My grandfather died before the sun came up Friday morning.
He had bone cancer, but never knew it. He was admitted to the hospital a week ago with severe pain in his back. After some preliminary tests the doctors found a cracked vertebrae. For the first few days they treated him for the pain, and the expectation was he would be admitted to a facility for the elderly. But he slipped into a coma, and when the results of the tests came in the cancer was discovered.
I received a call from my sister on Wednesday letting me know the doctors expected him to pass on that night. My grandfather had signed papers several years ago asking that no heroic measures by taken in a situation like this one. So none were. He decided when to go.
And he went.
I never had the chance to get to know my grandfather. He’s my father’s father, and they had a schism when I was a child. It was only within the past ten years or so that they tentatively reunited. So while I was still living with my father, until the divorce in 1978, connections between us were rare.
After the divorce, my mother, brother and myself moved 500 miles up the road. We might as well have been on another planet.
My father had spent eight years heaping abuse and humiliation onto my mom. So when we left, we left. And mom did not want to discuss anything previous to 1978. She also spent the nine years of her marriage being fed lies and half-truths about her in-laws by my father.
So, after the divorce and while we were very young, my mother and my aunt — who was also in the cult I grew up in — would tell my brother and I stories about our grandparents. There weren’t a lot of them, and they were told infrequently, but when I would ask questions I’d get back hard stares and “she was psychotic” or “he wronged his sons”.
I spent most of the week waiting for emails forwarded by my sister from an uncle I haven’t seen in six years — and nearly thirty before that — to let me know about his father’s condition. At one point he wanted to know if there was anything from my grandfather’s belongings anyone wanted. I wrote back to say I’d like some photos of him, because I never had any while growing up.
But during my Friday appointment with my psychiatrist, I remembered there was one of us together. In 1985, I travelled to Stratford to visit with my grandparents for the first time since before the divorce. I spent three nights in his house. On the last day he took a photo of me with my grandmother, then she took one of us. Or maybe someone else took a shot of the three of us. I spent all night looking through my mother’s massive collection of photos, and my own, but haven’t been able to find it.
I remember, at fifteen, being so much larger than him. I also remember visiting them in the same house when I was a child. He smoked wine-tipped cigars, I think they were Colts. He could, with effort, blow smoke out of one ear. And I remember he let me have one of the plastic filters to suck on.
He was British, borne and raised. He took my brother and I out to a dry dock on one of the Great Lakes, I think it was Ontario, and told us he used to sail on a ship during the Second World War, and that his ship was destroyed. So I grew up thinking he was a merchant mariner on a ship sailing from Canada to Britain. That’s what I used to tell kids in my school when they asked about my family.
But he served as a communications officer on board the HMS Hood until a few weeks before it was destroyed by the Bismarck. He spent the rest of the war on a coastal ship defending his home island.
After the war he was involved with developing and installing radar facilities in Europe. That’s how he, his wife and four children eventually came to Canada, to help develop the Quebec portion of the distant early warning (DEW) line.
When my parents, uncles and their friends started the collective I grew up in, he helped finance the initial steps. But at least two of his sons — youngest and oldest — stopped having contact with him a few years later.
He was very active in his church. In 1973 he and my grandmother were approached by Jean Vanier to start a L’Arche program in Stratford — it’s a worldwide program to help people with severe mental / developmental disabilities live in the community.
He and his wife, after the divorce, were the only members of that part of my family who made an attempt to keep in touch with us. We’d get little gifts in the mail for our birthdays, or postcards from when they travelled overseas. And they did travel a lot, mostly to help start other L’Arche programs.
But receiving those gifts, and especially the postcards, was very difficult on us, because it would be a reminder to our mother of what had happened during her marriage to their son. I can remember receiving a postcard from South East Asia from my grandmother, and my mom handing it to me and saying…
“They can afford to travel the world, but they can’t afford to come visit you.”
I was crushed. The resentment my mother felt towards them, and especially towards my father, was a huge factor in my life. Because I had made an effort to see them, I had travelled — as a fifteen-year old — to make the first attempt any of us had made to reconnect, to see my father and my grandparents. And all I was getting in return was absolute silence from my father, and a postcard from my grandparents.
So, for several years, I stopped thinking about all three. I put my grandparents into the same space I had learned to reserve for my father. I accepted my mother’s memories as my own.
And now they’re both dead, and I can’t find my only photo of them and me.
I did see him three times six years ago. The last time was at my grandmother’s funeral, where I was a pallbearer.
Right now I don’t think it will be possible for me to attend his funeral. Under the best of circumstances, receiving my income from disability, I don’t usually have any money at the end of the month. The past two months, however, I’ve been absolutely broke much sooner. Right now I have $49 in the bank.
My parents are on vacation until Sunday night, and I doubt very much they’ll be in a hurry to pony up the cash for this. It took a day or two of anger and yelling on all our parts for them to finance my trip to attend my grandmother’s funeral. And about six months of my mother’s passive aggressiveness after the fact.
I spoke to my grandfather (mother’s father) on Friday afternoon and he suggested I send a card. He blames everyone on that side of my family, over the age of fifty, for what happened to his daughter.
My brother will be attending.
I don’t understand how it all came to this. He could have called. He could have visited. My adopted home town was always 4000 miles closer to him than Bangladesh. We have hotels. I proved to him, as a fifteen-year old, that it could be done, and that I wanted it to be done.
None of this is the way it was supposed to happen. All of my cousins, and my sisters, had a normal relationship with our grandfather. They all had relationships with their fathers. After decades of not talking even my father had an opportunity to spend a few Christmas dinners with his father before the end.
I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve hurt none of these people, but I keep getting punished… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, or how to ask and receive forgiveness for the bullshit my father pulled on everyone, and for how my mother reacted afterwards.
My grandfather will be buried on Monday or Tuesday.