To Grandad, Love Jessie

Me and Grandad

I’ve struggled with words when it comes to my grandad. Finding the right ones. Hearing other people’s. It’s hard when someone’s not here anymore to just be, to show you who they are themselves. You find yourself attempting to summarise a person’s character in a few lines. Humans are so much bigger than words, and he certainly was.

At the same time, I’m terrified of forgetting things. I’m scared of moving away from the rawness of now, when the memories might not be as vivid and the details might become hazy.

I’ve had a document saved on my computer called ‘Grandad’ for six years. Since his first stroke. I remember being alone in my house that night, my parents having gone to the hospital, and all I could think to do was start typing things onto an empty page. It became a place to write down things that I might otherwise have forgotten – some of them tiny, everyday things that I just didn’t want to take for granted. Those are the things I know now I will miss most of all. The everyday. He lived next door to me for almost my whole life, so every day is what it was. And I know now that every day is how often I’ll miss him. 

What it comes down to is: he was the greatest. He was everything you would want a grandad to be, and he was that good at it all the time. 

When I was little, I remember being intimidated by him. I think of how he approached me, armed with a pair of scissors that would divest me of excess fringe as I sat whining on the kitchen stool, all the hair getting in my eyes as he cut it. Sometimes he’d go fishing and his catch would lie untouched on the kitchen counter, its eye following me around the room and my squeamish horror seeming only to delight him. On occasion, he would take his false teeth out as a grotesque party trick even as I used to protest.

As I grew older, my perspective changed, and the memories that have endured are limited to those I treasure. Grandad pointing out all of the houses he’d helped to build as we drove around certain patches of Bournemouth. Grandad slipping Cadbury Eclairs into my hand when my mum or my nan weren’t looking. Grandad seeming invincible after a horse bolted over the top of his old Volvo. Grandad dancing – classic ballroom dancing – at every family party. Grandad helping my mum redecorate every room in the house one by one, nothing ever being too much or too hard or too heavy. Grandad mowing our lawn unprompted, time and time again, or tending to his own front garden when I got home from work. Grandad building the rescue tortoise his own little tortoise house in the garden. Grandad always bringing things over to us: pickled onions, jams, the prawn cocktail starters, raspberries, misshapen cucumbers, my mum’s sweet peas. Grandad always asking how my other grandma, my dad’s mum, was. Grandad seeming so happy to see me every time I would swing the backdoor open, even though I always left the gate unlatched on my way out.

Even the things that terrified me as a kid became endearing. The fish and the teeth were his playful side on display. He’d love to wind me up and I’m every bit as easy to wind up as my mum. I hated to be teased, but I loved when he laughed. A mischievous, wheezy chuckle would burst out of him before my nan gave him a light smack or a sharp eye and an admonishing, “Ian!” And then he would only laugh more. 

After he had a stroke in 2013, we didn’t know how much it was going to affect him long-term. To begin with, he was terrible at names. He just couldn’t remember things very well. It was hard to watch him reaching around in his brain, struggling, and feeling embarrassed when he just couldn’t quite get there. My nan told me that immediately afterwards he’d kept saying my name; he kept saying “Jessie”. It seemed particularly odd as he’d always had a habit of calling me several names before my own. “Hello Wendy!” he’d say as I burst through the backdoor of his house. Before I could correct him, he’d know his mistake and say, “Emma-Catherine-Jessie.” And that was just my name sometimes. Some random assortment of cousins’ names that would always be punctuated with my own. Now it was worse, though. There are things that get lost before people are lost. 

That was when I started writing things down. I didn’t want anything more to get lost or forgotten. I wanted to remember the details of our relationship; I wanted to remember more than just the way he made me feel. If anything good came of the first stroke, it was that I knew to appreciate the time we had, to pay attention to moments with him like I hadn’t before. He got a lot better before his health declined again, but I noticed him more. I began to notice things like the way he said my mother’s name with a fondness that matched the way my dad says mine. And how, even as she argued for him to take it easy, he would always be sneakily trying to do odd jobs to help my mum out – all the handyman things that my dad, for all his virtues, is rather useless at. 

I think the thing that will make you love someone most is watching them love. My grandad was one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. He breathed a quiet kind of loving that exists more in gestures than in words (in fact, I can still feel his prickly moustache kisses on my cheeks). It extended to our whole family, rooted in his adoration for my nan – which was never more clear to me than in his final weeks – but branching outwards to the rest of us. It made all of us better; I swear, it makes all of us love each other more. 

He was an authentic, warm, stable force of love in my life from the first moments I can remember to those savoured final years. I don’t know whether I ever told him I loved him, but likewise I don’t know if he ever told me. I knew. I know he did too. 

For all the haircuts and fish eyes, for all the mischievous smiles and mowed lawns, and for every time you said my name. 

I love you. 

Thank you. 

I miss you so much already. 

(I hate that you had to go.)