Friday, June 29, 2012

The death of my grandfather

My grandfather in his early twenties, already married to my Grandmother
I will always remember standing at the death bed of my grandfather a few days before he died.

My father brought me to the bungalow where he still lived with my grandmother, despite their advanced age. Throughout my visit she was cheerfully drinking tea with the carer in the living room, chirping about how "Freddy would be up and about in no time, poor Freddy".

He was confined to his bed, in his very late nineties. Right until his death, his mind was as sharp as his wife's was disintegrated. The man who survived as an electrical engineer in London throughout the Blitz, lived on a houseboat he built himself, fathered two children, travelled the world and was old enough to drive a car without ever taking a driving test, faded away in a small bedroom in Hampshire as his body utterly betrayed him.

The euthanasia debate is forever coloured for me by the knowledge that my grandfather had  pleaded with his doctor every day to kill him, preferably quickly. He angrily begged for pills, an injection, even a hammer. He couldn't sit up, couldn't read a newspaper, couldn't eat, could hardly talk. It was torture for him to wait in bed day after day and he was deeply sunk in the most abysmal depression of his life.

"I'm just so bored" he told me and my father. Soon after we arrived he recited a poem for us called 'Heraclitus'.

We were amazed to discover that, as a last resort and to keep his mind active, he had been reciting to himself long reams of poetry that he had learned by rote at school almost 90 years previously.

My dad and I stood over him, my grandfather held both our hands and I could feel begrudging life under his skin. Three generations of the same family together for the last time, the genetic thread hung between us, his blood running in my veins. I have never felt death so close as in that moment. It was like staring into an abyss and in spite of the sadness, it was also highly interesting. We all felt it and I have never forgotten it. I was supremely aware, like I should be trying to learn something about this process that each of us must face one day completely alone. My father actually asked my grandfather what it was like.

It was a vain grasp at the unreachable, clutching at any straws he could potentially use when his own time came, sudden or lingering. My grandfather even didn't have to answer, all three of us knew he was ready for death and not remotely intimidated.

I left the house soon after knowing that was the final time and a few days later learned with relief that he had died.

I read 'Heraclitus' at his funeral, which was the only time I have ever seen my father cry.

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead, 
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed. 
I wept as I remember'd how often you and I,
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest, 
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest, 
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake; 
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
William Johnson Cory (1823 - 1892)

(Heraclitus: Greek philosopher (ca. 540-ca. 400 BC), pre-Socratic founder of an Ionian school, whose principal tenet was change in all things. Cory translates an epigram of Callimachus, which in A. W. Mair's translation of the Greek is as follows: "One told me, Heracleitus, of thy death and brought me to tears, and I remembered how often we two in talking put the sun to rest. Thou, methinks, Halicarnasian friend, art ashes long and long ago; but thy nightingales live still, whereon Hades, snatcher of all things, shall not lay his hand")

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