My grandfather died of a broken heart six weeks after my grandmother. He had not expected to live without her, instead had meticulously planned for her comfort and security on what seemed to him to be the predictable certainty of his own death from a heart attack. But cancer doesn’t like predictions. Cancer, with its usual arrogant flare for such things, changed the story, rendered his meticulous, patriarchal, loving care unnecessary. A heart attack did kill him, but only after the death of my grandmother from bone cancer and the torture of six weeks of bereft and baffled mourning.
John Wood, we called him Grandjohn, was an imposing and impressive man. He came from a teetotal and dutifully obligated chapel background, as austere and spare as his name. He had no faith himself but was imbued with the characteristics of his family’s church, though he seemed to burst those narrow parameters at the seams. Six feet two inches, brown as a conker, bombastically sure of himself in a way that could be intimidating and even a little bullying. He was very handsome, dashing, though in his lifetime this was completely invisible to me. It took unearthed photos of his beautiful youth for me to see him as others would have.
He was politically and socially conservative but his personality was that of a daredevil, an adventurer and often, an absurdly, comically impatient lunatic. He drove his sports car onto the pavement to get around cars that were a little slow to pull away when the lights turned green, fury testing out his heart attack thesis once again. He snipped all the wires of the speakers round a hotel pool because the music irritated him to wasp rage. As a young man, he and his brother raced each other on motorbikes across the twin track parapets of a railway bridge. He was tremendous fun, gleefully leading us into some reckless endangerment, some motorised or wheeled or speeding adventure, always operating in secret away from our anxious and loving grandmother. We kids would get our roller skates and he would take us off in the car to find a ‘nice flat road’ when really, all the roads were flat. The car journey was a ruse so that, once safely round the corner away from grandmother’s eyes, he could tie a rope onto the bumper which we could then hang onto as he towed us, swinging wildly round the corners of the expensive, residential streets.
It is easy to see why he had predicted such an end for himself, correct medically even if the narrative didn’t work as he had expected. He smoked as a young man the way it seemed he did many things. He wouldn’t appreciate the Spinal Tap allusion but inside the conservative, blazer-wearing teetotaller, much of his personality was turned up to eleven. He inhaled his pipe smoke, he boiled his tea to a tar-like sheen, tanning himself from the inside as his sun-worship from March to October tanned him on the outside.
He once swapped a lawn mower for a tuba, and revelled in the blast of deep, music-less sound he could make with it. In the same way, he loved my bass guitar, the rumbling resonance gave him a profound and, to his mohican-sporting granddaughter, gratifying pleasure that, for once at that time, connected us in a way that was not fraught with judgemental disapproval on both sides.
It was deeply moving to see my grandfather in the new light cast by the loss of his beloved wife. This man, large, colourful, imposing, intimidating, suddenly showed a frailty that seemed almost miraculous. Not because we needed to see it or welcomed it, but because his certainty about everything had given us absolute certainly about him. Anything outside of those cartoon clear lines of expectation had a fragile, magical quality. I felt a kind of awe in the face of his inability to live with his loss. He lost weight, he cried about a dog that put its head on his knee in mute empathy. He still complained about the noise when he came to stay with us, still told everyone what the best way to do a thing was and you’d be a bloody fool to consider other options, but there was something new and tender that had not been part of our connection to him. Perhaps it had all been reserved for beautiful Daphne, his true love, his reason for living, and with her gone, he had to share it unexpectedly, perhaps undesirably for him, with us.
I never had any doubt that he loved us all very deeply. It was a love that was built on expectation. He expected us to do well in life, to work hard as he always had, to achieve what he presumed for himself and for us, our merit in the eyes of the world. An old-fashioned love predicated on the achievement of comfort and safety. Dreams were to be let off in searing firework flashes around the edges of the serious business of life; in the roar of a motorbike engine and the atonal and offensively loud blast of a tuba kept in the bedroom wardrobe.
After he died, I spent a surreal and magical few days in my grandparent’s house with my mum, my aunt and my sister. One of the pictures that stayed with me, a comfort many times and a profound reminder of the precious gift of connection was an open atlas. He had a conservatory, called tellingly, the sun room. Even when it was cold, if the sun shone in a clear sky he would open one of the doors so he could lie in the sun, tracking its progress, moving round from facet to facet of the hexagonal room. In that room, next to the padded sun bed was a table and chairs and on the table was an atlas open to the page that showed Australia. There was a blue airmail letter from my brother, travelling around Australia for a year. He had described the recent leg of his journey and my grandfather had looked it up in the atlas. It must be what he was doing shortly before he had the heart attack. It gave me great comfort, seeing these papers that connected them. Even with the moment long gone, those connections remain, making an invisible ravelling that perhaps is the real structure of our lives.