We don’t of course, or at least not physically which is probably a good thing because our bodies wear out over time. It must be quite frustrating to go from being active to inactive and mentally alert to easily confused. Loss of independence would be really difficult for me, potentially verging on unbearable. Hopefully that day is still a long way off. Although our shells, these complicated works of art, science and sinew we call the human body succumb to all manner of things, in many ways we are immortal and we live forever. We’re captured in photographs and stories, documents and memories. When we have children our genes live on in them and we, hopefully, always have a place in our children’s hearts.
Two people who live forever in my heart had birthdays last week, my Grandfather and my Mother. Both were very dear to me during the time we shared and both continue to play a role in my life. They’re in my thoughts, my memories, my sense of who I am and how I want to lead my life. They were both amazing people who would never have considered themselves anything more than decent human beings and that in itself made them wonderful.
My Grandfather spent much of his life caring for other people. He was posted in various countries during World War II including Italy and North Africa. I’m fairly sure he almost died of dysentery at one point, then contracted malaria and was seriously ill for a very long time. He hitch-hiked the length of Italy to rejoin his unit and was very close to Mount Vesuvius when it erupted in 1944. He spent time in Austria, though I can’t remember how that came about and he told us of a mysterious and frequent whistling sound in the desert. It happened to be the sound of bullets flying past and sometimes into people. When my Grandmother was alive we used to joke that it was a miracle Gramps made it home from the war, he’d had so many brushes with death. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps so although he was conscripted, his mission was to preserve life rather than deny it. We know that he had some truly horrible experiences and saw things that no-one ever wants to see, but he never spoke of this and he never let it cloud his nature.
When I was growing up my Grandfather was simply the best anyone could have. He’d make things with us kids, normally messy things like papier-mâché or exciting things like dens and secret hide-outs. He’d take us to the zoo, play conkers, go fishing for tiddlers, sing songs and play games like ludo, monopoly and snakes and ladders. He also let us collect butterflies, caterpillars, grasshoppers and spiders (not in the same jar) as long as we treated them kindly and always let them go again. When I had my own son my Grandfather was as great with him as he’d been with me and my brother and although J was very young, he still has some memories of his Great Grandfather. A gentle man in all sense of the word, my Grandfather was empathic, knowledgable, encouraging and very good fun to be with. He was also an accomplished artist and musician, a good listener, hugely supportive and had a love-hate relationship with a rather large ginger tomcat my Grandparents took pity on as a 4 week old abandoned kitten.
My Mother was a kind and gentle person who always put others needs ahead of her own. Forced to leave school early to earn a living and care for her step-sister, she spent most of her early life being told she was clumsy and stupid. Today the things that happened to her when she was growing up would probably be considered neglect, or child abuse. I know she used to clean the house and clear the fireplaces, polish the floors and fetch all of the groceries, almost like Cinderella but without pumpkin coaches, glass slippers or a ball to attend. When she met my a Father she said she knew he was ‘the one’ and her life improved enormously once she went to live with him and his parents.
My Mother had a talent for understanding people and animals, I suspect because she appreciated the sanctity of all life from an early age. She was a very loving and giving person with a strong sense of right and wrong, a placid temperament and the ability to turn her hand to almost any task. She had a high work ethic, well-developed personal values and no ego at all. Though she was very talented, my Mother never quite believed she was as good or as talented as others – deep down she probably never completely recovered from her horrible childhood and that made her determined to ensure my brother and I never endured undue criticism, lovelessness, isolation or insurmountable chores. Because she was multi-talented my Mother spent time teaching us to make cakes and biscuits, identify plants and animals, read, write and draw, make models, build things (with Lego, scrap cardboard, or bits and bobs from the house and garden). She helped us understand that there’s no sense in violence, you should never sleep on an argument, and there is always room for another hug. My Mother loved music, the countryside, nature and her family. She found pleasure in the scent of a freesia, a starry night or a walk in the park with Dad and the dogs. I can’t ever recall my Mother asking for anything from anyone. She spent her whole life making other people’s lives easier, happier and brighter.
Grief is a funny thing. When we lose people a period of grieving is inevitable, it might last for weeks or months or years, but one of the downsides of grief is that it draws our focus towards the gaps in our lives – the people who are missing and how sad we are without them. It can become all-consuming to the point where it blocks out the happier memories, the things we’re grateful for, and can make us lose sight of the fact that our loved ones probably wouldn’t want us to be broken-hearted, miserable or withdrawn for the rest of our lives. It seems there’s no easy way to understand this without going through the process of loss, grief, readjustment and reflection.
Although I was deeply sadden by the deaths of my Grandfather and my Mother I’m no longer consumed by sadness and grief. I can now draw on memories and stories while being happy for the time we had, the experiences we shared and the things I learnt from them. Gramps and Mum are in my thoughts and here with me every day bringing love, warmth and inspiration. I can’t wish them happy birthday in person but in my heart they live forever and we celebrate the good times.