The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
Fate Moves Sideways
If he'd of been a better grandson and visited his grandfather more often,
perhaps the epilogue to a life, filled with more than he'd ever realised, would
not have come as such a shock. Life can be like a movie, where the final scene
allows you to recall the omens of ominous conclusion that are so plainly evident
on a second viewing. It was not good to regret what you could not have changed.
Terminal illness is a runaway train only the foolish think they could have stood
defiant before. But regret was seeping out of every one of his pores and
poisoning the memories he was trying to preserve. Photo's may burn, but if you
set good memories! by, then that person could live forever in your memory.
A petty argument spurred on, less by a need to defend his brother, who was the
subject under discussion, and more to do with a constant need to be right, had
done away with a respect that only the arrogance of youth feels comfortable
disposing with. And they had been helping him out, his grandparents.
Out of the middle of nowhere he had called them, needing a lift back from the
hospital after undergoing day surgery for septum re-section, and had they
deliberated over whether they could spare him the time or not? No, they had
asked when and where.
What were apparently minor strokes, the effect of an enlarged heart, and a
weight problem, had been, on later reflection, less than cryptic clues to the
shadow which crept through his grandfather's body. Nobody had been any the
wiser, but he told himself if he'd been there, with his education at his right
hand, he would have been able to sound the alarms earlier. In hindsight he
would see how foolish this was, but any explanation to hand at the time is
tested as a possible source of comfort or escape.
It all began innocently enough: a check for Parkinson's disease was scheduled
and everyone sat back and waited for the appointment. Time will trip up many a
timetabled event though, and, after collapsing, his grandfather was rushed into
hospital, concern burning brighter than a fever in the eyes of those who stood
about feeling helpless.
Two weeks, when you are working, and the days feel like they are dragging on,
can seem like an eternity that you struggle to get through. When they told him
that it was likely his grandfather had just that: a fortnight to live, he cursed
himself for having, even today, sat there wishing his life away. He was worried
-- he wanted to go and visit the hospital, but what if, after that stupid row
they'd had, he wasn't welcome? And then part of him didn't want to go at all:
what if he saw the same thing in his grandfather that he'd seen in his aunt?
Someone so far removed from themselves by this horrible disease that they were unrecognisable. Could he cope?
He realised how selfish all of these thoughts were. It was all building up
inside him though, and who could he talk to? Who could he discuss these stupid
thoughts with who wasn't affected by the situation as much as he was? He was
finding it hard to talk, he felt like he had something stuck in his throat. He
needed some way of getting this pain out of himself -- it was like trying to
ease a shard of glass from a wound, cutting and hurting yourself just as much
during the removal.
The death of another is a reminder of your own mortality. Your predecessors are
the front-line troops in this everlasting battle against time. You could argue
that each octogenarian is a victory, but when they pass away its seems like a
pyrrhic one. So they've had a good innings, so what? Who wouldn't rather have
the person than the memory of the person? Photographs are second-hand warmth,
they are faded sunshine.
He'd been told just before everyone else in the house went to bed: they left him
with the weight of it to lay over him as he slept. He forgot it in sleep, but it
was heavier in the morning. He dragged himself to the shower, he dragged himself
up the street to get his lift and once he had been picked up he told someone
about the news he had been given for the first time. And what can somebody say
to you? There are words that habit has tailored to fit the holes in this puzzle,
and they must always seem right to the person saying them and wrong to the
person hearing them. But perhaps they have to be uttered -- they are part of a
ritual as necessary as burial.
All he could hear was cliché though, he took no comfort in words. They seemed
hollow to him, they made him sadder than he could ever remember. Sitting in the
canteen he could not swallow the enormity of what was happening, he could not
digest the truth, it was choking him. He had not made himself a coffee as he
usually did, he did not have a paper in front of him as he usually did. He sat
there and he said nothing and he stared at the wall and he ignored the clock. He
saw one of his friends come in and, quietly he went over to them and asked if he
could go and sit with them in the smoking-canteen for a moment.
They knew that something was wrong with him. It was difficult to speak, it was
difficult to say what he had managed to say earlier that morning. But he said
it, and this second time those words became a release valve, and he poured out
through them. All the worries, all the fears, all the stupid ideas, as fluid as
the tears which stood in his eyes and melted his face.
He didn't realise it at that moment, but later, looking back on this incident,
it would seem more traumatic than the death which followed the illness. He
decided that he had to ask his parents to ask if it was okay for him to visit --
at a time like this they would have to put any petty grievances to the side.
There were more important things to think about.
There wasn't much else he was capable of thinking about. The problems of the
people who he talked to on the phone seemed insignificant -- it was unfair to
weigh cancer against a late delivery of something and resent the person
complaining about the lesser problem, but that is exactly what he did -- he
couldn't help it. The problems he was going through himself seemed to evaporate
from his mind in the heat of this premature mourning which was forced on him.
The grandfather in the bed, dying, in a way and for a time, also seemed to
evaporate -- flesh made ghost by the memories that pushed the past into the
He was told he could visit on his lunch hour and thought this felt like a burden
had been lifted from his shoulders, and then! he began to worry. He worried from
the time he was told that he was allowed to go up until the very moment he
stepped through that hospital swing-door onto the ward. And stood there, in
those first few moments, looking at this man he'd come to see, the shock was not
that he was dying from cancer, but that he didn't look as ill as was expected.
When someone is sitting up in bed, looking just like they always have, except
that they are a bit thinner, like the photo's of their youth, it defies all the
images which you have been spinning out in your head like a tapestry of
melodrama. Only the weak voice, no basso profundo now, hints at the truth.
'Hullo, boy, nice of you to come.'
'Hello, granddad, how are you?'
'Not too bad today, I've had quite a few visitors. Go an' get yourself a chair.'
Trying not to look to either side of him at the faces of drugged souls trapped
in pain, each of them thinking him to be their own kith and kin, he walked the
length of the ward and asked the Sister where the chairs were stored. He was
pointed to a small alcove where plastic chairs, like the ones from school, sat.
He picked one up and commenced the return journey.
What could you talk to him about? He retreated into the patterns of old
conversations, conversations that anyone could have -- death makes contact
impersonal when you first attempt it. You can look around the ward and it is
like a hall of mirrors: minds, trying to escape from the reality of the
situation, haunting the angles of awkwardness where gaze always seeks to lay
itself. Like a carriage full of strap-hangers on the tube, all off to carry out
the business necessity has forced on them. Weather, football, politics -- the
human interest stories. You find your feet and the to-and-fro of communication
can be heard, then it slowly peters out, stutters and stalls.
Because there is nothing of every day life about the place you are talking in,
just every day dying, you feel it pressing in on you. And your grandfather
drinking from a child's cup with an anti-spill top, and the diapers, and his
contemporaries crying in the other beds. And then, because you realise this is
every day life and that death is part of life, you feel it pressing in on you.
And he smiles, and you smile, and he says he'd like a paper when you next visit,
and you agree to take one for him. And you say that your lunch-time is over and
the next shift in the rota of visitors arrives, and you say goodbye to everyone
and kiss him goodbye. And your first visit is over, and though it was much
better than you expected, you still can't swallow. Your eyes sting. You return
to work but you do not have enough words for the people who are speaking to you.
The first hurdle has been jumped over, but you know that there are others which
will present themselves. You want to do this though because you want to do
something unselfish to repay all that has been! done for you. Everything for him
was coloured by that visit, what he knew would be the first step on a long and
excruciating journey. All his friends were ready to offer a steadying hand, and
that helped, but he found that after that initial time where he found himself
able to weep for what he was about to lose, now he was stoppered up -- troubled
by the internal bruising a tender heart will suffer in these times.
His birthday came and went and he felt guilty for celebrating. There was a
refuge in this celebration of life though, a time-out, a breather. He visited on
alternate days, needing some recuperation between bouts that would knock a world
heavyweight out. In the first few weeks everything was fine, nothing changed,
and the disease seemed to have plateaued out. There was talk of him going home
which, though it was tinged by the doubt of those who stood about his bed,
seemed to cheer him and rally his strength. In these days, where a smile
transformed his face into something beautiful, something holding promise, you
might even dare to believe that what had been diagnosed as terminal might be on
the retreat. It wasn't on the retreat.
Time came to weigh heavy in his body. Time weighed more than his body. As cancer
ate him away the world seemed to be wrestling him into quiet submission. The
resilience which all who'd visited him had commented on, though no-one said it,
started to seem futile. Pain grew as he diminished, and the whimpering figure in
the bed demanded only company, no words. Tiredness settled in and sleep was a
constant companion. But he still had to be, and wanted to be, there. That it was
difficult was something that had to be acknowledged and then ignored -- you
could not spare yourself because you knew that escape was not an option for the
person dying. The whole point, and it was an important point now, was to be a
good grandson -- a better grandson than he had ever been.
You try to lie to yourself and tell yourself that the person who has not
visited you is at fault, that they do not care -- but what about your
responsibility to go and see them? When death compacts all the errors you have
made and the sins you have committed against someone are made evident, then you realise your complicity in the lack of communication. The thing which it is most
difficult to do when this revelation comes to you is to face up to what you are
being shown. Many will turn away and pretend that the lies they have always told
themselves are true; in these people, something dies -- honesty is more than a
theory, it is a preservation order on your integrity and, more importantly, your
He was somnambulant, feeling his way through the days as if they were Braille:
everything had come alive and was invested with some kind of message; he could
not read Braille, he didn't know what was being said to him, but he persisted,
tried to learn something from what he felt was there. He found that he kept
bumping into other sleepwalkers unsure of where they were, unsure how to act --
adults re-made as children by their father's impending death. Death hung over
them, a cloud no-one talked about; all of them pretended that the sun was in the
sky and that they didn't need to be wearing their raincoats, that they could
leave their umbrellas at home. The doctors standing around, like Noah, watching
those who denied the need for an ark.
After a while his grandfather told him that there was no point bringing a paper
in ("I can't read it, my eyes are bad"). Talk turned to characters on the ward:
the Professor and his long boring talks about subjects that no-one had the
concentration to understand, the woman on the ward above this one who made a
racket for everyone to hear -- you were telling yourself and him that they were
ill and that he wasn't; everyone was willing to believe the lie. No-one cared
that lies were told because words didn't mean a thing: everything that
mattered didn't need to be said, was understood already. As his grandfather's
eyesight failed, his grew better. The light shone into the room and through his
grandfather, it illuminated him, stirred memories in him which he had never
talked of: of the war where he had seen his friends die at Dunkirk, of the
training camp, of being a young man. And some might have said all too late, but
those that choired "better late than never" were the only ones with invites to
He was holding on -- waiting for a landmark; a way to celebrate where he had got
to: his wedding anniversary. He had, for a time, forgotten talk of going home,
and talked only of celebrating his wedding anniversary. His grandfather and
grandmother, freed from squabbling, enjoyed a greater tenderness than had ever
been apparent before -- proving how little any of their descendants knew them. A
lot of planning went into it, and reinvigorated, his grandfather rallied, perked
up, seemed better. And he was. And it arrived, and it went without a hitch.
And it passed. And it was a snapshot taken on a new digital camera, printed out
on a laser printer: grandfather and his youngest grandchild caught in a moment
between a beginning and an end celebrating a journey.
After that day another journey began. Everyone had known the destination, all
wanted to get off the ride. No-one wanted to talk about it. Cancer is a word you
do not say. Do you need to say it? Well, it tells you of itself in enough ways
that talking of it is unnecessary. Death is a word that you do not say. It waits
there, it whispers to you, it tells you it is coming -- you nod, and you smile,
and you know, as it walks on padded feet into the room, a more regular visitor
here than any of you, that it is an old friend. Death looks out at you from
every frightened face in the ward, and sometimes it smiles and sometimes it
cries, and sometimes it just sits there quietly, knowing that you know that it
is there and it doesn't need to say anything.
They talked of a release in the last two days of his life -- how it would be
worse for him if he were to have live through any more of the pain that twisted
through him, that denied the morphine, that unmade him. His children were called
in to say goodbye to him, but he was a long way off and didn't realise that he
was going on a journey -- forced by the pain to both exist in the moment more
than ever before and because of the pain being unable to recognise where that
was. They watched him, unable to offer support to someone on a desert island of
agony. Words escaped his dry lips: they were lost though, like messages in
bottles that break on the rocks and reefs. The pain began to work its
transformation one last time; it lasted a long time, for him and those watching
him. He bucked on the bed, moaned, the cancer erupting inside him, drowning him
in his own mortality, slowly. And then it was over. There was the body and
their were people who had yet to realise that they were expected to mourn --
still reeling from the shock of the diagnosis which they had received three
months ago. And they had to pass on the news, these fatherless children had to
turn themselves back into adults, go home and tell their children what had
happened. What had happened? It would always be more difficult to explain that
to a family member than to a friend or stranger: saying "He died of cancer"
makes it all seem so simple; sitting there and watching him die was complicated.
That's what the funeral would be for -- to simplify it, to bury the specific in
the general as ashes were to be commingled with earth.
The distance from the death to the funeral was traversed in dream-time, reality
had gone AWOL. Reality was to land on him when the funeral was underway and the
hearse, and the other mourners, and the hymns, and the casket, and all the
paraphernalia made it real: gave tactility to an idea someone had tried to
explain to him called saying goodbye. It was the biggest thing that had ever
happened to him: he would think about the death and feel its ripples moving
through him for many years after the fact; the funeral would replace the
memories of other services which he had attended. The Last Post, played by the
bugler sent out from the barracks of where his grandfather had been trained
before being shipped out to the Second World War, became something to him that
it had never been before, it was invested with a poignancy that he had never
detected in it before. A lump in his throat would lodge there every time he
heard it afterwards, his grandfather's face appearing before him in the air like
a face swimming out of the milk of a developing Polaroid.
He had changed. We live our lives to be translated by moments like this. If we
are not changed then something of us has passed away with the one who died.
Perhaps he had emerged as a better grandson after all. And some might have
said all too late, but those that choired "better late than never" were the only
ones with invites to the party
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work