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Fate Moves Sideways


Paul Grimsley

for Henry

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 foreground.

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 soul.

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 the party.

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

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