I never knew my paternal grandfather. He passed away when my father was eight. The fragments I know of him are what I’ve gleaned from my grandma, my dad, my paternal aunts, my great-uncles and great-aunts who knew him. He remains a character in my mind. Not exactly unreal – but not exactly real either: he exists as a supporting role from a book, or like the vestiges of a dream I can’t exactly remember. He is a wistful blur in my head, existing only in the peripheries of my imagination, where there are colors I’ve never before seen, and soft echoes I can’t really hear. My paternal grandfather exists as borrowed memories that aren’t mine.
I’ve seen photos of my paternal grandfather; he seemed stern – thick eyebrows, deep-set eyes, a moustache set above thin, barely smiling lips. But despite the severity of the very posed, 1960’s, photo-studio portraits, he was very handsome. It’s said my father resembles him; I don’t see it. Where my grandfather’s lips remain staunchly straight, there is laughter in my dad’s mouth. I cannot reconcile the two in terms of resemblance. I was told stories of my grandfather’s famous temper, “but still, “ my grandma said to me, “he was actually quite funny. He laughed a lot,” however, I would look at the photos of him and I would think she was lying, or, at least trying to soften him; photos don’t lie. He seemed frightful to me, unsmiling, firm. The large photo of him hung imposingly in my grandma’s living-room, and when I was little, I lowered my eyes and looked away from him, my shoulders slumping, as he cast his gaze over me, the only grandson to carry his name. He had been a professional man in the employ of the government, well-off, the second of two sons. And that’s it; that’s the summary of him in my head: the man who fathered my own father, whose life spanned forty years before an untimely heart-attack, which left my grandmother widowed at the age of thirty-five, and four small, sheltered children left behind.
It’s curious that a life one lived - a life which spawned my own life, and without whom I wouldn’t exist – that that life seems so one-dimensional to me. I can’t imagine his laugh, his walk, his accent. I can, from photos, envisage the bare hint of a smile, and from stories, imagine his day and his routine – but the fact is, I do not know this man. I never will. If he were to pass me on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. I have never shed tears for him, I’ve never sat with him, I’ve never shared anything with him – not a memory, not a hug, not a “grandpa”. I do not know who he is. Though he was my grandfather, he remains aloof and hazy across the stretches of time – a fictional extra character in the story of my life. Just a name to be written in family trees, just a footnote, a memory long gone.
When my maternal grandfather died, I was in the hospital room with him, together with my mom, two aunts, my uncle and two cousins. I’d never thought of him as my grandfather. He was always "grandpa": with the white moustache, tall and smiling, trusty thick framed black glasses perched on his long, slightly hooked nose, and ever the dandy, always attired in freshly pressed shirts or polo t-shirts, and carefully ironed pants, their seams, prominently crisp. He seemed immortal to me, infallible, unbreakable. Grandpa was ninety-one when he passed, that evening, March 2nd, 2017. He’d been admitted to the private nursing home, and he struggled for breath, his eyes glazed over, his arms and legs, tiny, frail, kicking as he gasped for breath. The grandpa I had known all my life had shrunk into a tiny body; where there had once been a proud paunch was now a deflated stomach, his face showing contours and valleys, ridges and facial bones that I’d never seen before. He struggled for breath, his kidneys failing, his lungs collapsing, as we stood helplessly, begging him to fight, to stay with us, and then, with one final gasp, he surrendered, and that was it. My grandpa had gone.
My parents split up when I was four. After an attempt at reconciliation, they called it quits for good, and then, my maternal grandparents entered my life in a very tangible and enduring way. My grandpa was like many Trinidadian men of the older generations; he didn’t vocalize emotion. He never said “I love you”, or coddled and hugged me the way his wife, my grandma, would. But if I was ill, he would admonish my grandma to rub my head, with Vicks vaporub and Limacol. When I was in trouble with my mother, he would intervene, feebly, in my defense. When it was summer holidays and I wanted a pirate ship, he turned the dining-table over, and let me and my cousin, Kavir, loose on our newly-devised play-ship. He would pick guavas for us, bring us the ends of sugarcane from his backyard, which we chewed on greedily. He would cut coconuts open for us, let us roast sausages at the end of sticks when he lit bonfires in the backyard. He would eat mangoes with us, the juice dribbling down our faces, and grandpa would laugh, and so would we, until grandma told him off, and grimly set about washing our pubescent faces, and grubby hands. Grandpa liked nothing more than to have us around, while he sold in his grocery store, while he cooked food for his dogs, while he mulled around in his backyard. We'd asked to help him once, in his grocery store, and he gave us a box of Tunnocks Caramel wafer’s to unpack, Kavir and I. We unwrapped each bar from it’s package and carefully, and unsanitarily, piled them - freshly out of their protective wrapping - onto each other, and then we beamed at each and called grandpa to to purview our work well-done. He laughed, and this became one of his favorite stories to tell. He cooked us fried eggs, beating the eggs until they were fluffy, adding a bit of flour and baking soda – a reminder of his disadvantaged childhood, where flour was needed to stretch the egss - and finally, he sprinkled this omlette with fresh bird peppers and finely chopped onions, poured it into the frying pan, and fried it to beautiful brown goodness. “Grandpa,” I would say, sternly, my eight-year old sensibilities offended, “I don’t like onions.” And he would make it again for me, sans onions. He drank beer and fine scotch, and whenever he entertained, he would open a bottle of his best scotch and offer lunch, and then, he would chuckle, warmly, drunkenly, with his friends, as they talked politics, religion and whatever else it was they philosophised about, while they smoked cigarettes, picked at their food and sipped their scotch. He was a particular man, my grandpa, when it came to grooming. Before school, each day, he would rub bilcreme in our hair: mine, Kavir’s and Kerry’s – and with deft strokes, he would comb the sharpest side-paths on each of our heads, and send us off with freshly-ironed men’s handkerchiefs in our pants pockets and extra “vex money”, which we never used for it’s intended purpose, instead, we supplemented our allowances and handed over this security money for snacks at recess time and lunch time in school. Grandpa rose before sundown every morning. “There is nothing as good for the body as a cold morning shower,” he would tell me. Unfortunately, I’ve never followed this rule - neither rising early, nor showering with cold water. Grandpa was of the old school; he took pride in his appearance. He smelt of Oil of Olay face cream, Old Spice deodorant and cigarettes. I can close my eyes, and still, though he’s gone, imagine his smell. Grandpa never told me, “I love you.” I don’t think the phrase was part of the lexicon of his generation. Instead, he showed it, and I felt it.
It is unfair: to compare my grandpa to my paternal grandfather. Grandpa was given the luxury of time with me; my paternal grandfather was not. But that is, sadly, sometimes, how the cookie crumbles. I asked my paternal grandma once, “Do you think my grandfather would’ve liked me if he was alive?” “Oh yes,” she replied. “He had a wicked sense of humor. He would have loved joking with you. And all the things you’re interested in – religion, Israel, books, dogs – he would’ve loved talking to you.” I used to wonder about him; what his day was like, what were his favorite things, what of him is present in my personality, in my looks, in my thinking. But I was daydreaming; wondering for an answer that would never come. I’d never met him. He remains, sadly, a footnote in my life. My grandpa, however, etched firmly as a main character in the story that is me.
A month and a half ago, a close family friend was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer. It came completely out of left-field and the severity of how aggressively the cancer had spread shocked us. Since the diagnosis, she has begun chemotherapy and is, thankfully, responding well to the treatment. But the shock of the news and absorbing the grave verdict had left me somewhat unanchored, and a melancholy plagued me that I was unable to shake for the ensuing weeks.
Life. Death. Gone. Memories. Forgotten.
What is the point of it all?
I live my life. I woke up every day, eager to follow the daily news, be it World Cup, or what Trump has done next, or Israel; happy to say my prayers; excited to face the day and pen out whatever story I had inside of me; anticipating phone calls from friends; reading Facebook posts; eating, drinking, to be merry; to walk my dogs; to look for love; to hope; to dream; to dismay; to weep.
But to what end?
My grandpa had always told me, “Write my story. You’re the writer in the family. Write my story when I’m gone.” And he thus talked copiously, of his childhood, of his widowed mother, of poverty, of determination that led him to become a successful businessman, of the death of his mother, of marrying my grandma, of having children. I listened. I remember. I wrote his eulogy when he passed away; ninety-one years condensed into a few tearful pages. And I felt the melancholy of reducing my grandpa – a life well-lived – into paragraphs, when, to me, he was so much more. But that’s what we all come to, isn’t it? A final end, and a hope that we can be remembered. Only those who knew us would remember our subtleties, our nuances, our quirks. When I am gone, how long before I am forgotten? How long before I am reduced to a footnote in the story of the world? Who would remember my name in a hundred years?
We are, all of us, simply footnotes. Footnotes in each other’s stories, memories in each other’s minds. And as melancholy as that surmation is, it also is humbling. We exist for such a short space of time on this earth: a speckle of a drop in the vast ocean that is time. We will, all of us, eventually be forgotten. We won’t even exist as footnotes, because, at some point, the universe will end, and all of us will be gone.
"So to what end?", is my existential wonder. The heartaches, the joys of life, the tears shed – do we live for just the experience? Is it bombastic to worry about how we will be remembered? If we will be remembered? We may never make sense of the "Why's?" of life: why we exist, what is our collective purpose, why there is pain, why we are forgotten, but we must continue to live, and in living, we should know there is hope and excitement in knowing that each day we can become something to the other’s around us. Knowing that your smile can make the newsagent feel glad; knowing that your thank you can make the waitress feel appreciated; knowing that your hug can make your dog’s heart palpitate. Though I was not lucky to know my paternal grandfather, I was privileged to have known and loved my grandpa. And it is this which comforts me; though he is gone, he isn't a footnote in my life. His stories reside in my head - never to be forgotten; his laugh rebounds in my heart; his smile, forever alive in my mind. We live – not to be remembered – but in the now: to peel sugarcanes for our grandchildren, to fry eggs for our children, to drink scotch with our friends. We live - and we must relish in the lives we were given. And, yes, it will end with us being footnotes, but sometimes, some stories cannot be understood without the accompanying footnotes.