Three Airports, Two Days
It’s not every day you get a text message telling you your grandfather is dead, and yet there it is, cold as tonight is long:
Stan Durdin passed away on Thursday. We have just been told by the vicar of Victor Harbor.
I’d been spending my typical Saturday morning, drinking coffee (well, him a short black, me an orange juice) with my Sensei. Enjoying his inimitable charm & wisdom, utterly oblivious to any sense of impending doom.
We’d just been settling the bill – discussing the relative merits of bottled vs freshly squeezed juice (the juicer at our cafe had broken the previous week) when a beep came through on my rattly old phone. Whoever it was could wait, I only had a few minutes more before we parted ways.
I’m painfully aware of the limited time we have together – him too soon off to Germany, or perhaps Japan, in search of dressage glory for his wife. Me off to who knows where who knows when. Perhaps another year or maybe two. Perhaps only another week. Neither of us really knows, or really can. Life is fickle like that.
Regardless, each Saturday morning I’m reminded of our relative frailties in time & space, and once more, I sit down to treasure our time together.
Eventually, bill settled, goodbyes said – him off to the Hill of Content (a local bookstore) to check for the latest spy thriller, me off to haggle with local retailers, I’m crossing Exhibition Street in downtown Melbourne when I finally check my phone.
I stop in the middle of the street, stunned. I look right – roadworks. No cars. Ok.
Summoning up 17 years of education, a love of language & all the compassion I can muster I reply to my Dad:
Confident this has comforted him enormously, I’m left to wonder: Now what?
I spin on my heels. Back to the bookshop, find Ralph. He looks up, surprised.
“I just got a text message that my Grandad has died. Can I have a hug?”
Ralph’s thirty years older than me. He’s seen a lot of the world. Silently he reaches out with both arms, embraces me deeply. I sink into him, mind spinning.
All too soon, it’s over, and I’m left to stumble blankly out into the street. Mumbling my thanks I continue mindlessly on my errands. Pick up a camera from the repair shop. Now what?
Surely checking my mail can’t be the most useful thing I could be doing now?
But I barely knew him!
Maybe you should call home.
What could I possibly say?
Am I going to burst into tears right now?
How do I feel.
That’ll be shock.
What am I shocked about? I knew he was sick for ages.
But he was your Grandad.
I go home.
On a whim I pick up a coffee. I very rarely drink it these days, so it’s an odd choice. Maybe it seems right to kick myself in the brain for a bit. Hopefully take some of the shock away.
It doesn’t work, just gives me the jitters. Tastes ok, but now I’m mildly stressed and in shock. Mental note: don’t trust brain in times of shock.
I get home. Ring Dad. Talk a little. There’s ugly backstory. Mum’s really upset, she adored her father.
None of this is a surprise. All of this is information I had before I got on the phone.
I’m still struggling to remember anything about Grandad. He took me fishing when I was 10. Or was that Grandma? It was both of them.
Oddly, Dad & I start talking about spirit possession. We’re using different terminology – he mentions a ‘jezabel spirit’, I thinking ‘entity’, but it’s the same stuff.
This is not the Dad I know. We’ve never talked about anything close to this before.
I guess grief does weird things to people.
I remember 11 years ago. My littlest brother was in a bad accident. A really bad accident. The kind of accident that has 4 police cars, 2 ambulances, a firetruck & a helicopter land on your front lawn.
I wish I was making this up.
I got a call from the now very much loved husband of my sister – then the dubiously regarded boyfriend. He’d been calling everyone he could think of while Mum flew with my brother in the helicopter to the hospital. Any doubts anyone might have had about him disappeared like a snowflake in a flash fire that day. Somehow he kept his head about him while everything else exploded, including the family.
I remember running out of my house in the city carrying a magazine, a woollen jersey & a meat pie. All I could think was that hospitals were cold, boring & had bad food. An odd time that a meat pie would be considered “good food”, but still. I jumped on a bus to the hospital. The brother I barely knew being heli-lifted to the intensive care burns unit & that’s not important enough to warrant a taxi? Mental note: don’t trust brain in times of shock.
In some odd twist of fate I managed to beat the helicopter there. Life is fickle like that. I ran around the hospital in terror trying to find my Mum. Trying to find my brother. I knew I couldn’t do anything, but thought maybe, somehow, me being there might help Mum. I didn’t know. I just knew being there was important.
Eventually I found them. I’d managed to get there even before they sedated him. “It was an accident” he said, “I don’t blame anyone.”
Six years old. Third degree burns to 60% of his body, and that’s what he has to say. Some kid.
That’s all he says. They sedate him, poke six tubes into him, and post three nurses on 24 hour guard. For a week. Two weeks. Nobody will say whether they think he’ll live or die. We can’t even get percentages. They flat out refuse to say. He’s in a coma the entire time.
I see more of my brother in that time than I have his entire life until then.
I guess that’s what happens when you leave home before they’re born.
Weird way to get to know someone. We’re still not terribly close. I don’t blame anyone. That’s what happens.
He spends three months in intensive care. Mum spends the entire time with him in the hospital. Eventually, a lifetime later, he’s released. There’s followup treatment, of course, and the scars will never go away, but he’s alive, and, strangely, incredibly healthy. More than healthy. He’s one of the most well rounded, well adjusted kids I’ve ever met.
I can’t figure it out.
Mum has a theory. She says there were so many people praying for him. Friends. Friends of friends. People we never even knew. All of them praying for that little kid – that huge outpouring of positive energy towards him just healed him of any crap he might have had.
When you meet him it’s hard to argue with that theory.
I still can’t remember anything about Grandad.
No, I remember the last time I met him. It was briefly, so briefly. I was just flying through town & he was at my parent’s house. Purely by accident. It was awkward. Beyond awkward. I could feel him trying to reach out for me. I was in some pointlessly childish self-important phase, running about doing God knows what. God cares what.
He looked so much older than I remembered. He must have been 75 by then. He just looked so worn out by life. Trying desperately to connect with someone he barely knew. I pitied him. Pitied the life he’d had, the pain he’d been through, how old he’d become. I brushed him off. My own flesh & blood, & I brushed him off. Children can be so callous. Even into their late 20’s.
I ask Dad a question: “Dad, I can I ask you a question?”
I ask him another: “Do you think it’s worthwhile me coming over?”
He thinks. “I have absolutely no idea”
Well, that backfired. I’m in shock. I’m not trusting my brain.
I make a random decision. If I can find a flight for under eight hundred bucks, I’ll go.
I don’t know why, I just think that maybe, somehow, being there might help Mum. She adored Stan. I adore her.
I hang up, promising to call back. Get to the travel agents across the road, negotiate a flight. There are two options. Stupidly expensive direct flights, or half the price with a stopover. It involves spending the night in Christchurch airport. I choose the cheaper of the two, despite the horrible stop-over. Christchurch is notoriously cold & who wants to spend a night on an airport floor? It’s $794.
I guess I’m going.
It’s the typical thing with bereavements. You get the news. Life stops. For everyone, not just those who’ve left.
There’s nothing else to do but be there.
What else can you do?
Just be there for the living.
Almost 20 years ago, my favourite grandmother passed away. Nan Nan I used to call her. I’ve always called her. Always will.
Now her I can remember. I could talk about her, my Dad’s Mum, for weeks.
I remember how she used to smile at me, so understandingly. I remember what sports she used to play (bowls & golf). That she always wore makeup (helped keep the sun off, she said). That she used to keep mints in her car. The kind of car she had (a little beige two door manual Mitsubishi Colt). How she used to make the most delicious juice imaginable by buying two different kinds of premade juice & mixing them together. How she never swore. Her backbone, her towering strength & her love. Her ferocious love.
I remember spending time with her, listening to the cicadas outside & feeling that all was right in the world. Even though I only got to fly from New Zealand to Australia and see her a couple of times, I loved every second with her.
I remember hearing about how she slipped over when putting groceries in her car one day. How she broke her hip. How she went from being out & about every day of the week – chairing this, organising that, racing all over town – to bed ridden.
Life is fickle like that.
I remember knowing she was sick. In hospital. Unable to get out. No doubt frustrated beyond belief.
I was at university, a country & a giant ocean away. I’d just started. Trying to find my way in the world.
I remember being frustrated myself. Wanting to write to her, but not knowing what I could possibly say that would help.
“I’m sorry you’re sick”?
I said that last time. I don’t want to repeat myself.
I didn’t want to just talk about what I was up to. That sounded.. useless. Selfish. No help to anyone. And besides, what would I say? “Today I had lectures.” Ugh. Terrible.
Month after month went by. The guilt built up. As did the unwritten letters.
In my mind, somehow all this would resolve itself. She’d get better. She was strong, she was amazing. I remembered.
And then one day I got the call. That call. The one you always dread.
She’d stopped taking food.
By that point she’d deteriorated so far they were feeding her with a spoon. She had no body movement, could barely see.
Letters were being read to her. What letters she received.
Eventually, she’d made up her mind. Whenever they tried to feed her, she gritted her teeth. Determined, proud to the end. She’d had enough. It was the only part of her body left that she had any control over, the only power she had left, and by God, she was going to exercise it.
I phoned the hospital. I didn’t know what to say, but it seemed important that I call.
“I love you Nan Nan.”
How late we realise I could have sent her letters saying nothing more than that, and that would have been enough. That would have been what she’d wanted to hear. All I needed to do.
“I’m getting on a plane to see you. So is Dad. We’ll be there tomorrow.”
So we did. The money sorted itself out – it always does in these situations.
Tomorrow we arrived.
She’d died in the night.
Proud to the end, she hadn’t wanted us to see her like that.
She wanted us to remember her for what she was, not what she’d been reduced to.
She looked beautiful, as always, just how I remembered her, in the funeral parlour. I had a few minutes alone with her. I said some words, I don’t remember what. The thought occurred to kiss her goodbye, but I didn’t.
There was a veil over the coffin, & I worried. What if I’m not allowed to? What if I get in trouble?
I want to express a simple act of farewell to someone I loved with all my heart, & I’m worried about getting in trouble? Grief does weird things to people.
I never did kiss her goodbye.
The funeral progressed, as these things do. Words were said. Things eaten & drunk, & everyone dispersed once more to the corners of the globe.
I remember my Grandad was a whizz at crosswords. He tried to get me into them, but it never really stuck. I love words though, love wordplay, & language.
Maybe that came from him.
I remember him telling me once about how he’d been in the second world war. About being in the blitz in London, with the air raid shelters & all. About how Frank Sinatra had managed to escape conscription because off his mob connections.
I think he resented Frank a little, but it made for a great story.
At 10 I barely knew who Frank Sinatra was, but that didn’t matter. I would eventually. I do now.
I got back from the travel agents. A friend offered to give me a lift to the airport. Keep me company.
I put my collection of everything ol’ blue eyes ever sung on the stereo & started to try and get organised.
I wasn’t flying to New Zealand for the funeral. My Grandad was in Adelaide, Australia.
I was flying over for Mum.
I checked the weather. A bit colder. Ten degrees. Think. THINK!
I end up stuffing way too many shirts in a bag. Not much else.
My friend arrives.
We sit on the couch. I drink some water. Try & fail to remember something, anything about my Grandad.
How can someone who’s a part of my life be so unknown to me?
How is someone who cared about me able to be so distant? How can that happen?
I give up.
I don’t think I feel any grief, although I feel something. I can’t identify it.
Maybe it is grief.
I haven’t had many people near me die. Not yet. Everyone does eventually though. If they live long enough themselves.
I feel numb, but underneath I can feel something else. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Mum’s. We’re pretty close, in an odd kind of way.
I go back to packing, & eventually I manage to throw out some shirts. Throw in a phone charger. Whatever else is required. Maybe. But really, who cares? It’s just important I’m there.
My bag still won’t close. Now what?
I used to be good at this. This packing thing.
I still haven’t cried, but my brain doesn’t seem to be working very well. Maybe it’s the coffee. Yeah, that’ll be it.
My friend helps. Thank God there’s someone here still functional.
I eat about twenty bananas, since they will have gone off by the time I get back. Somehow I still feel empty inside.
We drive to the airport, get stuck behind a slow moving tram. It’s past check in time, and we’re still driving. For some reason I just don’t care.
What is that, that feeling?
I still can’t pick it.
I rush into the terminal to find an empty desk. Somehow between buying the ticket four hours ago and now, the plane has been delayed an hour.
Somehow everyone else in the world heard about it except me.
I check in anyway.
We head to a bar. On a whim I order a Guinness. I very rarely drink these days, so it’s an odd choice. Maybe it seems right to kick myself in the brain for a bit. Hopefully it will take some of the shock away. It doesn’t work. I tell myself it’s not for me, it’s for Stan. For Grandad.
I can’t remember if he drank or not.
I figure in the army he probably did, and that’s good enough. Right now, that’s good enough.
With every sip, I say to myself, “This is for you, Grandad” & send my thoughts out to him, and huge waves of gunk pour off me.
I’m healing myself as fast as I can, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. My friend looks concerned.
Maybe that just isn’t how you deal with these things. I don’t know. I really don’t.
Nobody tells you how to deal with grief.
Yeah yeah, all those steps. Anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance. Maybe I’ve missed one. I don’t know, I really don’t.
I don’t feel angry, and what is there to deny?
Where does sadness fit into all that? Or crying? Maybe it’s in the psychologist footnotes.
I have another sip. Try to remember anything about Grandad. Maybe if I could say something about him, that would help. All I can remember is that he was a super nice guy. Incredibly nice, but that hardly seems enough for 90 plus years of living.
Nice? I always used to hate that word. I’ve mellowed with age, but mellowed to the point where I’m using it to sum up the life of a relative? Someone who lived almost 3 times longer than I have? There must be something wrong with that. With me maybe. Who knows.
I still can’t remember anything meaningful about him.
I remember that my friend is a psychologist, but it doesn’t seem to help. As they point out, they can’t help me grieve, but they can help me get to the airport. I thank them anyway. It’s about all I feel capable of doing.
We talk about God knows what. I’m not really listening.
I’ve deliberately chosen a seat facing a corner of the bar. I figure maybe having a beer will let me cry. Or whatever it is I’m supposed to do.
It doesn’t, and instead I wander, alone, through security & onto the plane. Now what?
Plane goes up. Plane comes down.
Now here I am. It’s 4am in the morning. I couldn’t sleep. I just don’t have enough padding on my bones to sleep on a concrete floor, although many people here seem able to.
Every half an hour a voice comes over the tannoy:
“Your attention please. For your safety & security please do not leave your bags unattended. This is a safety & security conscious airport”
I don’t think anyone is really listening, but I find it strangely compelling. How does a buildng become an entity? Why the need to inform us that the airport was conscious of anything? What on earth will they do when buildings have autonomous brains and really are conscious?
I think the flourescent lights, lack of sleep & more stimulants than I’ve had in forever are messing with my mind.
Right now all I know is that I feel like I’ve been wedged behind these rubbish bins, trying & failing to sleep forever. The night has stretched on, and the freezing air is burning my legs every time the doors flick open from outside.
In a couple of hours I might have a shower.
It seems important that I arrive tomorrow freshly shaved. I don’t know why. Maybe so I don’t scratch Mum when I hug her.
She doesn’t know I’m coming. Please don’t tell her. She has enough to deal with.
Oddly, finally I’m crying. Have been for the last few hours. There are people walking around, but I don’t care. It just doesn’t seem important.
There’s still one airport to go, but the flight doesn’t leave until seven.
I still can’t figure out what I should do. Should I just heal myself of this pain? Is it even mine? Isn’t grieving supposed to be healthy? Shouldn’t I just let it take its course?
I just don’t know. I have no experience in these things.
All I know is that I probably shouldn’t trust my brain. And that grief does weird things to people. And that I could use a hug.
I remember now, after all this, that Grandad was a similar size to me. Mum says I have his bone structure. He was endlessly patient, an incredibly gentle soul. Maybe these choices I’ve been making, all this healing I’ve done, this path I’m on, I’m becoming more like him. I think I might be ok with that. That might be meaningful. Maybe he might be ok with that too.
And getting on this last plane to Wellington. That maybe, somehow, me being there might help Mum. I don’t know. I just know being there is important.