G is for Grandad

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Recently I watched the movie Gran Torino. The character played by Clint Eastwood reminded me a little of my Grandad. He was a quiet, grumpy man who tried to keep to himself and had little tolerance for that which was different. He was kind of racist, but without malice – he just came from a different time and found the increasing multiculturalism of our country hard to accept.

To be fair, I never really knew my Grandad all that well. I was too young to know him when he was active and we spent a lot of time with him; and then as we got older he withdrew more and became that introverted, grumpy old man who didn’t want a bar of anyone. I mostly just have little memories – things like him brushing my hair when I was 5; the way he would get up at the exact same time every day and eat the exact same thing with his breakfast dishes in the exact same place; his love of reading.

He had an amusingly cynical outlook on life and an abrupt bluntness in his dealings with people that we all remember fondly. How can you not love a guy whose opening response when asked by a virtual stranger “How have you been?” is “Oh yeah, alright – a bit sick – nearly carked it actually.”

He had a brother who I don’t think I ever met. They didn’t see him very often, and apparently he wasn’t 100% all there. My Nanna, who has been known on occasion to embellish and often entirely make up stories, told me the reason he wasn’t quite right. Apparently when his mother was in labour, she was in the car on the way to the hospital when he started to arrive. According to my Nanna, his mother refused to deliver in the car and pushed his crowning head against the car seat so he wouldn’t come out before they got there.
Clearly, I don’t believe a word of this story, and it makes me wonder more about my Nanna than it does about the distant relative that I don’t really know. It might have been the 1920’s, but I’m sure people weren’t THAT oblivious to how childbirth works.

Grandad had a triple heart bypass when he was about 70, and that’s the memory that stands out the most for me. The medication he was on after the operation didn’t sit well with him and it made him go ever so slightly crazy for a while. They stuck him in a ward with the other mentally questionable seniors, and that made visiting him somewhat of an event.

The man who was in the bed across from him had been in the war, and seemed to be reliving his time in the trenches. He kept taking off his shoes, banging them on the table and wailing:
“I’m in the trenches! Ohhhhhhhh! I can’t feel my toes! Ohhhhhhhh! They’re coming for me!!”
In the end they had to restrain him when he tried to escape.

Grandad’s condition was a little more on the paranoid side of things rather than being an unpleasant trip down memory lane.

He became convinced that the hospital staff were trying to kill him. On one visit, I remember that he told me that he could hear them having séances up the hall at night, and that he was worried they were coming for him next. He started hiding his pills because he thought the nurses were using them to poison him, and then when Nanna visited him next, he slipped a piece of paper into her hand that said “Call the cops; they’re trying to kill me”. Disturbing and amusing all at once, really.

Some of the other things he said were a lot less troubling and kind of funny – like telling my sister that he heard over the hospital PA system that she had lost their dog (their dog had been dead for over 5 years).
Luckily once they took him off the medication he went back to normal, and I don’t think he remembered a lot about what had gone on.

Grandad passed away about 2 years ago. It makes me sad to think that I learnt more about his life from his eulogy than I ever knew when he was around and could have had the opportunity to ask. I’ve been thinking about him a lot this week because my Nanna is going in for surgery to remove bowel cancer. Thinking about hospitals usually reminds me of Grandad because all of my last memories of him are his trips in and out of hospital, and then my last visit to him in palliative care the day before he passed away.

I choose to remember Grandad pre-heart bypass, when he was still reasonably fit and active, but with a little bit of that cynicism that we all knew and loved thrown in. He was an interesting and often difficult to live with man, and that’s why I loved him.


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