Carrying his coffin, I took steps my grandfather could no longer take
In his latest reflection on places and pathways, Will Gore finds light in the dark
The old aphorism about death and taxes being the only sure things in life doesn’t hold true for everyone. After all, there appear to be plenty of rich people who have made tax avoidance an art form. Death, then, may be the only leveller.
Even then, the journey from dying to dead is a great deal more comfortable for some than for others. The levelling point is very brief indeed.
Grief, that inevitable partner of death, can bring a sense of parity too – through shared pain – although it is naturally complicated by the nature of our relationships with the deceased. Despair can be tinged with a range of emotions, from guilt to relief.
My grandparents moved to our village when I was about 12, leaving their home in Dorset to be closer to us. In truth, it unsettled my grandmother, who missed her friends – but my grandad revelled in their new surroundings, immediately (and successfully) setting to work on fundraising for a new bowls club.
For the years we were at secondary school, my brother and I saw Nana and Grandad most days, regularly popping round in the afternoon to watch Countdown with them – and to scoff the Werther’s Originals of which they seemed to have an endless supply. We even played bowls with them, once the club was up and running.
When I left home, first for university, then for a job in London, of course I saw them less. I was too busy finding a new life.
Grandad was diagnosed with a recurrence of bowel cancer in 2001, having previously overcome it. I went home more often, but not as much as I should have done: he remained cheerful and became oddly more open, declining then bouncing back temporarily as steroids kicked in for a while.
In his last weeks, Macmillan nurses provided heroic care, which meant he stayed in his own home till the very end, my nearly blind grandmother by his side.
He was, it might be said, lucky – though terminal cancer and luck are hardly easy bedfellows.
The last two or three times I saw him were nonetheless pretty grim, with Grandad largely unaware of life going on around him.
On my final visit I doubted whether he knew I was there at all, let alone recognised me. He lay in bed, semi-conscious, torn between the pain and the relief offered by the drugs he was receiving. He wore his familiar pyjamas, which now swamped his bewildered frame.
Shortly before I left he clearly had an urge to use the loo, not remembering he had been catheterised. He made a struggling effort to pull himself up and out of bed, soothed back under the covers by the nurse.
When I departed, turning left out of their front door into the spring sunshine, I realised I would probably not see my grandad again. As sparrows twittered in the hedgerow that bordered the house, I shed tears on the pathway, before taking the familiar route home across the playing fields and past the bowling green.
And I thought of that last effort he had made to get up, to walk to the bathroom, to fulfil a bodily function that is at once such a dull, yet private part of our daily routine. How at odds that seemed with my own ability to stride along, to see blossom emerging, to be young and to have so many possibilities.
He died later that week. My mother called me at work to tell me. At the funeral, I was one of the coffin bearers, taking steps on behalf of this old man, my grandfather, who would move no more.
From time to time he still pops into my dreams, as does my grandmother, enlivening happy memories when I wake.
Death may be a leveller. But it isn’t the end.