While on tour with my boy last week I made a stop off just outside Bristol to visit my nan. I don’t make the trip as often as I’d like and my busyness and bad excuses sit uncomfortably in my heart between visits. Reasons and excuses, weeks months years. Humans have a knack, most of the time, for spending a lot of their time prioritising their time wrongly.
But there I found myself, a convenient stone’s throw away with some time on my hands, a granddaughter’s guilty coal burning in my chest and a nice boyfriend to introduce, sitting among my grandmother’s familiar things. The whittled remainders of a downsized life. Decorative plates on the wall, ornaments I nearly broke a thousand times, a fridge full of souvenir magnets from places she’s never visited, photos.
Dad on the mantelpiece in his university cap and gown, beaming proudly, boozily.
Nan’s a real talker – ring the bell and she’s off on a three hour patchwork monologue about Everything Ever before she’s even opened the door. She was on good form. She squeezed in family anecdotes, how she never thought Granddad was that handsome actually (eyes are strange things – he looked like a film star to me), politicians, immigrants, new televisions, motorised scooters, her feet, her legs, her hands, how in the WAF she was once two days late escorting some girls to an RAF dance because she allowed one of them to stop off to visit family, hot cross buns, the helpful staff in Waitrose, and would I like her marble lamp when she dies because it’ll just get thrown otherwise.
“I said to your Dad, I said, “Michael, I need a lamp. This one’s broke.” And he said “Mum, I’ll get you a lamp.” And he did. And that’s the lamp. Now do you want it when I go or it’ll just get chucked.”
I said yes to the lamp, said yes to the wait for the lamp, said yes to my Dad’s choice of lamp to replace the broken lamp, said yes to a thing I wouldn’t choose myself for the sake of saying yes, yes to the DNA that sits upon it like indelible invisible proof that he and she were here.
She was off again, onto another tour de force of the state of the nation and baking. All I could think about was the lamp. The time to leave arrived quietly at that natural juncture that opens up in chat like an escape portal back to convenience, wrong priorities, getting back on the road before the M25 turns into the maws of Hell. I think I just selfishly found being there hard.
I left her with flowers and chocolates and a card for her birthday. For tomorrow. She waved me off from her front door, the pristine welcome mat, the unneeded knocker. Cheeriness masking the fact it could be our last wave.
We had chosen not to address the elephant in the room, the shame-faced beast that lumbered guiltily around trying not to smash the china.
Ten years ago tomorrow, Dad died. Nan’s birthday. A bad day to choose to die really, but chose he did when he ended a long struggle with depression. It’s been a difficult decade, and now at the end of it I am assured of only one thing. I don’t believe in goodbyes. I don’t think we can do them, not really. Humans are bad at it. Like elephants. Our capacity to love and to remember prevents us. Our capacity to mourn is immeasurable. So I’m glad that after so long trying in vain to say goodbye, I took the time, got my priorities right, and said hello instead.