by Charlotte Duff
Last November, my grandfather was airlifted to a London hospital after falling down the stairs, hitting his head and breaking his collarbone and several ribs. He never regained consciousness, and died two days later.
Being with him as he died is something I will never forget. Whilst it was incredibly sad and I don’t think I have ever cried so much in my life, I feel profoundly lucky to have been with him during his last moments. He was adored by his family, and hopefully he died knowing how much we all cherished him.
We were all totally heartbroken at his passing, and still are. Sometimes I wake in the night or just find myself thinking about him during a quiet part of the day, and my heart aches. Physically aches.
Soon after he died, when I would be talking to people about him, they would ask me how old he was.
‘He was ninety-one.’
‘Oh . . . well, at least he had a long life then.’
I know people meant well by this and it’s true, he had a long life. He had so much to be proud of. A long and happy marriage, two children, four grandchildren. He was also awarded the OBE and the Légion d’Honneur.
“He made me feel like I could do anything.”
But his leaving us felt completely out of the blue and we weren’t prepared. It wasn’t like my grandmother who died after suffering from cancer and was in a hospice. She had been in so much pain, and she had been ready to go.
My grandfather wasn’t ready just yet.
When we would speak on the phone, always before 7 p.m. as he liked to watch Emmerdale, he would ask me about my day. From what I was making for dinner to what I was reading. We would talk about the news, events going on around the world, or often he would ask me about a word’s definition. I like to consider myself reasonably well-read, but some of the words he would ask me about, I had never heard of. He was so bright, but had left school at 14 and always felt he had missed out. His sight going was particularly cruel, because it meant he couldn’t read.
I could talk to him about anything and everything. I could ask him anything, and he would always have an answer. He never once told me off or made me feel like I couldn’t do something. In fact, he made me feel like I could do anything.
Through his stories, he’d give us a glimpse of his and my grandmother’s life before all of us. Living in Chester, Salford, Leeds and then moving down south. He could tell stories from fifty, sixty or seventy years ago like they had just happened yesterday. He could remember street names and primary school classmates. He could remember the taste of a cherry cake my grandmother first made him. He served in the Royal Navy, and could recall the events of World War II down to the minutest of details.
One of my favourite stories he’d tell was taking my Grandmother to a dance, walking her the two miles home and proposing to her whilst kneeling in the snow.
He would always say to me, ‘I could write a book! Well, you would write it for me.’
I wish I’d written everything down. All those memories and stories he told us. A whole lifetime of stories. I’m so worried that as time goes on, I might forget them.
I wish so much I’d written them down.
Now, I’m getting to the point where I can think about him and smile.
I feel so lucky to have had such an incredible force of nature in my life. I certainly won’t forget the life he lived; an ordinary life yes, but a life he was so proud to have had.
Even if I do forget some of the stories he told us, I won’t forget his spirit. His incredibly generous, kind, wonderful self.
My life is all the richer for having had him in it for twenty-four years.
Charlotte Duff | @charlottevduff
Charlotte Duff is 25, a writer and an MA student at Goldsmiths, London.