Friday, 8 January 2010

This Year's Loss

My father phoned a little while ago to inform me that my grandfather passed away this evening.

The news was not unexpected. He had been in hospital for three weeks, and as time went on had spent less and less time conscious, and a smaller and smaller percentage of that time operating coherently. Apparently,the occasion on which he was most aware happened to with the only time I was able to visit him, on the 3rd (I wanted to make damn sure my fever had passed before I started traipsing around a hospital).

It was immediately obvious during that visit that what bothered my grandfather the most wasn't his illness (which I won't go into detail about, but which was very serious and clearly terminal even before he took a turn for the worse a few days after Christmas), but his loss of independence. He requested we bring him beer, which the doctor was kind enough to permit, but it rapidly transpired that his interest lay not in the beverage itself (though I very much doubt that he didn't enjoy it) so much as the hope that the empty can could be employed as an impromptu latrine with which to frustrate the nurses.

Given this, given how unhappy he was to be reliant on others taking care of him, and given his lifelong discomfort with the idea that he was a burden to anyone, I genuinely think that if he'd been given the option, and once he realised he was almost certainly never going to leave the hospital, this is what he would have chosen. This was arly into my visit he asked whether or not he was becoming a drag upon the family.

He also asked, ludicrously, if he had done good in this world. You would have to know him personally to know just how ridiculous that question was. The men in our family deal poorly with childhood as a rule, but my grandfather's was something else again. Once more, I won't go into detail, because that would offend his belief (which I don't necessarily share, but choose to respect) that one's troubles are to forever remain internal, but it would be an understatement to describe his early years as brutal beyond measure. No sooner had he finally escaped the situation that had made his life so torturous, he found himself in the Navy during the Second World War, in which he divided his time between decoding Morse signals, punching people in the face (because he was a boxer, or at least mainly because he was a boxer), and hoping to God his helmsman could dodge the next shower of Kamikaze planes. Grandfather served on three vessels all told, including the HMS Jamaica, and an aircraft carrier that I am deeply ashamed to admit I can no longer recall the name of. He talked rarely of the war, and only ever to me. I have no idea why this was the case, but I was always deeply honoured by that fact. In fact, despite this unique dialogue, it was not from him but from a newspaper article that I learned he had been awarded the Burma Star.

Following the war, my grandfather worked in a steel factory for some time, before ultimately becoming a magistrate. This was not a position he sought for the power it brought, but from a sincere desire to help his community. Like many of those from Middlesbrough, my grandfather was a die-hard Labour supporter, because of his unshakable belief in socialist principles, mainly those that suggested we're better off making sure everyone is doing OK. He knew what he thought was fair, and he fought for it his entire life. He was also, considering he was born in 1926, a remarkably progressive man. This was most obvious in his opinion on homosexuality, which as with everything else was inevitably forged into a one-liner: "So long as they don't make it compulsory."

He probably wouldn't want me to mention he received the Middlesbrough Citizen of the Year Award six years ago, but on this point I will defy him, since it serves my greater point that only he himself could spend his days wondering whether or not he had done enough to make his life a net positive. I don't know how many people lie on their death beds and wonder whether they did enough; I guess quite a few. What made my grandfather unique, though, was that he constantly strove to contribute more to his society even whilst he was still entirely healthy. It wasn't some last-minute gasp of guilt or self-justification, it was the principle by which he lvied his life. If anything mattered more to him than to come home each day having done some good in the world, then I haven't the faintest idea what that could possibly be.

He had many other qualities as well, both good and bad. He was physically incapable of dealing with any situation other than to make jokes about it (sound familiar?), but it was through those jokes that he expressed his affection. It might sound strange to reveal that I know my grandfather loved me because of the day he tried to persuade me he'd gone for an IQ test and received the world's first ever negative score, but it remains stubbornly true. Affection was something one had to infer, rather than be given, but it was always there, just below the surface. How can one care so much for strangers and not love one's family?

He leaves behind his wife, three children, nine grandchildren (that we know about, it's a long story) and a lifetime of service to everyone he could find to help. Rest easy, Grandad. You deserve it.

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