My only grandparent I’ve ever met died last December, thousands of miles away from me. I remember feeling things, most of them odd. There was shame for avoiding talking with her over the phone, because I’d let my Arabic devolve to a touristic repetoire. There was frustration I’d probably never visit my homeland, Iraq. Fear for a family I hardly knew.
There was one feeling that should’ve been stronger, but it wasn’t. Even now, with time to reflect, that feeling is not as tangible as it should be. That feeling was and is sadness.
When she died, I’d not seen my grandmother in over half my lifetime. When she stayed here with us for two months, I wasn’t even a teenager. I was too young and perhaps too spoiled to really appreciate how lucky, how important and wonderful that time was. I can vividly remember walking through a supermarket with her, chiding each other in broken English and Arabic. I can remember her praying in the dining room, the way she beached on sofas happily like a contented cat, the tutting arguments she had with my mother. Every time I think of her I see her wiry grey hair and gauzy glasses, and whatever she says is sung like a loving chant – she sung hymns with the aplomb and warble of true devotion. I knew I wasn’t religious even at that age, but I loved the way she sung.
Her death was the first I knew to someone I held dear. Yet it felt detached. Hers was a death I couldn’t deserve to be sad about.
In fact, I was sadder thinking about the broken state of my relationship with my parents. I’ve been sadder about a lot more things. I miss my grandmother. But I’ve always missed her, I think. I’ve always felt robbed of her.
One time I felt sadder was a few months earlier, a few hours after I found Laura in bed, unable to get up. It was around 2pm on a Saturday. I wanted to go do something with her, and was annoyed she’d spent the week staying in bed. If I’d had paid a little more attention, I would’ve seen the signs that became truly evident that morning. The slurring, the memory loss, the inability to balance. Over the week she’d seemed tired. That Saturday afternoon, my girlfriend was a drunk who hadn’t touched a bottle.
Soon after I got her to the hospital, the doctors told me it was lithium toxicity, most likely the result of some disorder, imbalance, something. I wanted to know the cause, but I was more concerned by the numbers they were dropping, and specifically the gap between them. This was serious, they said, and it was good I’d spotted it early. But it was serious enough the words “risk of brain damage” could not be unsaid.
Let’s briefly skip to the end here: Laura recovered, and while she’s still unwell – she’s long had a few chronic conditions – those words never came to fruition.
I knew as I watched her in that hospital bed struggle to rest, to talk, to remember where she lived, that I wasn’t ready for death. Or anything. I’d made it more than 30 years on this Earth, and I’d been through some terrible things, no doubt. But I’d never seen anything I felt I couldn’t move on from. Nothing permanent, nothing like this. Nothing like death.
I know I’m lucky to have made it this far. Trust me, I know. I remember trying to talk to my friend Rob at his mother’s funeral. We were teenagers, standing in the cemetery of the church. Rob is a brutally honest person. He has always been a man of few words, but those words are always carefully chosen, unfrilly and convincing. He says what he thinks and he knows what he thinks. But on that day, the wind just fluttered around our suits, with an unknowing Wimbledon in sight beneath us. And he said nothing. He just stood there and said nothing. I think I blathered some friendly, consoling nothings. Eventually I stopped, and we stood there, looking at the brown and green below. It was the coldest I’d ever felt.
Even then, I remember thinking one day that’ll be me.