I was working on a short story, an autobiographical piece for a writing competition. Somewhere along the line I made a mistake, I got dates mixed up, confused whether it was a postal or an electronic entry. The upshot is, the deadline had passed, and the story is unsubmitted.
I’d like to share it with you, not so much for comment or critique, but more as an example. It explores an aspect of my past, difficult memories and relationships from my childhood, and how that past echoes into my current life. It is raw, and it was uncomfortable to write.
Sometimes writing takes us to uncomfortable places. It reawakens memories we would rather forget, evokes emotions we would rather not experience. Writers can’t shy away from that discomfort. They can’t produce bland, safe writing in the interests of shielding themselves from pain. Writing is beautiful, terrifying, painful, funny, disturbing, sensuous, agonising, all in one.
This piece made me remember painful thoughts, and filled me with regret – but not for writing it.
We were frightened of each other. She was a young woman far from home, surrounded by strangers, begging to be told where her family was, why wouldn’t they come to get her. She would wring the pale hospital bedding between her hands, drawing the covers up to her face, trying to hide from the concerned looks. And I, a shy boy of only 11 years old, standing in a hospital ward, watching this young girl in an old woman’s body, lost and alone.
Behind the fear there was a defiant pride, born of working class Catholicism in a largely middle class Protestant Ulster. Years later I would see that look again, staring out from her wedding portrait, she and my grandfather, looking closer and more in love than I remember them.
I don’t remember my grandmother as she was, only the fragile carapace she left behind. From the start of my life until the end of hers was just over a decade, and for several of those years we had no contact, isolated in the chilly loneliness of estrangement.
Before then, I was too young to remember, too young to notice. She was old, almost an invalid, her broad Ulster brogue incomprehensible to a young Scottish boy; her brusque, harsh manner too stern, too frightening to a shy and frightened soul.
Grey haired, watery eyed, with loose jowls surrounding a toothless mouth, hands shaking, and always sat in her chair beside the electric fire which burned through every season, failing to warm bluish legs chilled by age and poor circulation.
She frightened me then, this old crone, every inch the witch; how could she be my father’s mother? My father—tall, assured, stern when needed, but who was always there at bedtime, making up stories, creating in me a love of storytelling. This rotund and gibbering crone could not be mum to him, not in the way my own mother was to me.
I kept a wary distance on the couch, or at the table when we visited. I remember one Christmas when they came to visit, granny and grandad. On Christmas Eve, whilst my parents had gone out to the evening mass, whilst One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing played on the television, I had under the bed to avoid having to kiss her goodnight, to avoid feeling those slobbering lips press my cheek, or to smell the fusty smell of old age.
She was unwell, and her illness was time. Children fail to understand the ravages of age as adults do, and she and my father were arguing about the medical care she needed. He, pleading with the concern of a son who remembered his mother in her prime, aware of what time was robbing her of. She, resistant with the peculiar stubbornness of the elderly, a mixture of pride and fear; the desire to not have to rely on others, but scared of being left at their mercy. I sat at the table, listening to them, recounting what my father had said, because my father was right. He had to be, for her was my dad, and he had all the answers.
Bad enough to hear the litany of time’s theft from the lips of your own son, but to hear these reminders of mortality, of frailty—what had been lost, never to return—from a child, one who has no idea of what struggles age brings? I realise now, three decades later, that I humiliated her. That was the final insult, and the family ruptured.
She roared at me, and though I don’t recall the words, I remember the intent. My father jumped to my defence. He’s only a boy, and he’s only telling the truth.”
Telling the truth.. The truth drove a wedge between my father and his mother. The truth separated us for three years. The truth made my father cry, the first time in my life I had seen him, or any man, weep. The truth caused pain. The truth was destructive. The truth was dangerous.
With simple words, this thing called truth, I had broken the familial bonds between mother and son, had broken my father, that man of strength who was never helpless, reduced him to a sniffling child.
It was my fault; an unthinking, careless, evil child. I had ruined it all with this explosive truth.
Is this why I have shied away from the truth for the rest of my life, preferring instead the comforts of fantasy? Truth hurts, destroys, wounds. Better then to live in half-truth, white lies, unreality made real through wilful deception. Anything to avoid that danger of truth.
My ancient namesake said “when I was a child, I thought as a child.” Is there a part of me still five years old, reeling from the damage truth caused, and thinking as a child, that a retreat from truth is the answer?
The following three years of silence passed in a blur. Our twice-weekly visits a thing of the past. There was backchannel communication, I am sure, but it all went over my head. I had only one set of grandparents.
My grandfather began to make visits. He would make the 40-mile round trip as often as his weary legs would allow. He had suffered all his life from problems with his legs. It is an inherited condition, I’m told. During the war, he had been part of the Military Police, in a division reserved for men not fit enough for active service, on account of the problems with his legs.
Years later, around the time I learned what he did during the war, I was told that these visits were clandestine; he told granny that he was going bowling, or that he was down the pub with his fellow club members. More lies, designed to protect others from hurt.
I remember once, shortly after we had moved to our new home, we drove back from a shopping trip, or church, or similar. It was a drab day, with a fine mist of rain, and my grandfather, an old man less than a decade away from his own demise, was sitting on our doorstep in the cold damp air, and had been for hours.
The first breakthrough came when my father, and only my father, was allowed to revisit his parents’ home. A thaw had begun, but the path remained treacherous.
As I condemn myself for causing the split, I flatter myself that I caused the reconciliation. We made Mother’s Day cards in class one day, all bright card and colourful tissue paper. I realised that I had a mum, and so too did my mum—that she was a grandmother made her no less a mother. And so too my father’s mother.
So I rubbed out “to mummy”, and wrote instead “to granny” and after “happy mother’s day” I placed “we miss you”. My father took the card with him when he next visited.
I don’t know whether it was the night he returned home, or a few days later, but I remember him telling me we could all visit granny again; maybe I imagined that part, maybe it was wishful thinking, but I think I remember being told it was due to the card.
But by then, things had progressed to the final chapter. The woman we visited was older than the time since our last visit would suggest. Her hearing was gone, her eyesight fading, the trembles and the cold all far worse.
But it was the memory, or lack of it, that was the warning sign.
I don’t recall the final deterioration, I only recall visiting the hospital. We seemed to spend an eternity there, wandering around labyrinthine corridors, indulging in an endless stream of biscuits and juice, watching television. Maybe I imagined this hospital, it seemed like its own self-contained community. We were there to visit someone who could not be seen, my granny, a woman who did not exist.
I saw her once, and it was the last time on this earth. She was frightened, frightened of these strange children being brought to gawp and stare at her. The only face she recognised was my father, but he was not her son. She thought he was her brother, there to protect her. She was a young girl once more, frightened by strangers, frightened by the captivity of this hospital, this old body.
It was too distressing for all; for us to see the cruel trick of Alzheimer’s, and for her to be stared at by intimate strangers. My granny was gone, in her place a young Irish girl called Ina, as much a stranger to me as I was to her.
It was a month at most after that, when she finally found peace. We were deemed to be too young to attend the burial; after the funeral mass we were dispatched home, to await the rest of the funeral party for the wake.
I saw Ina again, years later, after my grandfather died. We were clearing their home, packing up possessions before the house was sold on. In a box in the garden shed I discovered dozens of old photographs. One was of a young girl in a summer dress, sat on the knee of a well-dressed elderly man with a large and well-groomed moustache. In a faded photograph, her eyes were the focal point of the picture. It had been five years, but I remembered where I had last seen that look.