weeping in his nightmares.
We all knew this day was coming. He had been ill and deteriorating for a long time, and he spent most of the time asleep. He wouldn’t go out, not even around the block, because he didn’t want people to see him in a wheelchair or using a walking frame. He was put in a care facility last week, while I was away, because my aunt and uncle didn’t feel capable of looking after him any more and were afraid of hurting him. Part of me wonders that if they’d known he was so close, would they have kept him at home? He and Nanny had barely had a night apart in sixty seven years of marriage. I hate to think of him waking, alone, without her and without a familiar face, without anything to anchor him.
Grandad made me eat ice cream with black fly in it when we were on holiday in Iron Bridge. Grandad took us for walks on the beach. He was loving in a no-nonsense way, and he loved to laugh. He had a twin and another nine siblings besides, and four children of his own. He loved Norwich City FC and he would be appalled to know that last week I was sewing on a Sunday. He probably would also be appalled at us crying about him dying, but he’s just going to have to accept this last outward showing of affection with bad grace.
Goodbye, Grandad. Time to sit you down, bor.