Wednesday, March 12, 2014
The Death of a Difficult Man: I loved him and he loved me
My grandfather died last night.
He was not a nice and cuddly grandfather. He was not full of praise or words of love; his words were more often harsh and his temper quick. He did not play or join in with the family around him; he watched from a worn-in seat at the end of the kitchen table, drinking from a dark mug and hand rolling cigarettes with Dr Pat's Irish Mixture pipe tobacco and his limp, polio-deadened arm. He was not a tolerant person; his opinions were ugly and determined and he steamrolled them over the conversations that flowed past him. He would talk with a damp cigarette stuck to his dry lips and a hacking cough shaking through his body to keep his own words hanging with the wafts of blue smoke in the air around him.
He was a difficult man for all the years I knew him. But I loved him and he loved me.
I was his Lilybett: a name that he alone called me, a name that made me feel special, a name I choose to call myself here. When I came into his house, he would announce it: "Lilybett!", a welcome and a call to come and kiss his prickly cheek (always prickly) and lay an arm around his gradually thinning shoulders. "Lilybett," he would rumble and inquire about how I had been since my last visit, and then turn away to talk to the room of other things, of things young girls wouldn't understand or have a worthwhile opinion of: land, cars, politics, football. He would make the adults laugh. And later, he made me laugh too with his sharp, sharp wit and the same sense of humour I see in my Dad and my aunts and uncle. As a child, I hovered on the edges of the stories he told, and waited for the elusive prize of his wheezing, coughing laughter. I felt the lightness of the room when he spoke of old and new capers, and jokes with his mate Charlie and weird and wonderful problems conquered.
I also felt his infrequent and unexpected kindness. When my cousin and I broke the Hills Hoist we had been told not to play on, when we bounced so hard my cousin flew and I fell and the central pole bent towards the earth, the wrath we feared never came. We had trembled waiting for him to find out, for him to lash out at us for the damage we had caused, but he never did. I can't remember what he said, but I still feel now that I amused him even as I disappointed him. When I was 17 and newly licenced and bored with books and felt the lack of anything to do in a little farmhouse on a little island in the rain, I asked on a whim to borrow his car. The old car, the carefully maintained car, the mechanic's car. The year before he had watched as I drove a Kombi (badly) around his front paddock, but he still said yes. The shock of his 'yes' and his pressing the keys into my hand immobilised me for minutes before I loaded the car with cousins and a brother and had the most frightening and careful drive of my life. We bought a pack of cards and came back and played (and perhaps cheated) at the kitchen table in front of him. The car keys sat on the table between us, a token of a moment that I'm sure baffled us both.
Many years later, when I came to visit him in the nursing home, he ignored my belly full of arms and legs and my Dear Boy until we stood to leave. Then he gripped my hand when I bent in to kiss him and drew me down beside him, holding me there listening to the hiss and thunk of oxygen flowing through the tubes into his nose. "Lilybett," he pronounced. "Lilybett, I wish you all the best wishes in the world for this one. And I hope that he may be sound in wind and limb and pizzle. Do you understand what I mean?" I didn't understand what he meant. But I nodded anyway and kissed him again. It took me a while to learn that it was a horse thing. And a little longer to realise what a pizzle was. And that he'd added that part himself.
He was in a nursing home for so many years, his body frail and fading but his mind still sharp and cutting. Each visit we would try to encourage him to tell the old stories of life before any of us knew him, and steer him away from any talk of the news that trickled in on the radio. Sometimes I think he was determined to keep living, if only to see the country firmly in the hands of a man again, especially after receiving wedding anniversary messages from all the dignitaries at a time when the heads of state and nation and commonwealth were women all. He was very determined.
I can't remember what our final words to each other were. Each visit we would say our final goodbyes, so many of them that they became almost as jovial as 'hello' and 'see you next time'. His pronouncements that "next time you see me I'll be dead" made us both smile. We'd been saying goodbye for so long that I don't remember if we said goodbye the last time. I don't remember if there were special words or hints that he knew, that he felt it would be the last time. Instead I remember he offered us his leftover cups of juice and a seat on his bed and the chocolate hidden in a drawer. We asked about the same pictures on his wall of stock men on horseback and high-stacked droving wagons and ancient cars that we'd asked about last time. I kissed his cheek and put my arm around his shoulder and he gripped my hand and wouldn't let me go.
I loved him and he loved me.