My grandfather was a surgeon, and married a nurse. For the entirety of his working and marital life he had good women to do his bidding. It was never clear whether he really considered what they thought, what they wanted, or how they wanted to be treated.
Questioning yourself in surgery, particularly emergency surgery, may well be an occupational hazard. When time is of the essence, you can’t waste it asking yourself if your way is the right way. You just have trust yourself and be done with it. Waiting to weigh up options, questioning whether you really have the ability, or wondering if you are nothing but a big fraud with no skills, could be a life sentence for the body in front of you. You must start cutting, and live with the consequences – make your decision the right one – the only one possible – with every future move.
It’s a skill. It allowed him to get to age 91 without thinking about if the person he is talking to is bored or frustrated with his conversation. He assumes interest and talks from there.
He now talks a lot about his marriage – how it lasted ‘two-thirds of his lifetime’ (60 years), how they never let the sun go down on their anger. Really, my grandmother let the sun go down on her defiance, and my grandfather never let the sun go down on getting his own way. It’s a harsh truth but I don’t think now, at the end of life, we have any need to sugarcoat it.
Other truths also deserve light though. My doll’s house, constructed down to the last detail – a letterbox opening in the front door, embossed with the letters 39a, implying it belonged right next to my childhood home. Toilet paper roll, with white electrician’s tape rolled on it, a shower curtain, miniature paintings with gilt frames in the living room, and each room wallpapered with a different design. A bed and wardrobe made to measure, and a cupboard under the stairs, hiding the electronics for the lights.
Our model farmhouse, complete with hand-moulded farmers, milk-maids (yes, hopelessly gendered, and strangely about the same size as the chickens), hens, chicks, eggs, roosters, cows, horses and fences.
The lawn we planted and its little wooden sign ‘Debbie’s lawn’, kept in place until it rotted. Making cumquat marmalade, feeding the fish. These are things I did with my grandfather.
My brother’s immaculately stitched up forehead, after he split it open on the louvred windows, barely leaving a scar. In reliving these memories, I lift my own hand up, absent-mindedly (or a trained connection?), to caress my own Harry Potter mark, not nearly as neatly sewn, the red gash of a foolhardy moment a permanent reminder to look before you leap.
Yes, it was perhaps my grandfather’s greatest skill to walk through life like this. Straightforward, with nary a sideways glance. So much time and ability for damaged bodies in his professional life, but often limited understanding of damage of other sorts – unembodied, invisible damage – showing little affection; not resolving arguments and just standing ground until your way is won; only one political Right; no need to lift quiet voices in silencing your own; every one is else is perhaps better seen and not heard, not just the children.
I call upon myself, and my family. To yield more. To understand there are seven other lanes in a pool, and to let everyone go at their own pace, with their own stroke, worrying only about your own Personal Best. To let the sun go down on our defiance, and tend to a garden so it blossoms.
Lessons from my grandmother, yes.
But it sometimes takes a shadow to recognise a light.
(I am staying with my Grandfather. He is receiving palliative treatment for secondary cancers.)