I never knew my grandfather. My mother's father, he was always a silent figure in my life. He sat, he read the paper, he worked the farm. I don't recall ever having a meaningful conversation with him. I can't recall the sound of his voice, the tone of his words, the way of his mind. He was a walk-on extra in the sitcom of my life. So, when, almost ten years ago now, he was found to have cancer creeping through his body, my twelve-year-old life was relatively unaffected. I was frightened by this sad, unintelligible figure lying prostrate on a hospital bed. The one time I visited him there - an occasion organised, I realise with twenty-year-old adult hindsight, because occasions would soon be short on the ground - I spent less than a minute in his room, before leaving to entertain myself in the lounge, with television, with toys.
I was called back, before we left. I remember my mother's words. Come and say goodbye, Andrew. I didn't want to. For reasons I couldn't then and can hardly now articulate, I didn't want to. This man in this bed was a stranger. He wasn't reading the paper, he wasn't watching the news, he wasn't working the farm. How could this man be the silent grandfather of mine? He was a fatally ill, broken man. His whole body sagged like the half of a stroke victim. I didn't want to see him. But see him I did - I think now that if my parents had allowed me to renege on this obligation I would have little respect for them. I went in, he asked for me, I stood by his side. I can't now remember what he said. I am not sure he said anything. But I stood there for some seconds, before leaving.
I later refused to visit the open casket, before the funeral.
At the funeral itself, I was asked to read a passage from the Bible. My father, a minister, performed the service. My two elder brothers were pall-bearers. I nearly broke into giggles, because I misread a word. But I was told it was not obvious.
After the funeral, I was approached by several people. My aunts and uncles, my parents, my brothers. Are you alright, Andrew? One man, the youth minister from my church, came up to me. He said to me, Andrew, if you ever need anyone to talk to about this, if you ever need someone to lean on, I am always here. Now, this strikes me as an amazing thing for this man to do. I know many ministers, and I know that this is what they do. Their job is to be a shoulder to cry on. But then - I didn't know what to say. I muttered something, perhaps thankyou, and he left to talk to others. I thought at the time - But I'm ok. I'm not upset.
Like so many important events in my life, I was emotionally distant from this one.
I was not upset then.
I see the shadow my grandfather has left behind. I see the photos at his house, I hear my mother speak of him, I see the quiet respect with which he was held by my family. I remember the respect of his wartime friends who attended his funeral.
I speak with my paternal grandfather - still alive and hale, still working. I see the care he gives to his children, often absent in their fractured childhoods - his travelling, his divorce and subsequent remarriage. I see the care he gives me, and his other grandchildren - his genuine and deep concern for our lives. I think now that I do mourn my maternal grandfather - I mourn the richness his presence would bring to us all.
Can you truly mourn someone you never knew?