Sydney: I sleep in the room where my grandfather died five months ago. It’s a good-sized room, square and large enough to comfortably fit a hospital bed and the medical equipment that a dying man needs, a carer, lifting devices, wheelchair, tubes, medications. Outside the wind rustles the bushes, scratching twigs across the glass. On the wall, a clock ticks. But they’re the only sounds in this night-quiet house, and he would not have found them intrusive because when he didn’t have his ‘ears’ in, he was muffled in deafness.
Now that he has gone, the room is as it was before, when this was the spare room, and he slept in the big bed with my grandmother; four years ago, before he got so sick with Parkinson’s that he would call out in the night, thrashing around violently, needing to get up and down and making it impossible for anyone to share his bed. He was a man who filled space – he was big and, because he was kind and funny and clever, people were drawn to him. So that his absence makes the house seem voluminous. My grandmother scuttles uncertainly along corridors, frail and bereft – she lost, with him, her purpose.
On a 4 billion-year-old planet, as a species that’s been in existence maybe 100,000 years, among a global population of five-, six, seven- billion people, living for less than a century, scattered across latitude and longitude, it’s good to have a peg in space and time. He was my peg. An internet-savvy emailer, he was also my link to 19th-Century Europe: he was born during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived through the First World War and the Second, through the 20th-Century’s depression and Holocaust, communism, socialism and capitalism, was a doctor before penicillin was available, was interviewed on radio about the findings of his research in the slot after Salk presented his rather more spectacular trial results of a vaccine for polio, was witness to the Great Acceleration after 1945 of production, population, agriculture, travel… “Nagypapa, did they have horses and carts when you were a boy?”
He was my link to my personal past – he knew my life story because he knew me my whole life, and he knew my father all of his life too, and extending my story back further, he knew his life and could tell me about his parents and grandparents. I have his nose, his curiosity and his sense of humour. I share his DNA, all the way back to other Levites of the Middle East. I share his name, but the ancestry of Vince goes back only as far as him – he changed it after surviving fascism to something of undefined ethnicity. Perhaps because he was an atheist, I am an atheist; maybe because he loved books, I love books; because he tried every type of food, I try every food. Unlike me, he was a good skier and tennis player, loved bridge and women, thought post-modern art was a joke and had no ear for music. But when I look at his bookshelves, of the books we’ve both read, I can no longer remember who recommended which to whom. Some are easy: Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Tim Winton (he to me); McEwan, DHLawrence, ASByatt (I to him).
The geography and architecture of the house is the same as before, which is confusing. The pictures on the wall, the many photos of adored grandchildren, the chairs and tables, carpets and light fittings, books and plants are all unchanged. So when I pass the door of his study, I expect to see him in there, sitting behind his desk, a book or the newspaper in his hands, reading. He will glance up, see me and smile widely, beckoning me in. “What do you think about this?” pointing at a report of parochial policy change or global scandal or elections somewhere. I would play him: “Don’t you know I’m an anarchist, Nagypapa.” Or, to wind him up more, “a communist.” And my grandfather, who had escaped a communist dictatorship, to arrive as a refugee in Sydney with his wife and son, would smile sadly, hug me and give me a book to read, like Animal Farm (which had escaped the censors for a while, because they thought it was about agriculture).
My grandmother and I sit and talk on the terrace, sipping lemonade, reminiscing, aware that things are the same but also that they will never be the same again. I tell her to eat her fruit, I tell her to take care of herself, that she absolutely must not die. No one else I love must die ever. He was my immortality. Once he dies, then it’s possible my parents might one day die. All that is solid falls away. Are we really just intricately arranged chemicals in an ecosystem that lasts only tens of years? But what about my Very Important Life, with its busyness and decisions and deadlines and just general Importance? Is it really just a flash in the 100,000 year timescale of humankind? To realise this is to despair, and so I happily avoid any confrontations with mortality. My grandmother laughs: “I am not getting any younger, Gaia. I’m in no hurry, but I won’t be around forever.” In our culture there is plenty of advice about staying young, looking young, rolling back the years. But no one teaches you how to be old, how to live with pain and disability and the long slow hours of a clock that has an ever shorter time left to tick.
In the drawers of my grandfather’s desk, among his paediatrics journals and driving licence, I find dozens of letters I’ve written to him over the years, cuttings of newspaper articles I’ve written, more photos of us all as children. He loved me so completely and the only tangible things I have of him are these scraps of a life: shared memories in a few minds, and a future shaped by his past.