I enter through a stain-glassed door where I immediately notice a host of familiar faces, my father, my aunt, and other relatives who I have not spoken to in years. I scan the crowd for a welcoming smile and find it in the guise of my grandfather’s neighbour, a beautiful woman who I’ve known for over twenty years. I embrace her tightly, trying not to cry on her shoulder. I compose myself as an older woman with a perm beckons the group to move into another room.
“Wait!” I say, edging towards her, my arm waving. “I called earlier; they said I could see him on my own.” She nods kindly, “Of course.” Her name is Rose; I read it from her gold name badge. She leads me into a room down a wallpapered hallway and opens a white wooden door. I stand immobile as she gestures towards a long, dark, polished timber rectangle that has the honour of being the only item in the room.
It is the casket, and it holds the body of the first man I ever loved.
It was my grandfather’s request to forego tradition and absolve those who outlived him from hosting a formal funeral. Instead, there is to be a private cremation with no fanfare. As this is my last chance for a moment alone with a man who I only recently learned was unwell, I try to focus on the task at hand, namely that I have come to return his handkerchief, a white linen ironed square with a blue B embroidered on it. I wore it as a token under my wedding dress several years ago – something borrowed. I tell Rose that my grandfather walked me down the aisle, the role of a father performed by a man who did not have the title, but who for over 30 years, had all the responsibility.
The last time I spoke to my grandfather was by his hospital bed, only a week earlier, but sadly by this time the articulate, charming and intelligent man I knew had been reduced to a confused and frail shell. He had no recollection of the little girl he and his wife collected from a foster home one scorching summer morning, believing that parenting her would be an interim role until their son could be trusted with her care. He had no memory of becoming the man who would drive me to school, who would pack food for my lunchboxes, and who would scour my report cards intently, frowning as he noted a pattern of comments suggesting I was not working to potential. Old age, confusion and sickness had robbed him of the memories of killing bugs in my room, laughing at me in amusement when I cowered under the covers as winged insects flew overhead. So too had it stolen the hours of teaching me to bodysurf and of clapping jubilantly when I found my way to shore.
Rose offers me a tissue. “Were you close?”
I blot away tears that threaten to ruin my makeup, and pause as I consider how to answer Rose’s question. I want to say that we were very close. I want to say that I called him every day, that we talked about his various medical ailments, the state of his garden, and how the Queensland sun was treating his huge expanse of lawn. I want to say these things because for years it was true, but for now, I am mute, because silence is safer.
Silence means I don’t need to mention the meddling family members who drove a wedge between my grandfather and I, or the legal disputes surrounding the administration of my grandfather’s financial affairs. Silence also means I don’t need to reveal the character traits of my blood relatives and the way they conspired to cause chaos during a time that my grandfather needed the most care. And silence spares me from disclosing how my role as executor of my grandfather’s estate is bound to cause more headaches than it will ever subdue, and that my visit to the Sunshine State not only includes a trip to the crematorium but a visit to my solicitors as well.
As the reality of the preceding months flickers in my mind, I struggle to steady my breathing. This means I almost don’t notice Rose walking to the front of the casket and positioning her hands to lift the top half of the wooden exterior, much in the way I imagine she would open a freezer door. I take some deep breaths, watching the hinge release to a point that the casket is sufficiently ajar. Rose gently leans over to remove a white cloth covering my grandfather’s face, revealing the features I have studied since childhood. The strong jaw, the proud mouth, the greying eyebrows; his suit, the same one I picked out for him to wear to his nephew’s wedding, his tie, a perfect Windsor knot. His skin still tanned, the hallmark of a man who spent so much time outdoors.
I place my grandfather’s handkerchief gently on his chest. I tell him I love him. I tell him I am sorry. I thank Rose for helping me, words that my grandfather used to say to me, and I tell her I will not be staying for the cremation. As relatives enter into the room I have just exited, I swim as fast as I can against the tide, knowing I am edging further away from the last time I will ever see my grandfather. The mantra he repeated whenever we swam at the beach: unless you’re surfing, never turn your back on the ocean clear in my memory; the words of a man who made me feel safe in the water, even if he struggled to do so on land .
My grandfather could take me to the beach, away from the chaos of our home where my erratic parents flitted in and out of my life; their interest in me swinging wildly from desperate to disinterested. And he could kiss me on the head at bedtime, safe under the starchy flannelette sheets, his bedroom mere steps away from my own. But what my grandfather could not protect me from was the possibility that his fatherly role would one day meet an early end. Perhaps it would be due to the unlikely but undesirable chance that my parents might want me to live with them. Conversely, it could have been a sense of his own mortality, of which I was reminded every time I observed him standing beside a school friend’s father, where his grey hairs and dubious fashion choices became even more pronounced. One day, he would be gone, and I would be left to wade through the whitewash without him. He knew it, and I knew it too.
The crisp winter air hits my face as I leave the crematorium, but the tears I’ve suppressed now obscure my view. Within minutes I am not only making heavy sobs that echo within the rental car, but I am also able to name my regret: when I had the chance, I should have told my grandfather that for the longest time, he was the only person who I believed would keep me afloat . My grandfather started raising me under the belief that his appointment was temporary, and somewhere along the line, I started to believe this as well. But now, as I face the beginning of my life without him, I know the only way to reconcile the loss of the man that I loved is to replace the sadness with gratitude that I had him at all.
Image: Matthew Brodeur
Sarah Tucker is a Brisbane-raised, Melbourne-based writer, blogger and lawyer whose writing explores themes of family, friendship and mental health. She is a proud mum to two little men and a cattle dog with even more psychological issues than she has. For more of her writing, visit allmydirtylaundry.com.