It wasn’t long ago that I had reason to feel myself very fortuitous in terms of family longevity. On the north side of 30, I had three of my four grandparents still living. They had lived to see me into adulthood and to see the arrival of my son—the first great-grandchild—in 2012. They all delighted in him and he always got a big charge out of them too. He is still only a toddler now, too young to form memories, but I had hopes that he might know them all as a pre-schooler and be able to remember them when he was older.
It was not to be; my grandmother passed away in mid-October, my Nana and Papa last week, unexpectedly and suddenly within 24 hours of each other. They each died from unrelated health reasons, like a plot point in some hackneyed novel. “Couldn’t be apart,” is what I keep repeating to myself, searching for something optimistic but not really finding it. Once relatively flush with grandparents, now I am bereft.
Grief has made a narcissist out of me. I have three people (really four) to remember; I should be writing about their lives, their accomplishments, their personalities—and yet here I am, dwelling on myself, ceaselessly. Sometimes this inward turn feels appropriate. It feels like I have to keep going, that this is my way of paying tribute in some Darwinian sense. Because I carry parts of them with me, and I gaze at my dull face in the mirror to try and discern what they are, just as I now study my son’s handsome features closely to try and glimpse what irreducible elements have been passed down to him.
Coming to terms with the death of elderly relatives is a matter of finding the right proportionality. Beyond a certain threshold of age you are always a bit ready for it, while still being unprepared when it does happen. And so in October and now I have striven to deploy what seems like the right response: sad but not too sad, mature and accepting, grateful for the good times.
And for the most part, I have managed it. Even when the shock from this latest double-blow was still new, I went to work. I functioned normally. I talked with co-workers and acquaintances without hint of being distraught. I walked the dog, shoveled snow from the driveway, cooked dinner, and did all the other things that still needed doing. Because there is always something clamouring for attention and life is a moving sidewalk that bears us along even when we want to stand still.
And in some self-congratulatory moments, I look at my mostly unchanged comportment this past week and delude myself into thinking that this is indicative of me possessing some admirable degree of masculine strength. But it’s more likely a sign that some inner part of me has become calcified. With rationalism and chosen unfeeling, I have locked it away and now I am mostly successful at ignoring it.
I grew up separated by geography from my grandparents and the rest of my extended family. It wasn’t insurmountable distance—a day’s drive, an hour’s flight—but it was enough to pose a barrier. I remember when I was young, four or five, how I would cry uncontrollably when it came time for the visit to my grandparents to end and how I would beg to stay. It didn’t matter what reasoned explanations I received or how terribly I made everyone else feel; all that mattered was my sadness.
But as self-centred as I was and as and embarrassed as I felt about my childishness when I was older, there was also a great abiding love for my grandparents manifest in my tears and pleas. And there are moments now where I counter-intuitively wish that I could feel that way again, to be consumed with grief, to be left inconsolable. Beyond my needs for catharsis, it seems that would be an appropriate way to mourn, to externalize how much I cared for and loved them. Because if my heart is broken, why does it carry on without missing a beat?
I know it is a vain hope; the ability to grieve so deeply and freely seems lost to me now, washed away like a child’s sandcastle on a beach. I have my memories of the past for comfort, of how my grandparents were and of how I was. And now too, I have an adult’s forlorn knowledge that in time I will learn to accept the pain of being unable to return to them.