This morning I woke up in Ammanford, in an almost bed in a room or place that I'd never visited or slept in before. A certain somebody's abode. Though both tired and reluctant to part ways, warmly we did, he to work, me to a never-before-taken bus journey to Swansea, to be by the sea and in the company of sun's love at least. Eleven years ago to this exact weekday and date, March 7th, 2003, I watched, along with hundreds of other mourners, through streams of significantly more tears, as my grandfather was lowered into the ground, coffined in a long box of wood that took 6 men to carry, on a drizzly spring day, St. Cynog's churchyard. I often think, as such significant dates roll up, of time. Specifically the past, though the future too, to a lesser degree. I, and quite possibly the majority of others, tend to have a strange grasp or perception of time, and my supposed relationship to and within it.
At that time, eleven years ago, I hadn't yet chosen my subjects of study for GCSE, I was 13, bullied, filled to bursting with wanderlust and sexual frustration, fitted with keen senses and a fertile imagination, supremely undesirable to my peers, ostracised from my 'friends' at that precise point. I had been very close to my paternal grandfather, closer to him than his other grandchildren for some reason, likely through a combination of my personality and resemblance to my grandmother and my genuine interest in his tales and life episodes. It's remarkable, the things we remember, store away neatly for future tellings, and the things as potentially interesting which we carelessly let slide away into the abyss.
I can't recall what I did with myself for most of last week, yet years have passed and I've clung on to aged episodes for lord knows what. Life lessons I suppose. He died on midday, the 03/03/03, I was in School, it was a Monday, we got to wear our own clothes to school that day (provided one item was red) as it was the closest school day to St. David's day. I was wearing a long sleeved burgundy-red United Colours of Benneton t-shirt that my aunty Judith had handed down to me, purchased from a local charity shop but rarely worn. I remember everything too clearly. I'd spent the previous night at my maternal grandparent's house because my parents had slept at the hospital with my father's mother, his sister; my aunty Helen and her husband Alex. Despite this being quite a worrying sign, I had gone to sleep fine, after a glorious shower in my granny's lovely house (much plusher than ours!), dried in the softest bath sheet ever and after combing and letting my hair dry to an episode of the relatively new tv program Grand Designs (I loved that show - dreamers would I guess).
I didn't think there was much cause for concern, I had only visited my grandfather the previous Thursday. He, my mother and myself had chatted warmly, playfully, until his food arrived, at which point my mother and myself left him in peace to eat while we visited my great great aunt Peg, who was in a different ward (a good 10 years my grandfathers senior, she nevertheless outlived him by a further few years). As we were leaving his ward I anxiously told my mother that we'd forgotten to mention my recent parent's evening, at which my mother had been informed by my mathematics teacher Miss Parsons that I'd come along promisingly and was all set for the top flight (a big deal since I sucked at maths), something I was both surprised by and proud of. She said we'd tell him when we got back.
On the way back from Peg's ward we stopped by the canteen, I had a 330ml can of sparkling Britvic Orange juice, I never saw it anywhere apart from that vending machine and a select few public houses, so made a point of getting it while there, it was a hospital treat (to this day the taste can't but help take me back to Morriston Canteen). We also picked up some small tubs of Joe's ice cream because my Dats would be ready for a proper dessert after his impossibly garnet jelly - he had such a sweet tooth! When we got back to his bed he was dozing in the last of the sun's rays. We left him in peace and I never got to say goodbye to him.
The following Monday he was scheduled for surgery, but he'd been too deprived of liquid and had taken an abrupt turn for the worst over the weekend (on the preceding Sunday I'd been in the hospital visiting Peg with my maternal grandmother, but hadn't been allowed to pop in to see Dats because he was "resting", I since discovered he was so ill by that point that he couldn't recognise my grandmother properly, and seeing him like that would have been enormously upsetting). During his lifetime he was many things, a boxer, a miner, an oft difficult husband, a heavy-handed father, a warm and kindly grandfather.
He was imposing (at 6ft 3ins, with the shoulders and barrel-chest to fit), overbearing, a great story-teller, a passionate politician (Mayor of Brecon before I was born), persuasive and unwise to cross, though he had his own crosses to bear and chips on his broad shoulders. It was a sad end, septicemia, organ failure - caused in no small way by oversight and neglect from those who should have done better but were perhaps overburdened and harried. Sadly not unusual.
It is unusual how we choose to remember certain details, events, yet overlook others. We occasionally replay episodes again and again, forcibly committing them to memory. It's unusual, in my case at least, because I notice this occurs at a much reduced frequency with positive events. I have a tendency to focus on the negative episodes of life, yet define a "full" life by the amount of elusive and subjective "good times", or, "successes" (while infuriatingly and mystifyingly not remembering good times effectively) .
I, and I think we all do, have a proclivity towards looking back and thinking something akin to "if you'd asked me 5 years ago where I thought I'd be now, the answer would be nothing like the reality". As in, I've let my younger self down, I'm disappointed, I'm still in Ystradgynlais, still in my parent's house, in the bed I received as a birthday present from my mother's father, aged 5, 20 years ago come this 6th of July... This might (and increasingly does) seem bleak if 1) you're a hopeless dreamer yearning for variety and adventure, new pastures and great loves, and, most crucially, 2) if you see time as an arrow rather than a cyclical thing.
This is not where the arrow strikes, it's never immobile, it is constantly turning upon itself. I'm writing all this, not to wallow in the loss of a loved one, rather to reflect on good times, as odd a juxtaposition as it seems. The day of his funeral was the first time (in my living memory) that my uncle Alex gave me a hug. The Monday he died, during Welsh class, the second class of the morning, I had become suddenly teary, I was sitting next to my cousin Rebecca (4 days my senior, daughter of Helen and Alex), we'd been talking about spending the night at our (non-shared) grandparent's houses, the differences in morning routines (instead of getting the bus together, she drove in with her granddad and I walked in from my grannies only 10 minutes from school), for some reason that small disruption seemed to foretell of a far larger reaching change that was occurring.
I recall Daniel Norton was sat behind us, he hit his ruler (playfully) on the back of my jacket, but I was already teary and he took this as a gross over reaction on my part and commented on this perceived idiocy of mine. Rebecca isn't one to wallow or dwell, or at least she wasn't then, headstrong and sure of herself as only an only child used to none but positive attention from her peers (loud, gregarious, blonde-haired and busty, at 13 it wasn't hard to see the appeal she held to most), she castigated Daniel and told me everything was going to be ok.
At break time she said she would phone her dad at the hospital to confirm all was well. We got through and her dad relayed the hopeful message that our dad-cu was no longer in any pain. What else could a father and uncle say over the phone, to two worried teenage girls not half way through the school day. A sigh of relief. Business resumes. When I set off for my grandmother's at the end of the day I was surprised to see her little purple fiesta waiting for me at the gates. As we passed the church in Ystalyfera she told me my grandfather had died that afternoon (just before we'd phoned uncle Al).
What can be said. It was earth-shattering for sure. That night though, we all gathered in my dad's parents house to celebrate his life, with plenty of lively anecdotes and lots of alcohol. The following day, united in death, my parents myself and my brother drove into Swansea to register his death and to purchase the best funerary attire from Marks and Spencer (I still have my "funeral suit"). I didn't return to school for the remainder of the week, or the next. Everywhere was my grandfather and everywhere were my frustration, regrets and sadness. Bec went back to school, she had friends to take her mind off things, whereas I would have had silence and whispers. Ah the sting of isolation.
What was great about his death was the effect it had on my relationship with my cousin.
We'd gotten along ok, but I'd always been the one to stick up for her when her mouth had gotten her into hot-water, I'd taken (and landed!) a few punches for her in my time. After our grandfather died though, she stuck up for me more. She invited me to lunch with her classmates (we only had Welsh together, throughout the remainder of the timetabled lessons she was in a different group). I remember this day, eleven years ago, we left the wake early-ish (she lives 2 doors up from my grandparent's old house). We got drunk in her conservatory, on vodka diet coke and lemon squash, to a soundtrack of a newly discovered (for us) Michael Jackson. We moonwalked the grief away like a pair of idiots, laughing, phoning the many male admirers she had, speaking garbled Dutch (Dutch!) and laughing until the tears were only ones of joy and mirth.
That summer, I noticed a huge change in my grandmother too, something woke in her after my grandfather died, a part of herself she'd doubtless had to subjugate and compromise in the name of marriage. Whenever I got the chance I took a slim volume of a variety of artist's reproductions over to her house and we'd drink wine and talk until night. We walked and gardened together, my parents and I took her away with us to Pembroke. She was lighter and so good to be around. In a word, she was free. If I'd been told then that in a decade's time she wouldn't be speaking to my father or myself, I would have scoffed so obnoxiously. Families + Time = Not so smooth sailing...
|My grandmother in her old garden, superimposed over my 2.5 year old(er) brother, named Thomas after our dad-cu.|
|My grandfather (right), my beautiful aunty Helen (whom I'm named after) with my equally beautiful and wicked looking father.|
|Dats, the tallest man, as an orderly in an antipodean asylum, with my silhouette looking in.|
I guess the whole exercise of getting this down is to serve up a reminder that things are not as straightforward as good or bad, and that perceptions of them should be better scrutinised. I don't know, it's been a very long day, I'm tired and aching from much walking and an hour-long swinging session in the playground overlooking the beach at Blackpill. This morning when I parted ways with my lover my mind at once drifted to the date, the solitary day ahead. To say no trivial thanks to the sun though, I decided to look back with fondness rather than sadness.
Instead of thinking "god, if you'd told 13 year old me I'd still be in the valleys in 11 years time I would have killed myself then and there", I decided to think "If you'd told me then, that in 10 years time I'd be moving to north Wales to make swimming pools, shortly after returning from a six month stint as an english teacher in Poland, I would have been playfully derisive of such notions".
In your face time! You may have me believe I'm immobile, going nowhere but old, but I believe otherwise. If you'd said a year later I'd be waking up down south, in an alien place, in the arms of a kind and beautiful human (harbouring similar thoughts of me!!), feeling warmth and acceptance - love, if you'd said that to my lonely, unwanted, emotionally and physically frustrated self, I would have thought it as incredulous and miraculous a thing as a lottery win.