One of the reasons I used yesterday's LOLcat was the bittersweet quality of it; you have the cake, you lose the cake. It's your birthday, it's a magic day, everything is supposed to go right. It's a very privileged Western fantasy.
Yesterday was lovely; I got to sleep in, my son rang me from his grandfather's fishing tinnie on the Tathra River and wished me Happy Birthday; I went to school and some of the students who have passed through the BookStud went out of their way to bring me a fabulously lush birthday cake and have a relaxed and happy morning tea with me:
Shellaine brought the cake.
OMG it was like a dark choc pudding in a pastry flan, with strawberries and kirsch cherries and dark choc shavings. We nearly died of choc overload.
Bellinda gave me a gorgeous spray of Clematis vine. Bron made homemade berry friands. Dan and the others brought themselves. Mary gave me more dark chocolate. I'm going to look like a Terry's Choc Orange soon...
We had fun.
This is me, just before I overdosed on alcoholic cherries.
[other presents, BTW, were: chocolate (everybody knows my loves), Kate Atkinson's latest book, a whippersnipper (a hint from Colonel Duck) and a Zelda game for the Nintendo DS (for my recovery period)]
Then, after a few hours of work, I decided to go to the movies and see The Edge of Love, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then I went to Zoe's house for dinner, a bottle of champagne, a nice bottle of white wine, and a few mouthfuls of red wine. I was offered whiskey, but I try not to mix the grape with the grain.
That was sweet. But the night before, Colonel Duck had rung to warn me that my grandfather was on the brink of death. It might be 12 hours, 24 hours, or 36 hours, but it was imminent.
That was bitter. It was hard to sleep that night, and all through yesterday I was aware that my beloved Papa was lying in a bed, breathing slower and slower, just... giving up. At 91, who could blame him?
I'd finished dinner with Zoe, we were halfway through the white, and I got a phonecall from my father's phone. It was my 11-year-old son, sounding strained but trying to be as grownup as he could as he told me that the nursing home had just rung to say that Papa had drawn his last breath. Bumblebee visited him at the dementia ward the day before, and his simple description of how Papa looked had haunted me all day:
his eyes were closed but really sunken. His mouth was open and his breath was loud. His hands were closed tight and twitching, as if he was fighting something.
He probably was, having served all six years of WWII, even though he came out the other end completely pacifist. He could have been fighting his commanding officers, his mother, his dementia, anything. Hopefully he's at peace now.
Papa was a very gentle man, a good grandfather. He wasn't always so; my mother and her sisters tell stories of a raging temper, a frustrated father, but he'd made enough life changes by the time I came along (being the eldest grandchild) to share a lot of fun and wisdom with his grandchildren.
Poor Papa had grown up in the Bega Valley with very respectable, strong-willed parents who owned a dairy farm and served on the Town Council. He'd been desperate to escape, not be a farmer, try something else, but the expectation was always that he'd take on the farm. Little wonder then, that he enlisted as soon as war broke out. He served in a number of WWII arenas, doing the same sort of war duties that Spike Milligan did (Papa was a great SM fan), and served for pretty much the whole span of the war. He even called himself by a completely different name for the whole time -- his name is Horace, his army mates only know him as Jim.
When demobbed, he found himself back on the farm. And stuck there, for a long time.
He managed to escape dairy farming when my mother (the eldest of four girls) was in high school. He finished high school in Canberra at the same time as my mum, went to uni, and had enough of a public service career to be able to retire with a pension.
When I was old enough to be aware of my grandparents, they were living on the land again, buying somewhere, doing it up, selling it on, and moving again. They were/are great dreamers, and he was always very creative. They always had plans to travel, but they never did. I always thought of them as being more adventurous than my Western Australian grandparents, but the truth was that wherever we moved as an army family, my WA grandparents would come and visit, but my Eastern grandparents never did. Papa always wanted to ride a bicycle through China, but he never did. I don't think he ever really knew exactly what he wanted, he just yearned to do things. He was a restless soul in some ways, but outwardly he was calm, considerate and dreamy.
He did do a lot of things: farming, horse breeding, goat breeding, renovations, reading, art, and he brought up four fantastic daughters who are all remarkable women in their own way.
I'm almost shocked by the depth of my feelings about Papa's death. I've been mentally preparing for it for so long, and I said goodbye to my actual grandfather a long time ago, from the day I went to visit him and realised that he had NO idea who I was. I'd 'disconnected' with Papa somewhat. When I visited him in the dementia ward (so infrequently my gut hurts as I write this) he was a shell of the man I loved, and I had to hold back. But when I heard he'd reached the end, I was/am revisited by memories, and they persist. I'm glad, because I thought I'd lost some of them.
I remember his hands. They were square, and held each other a lot, either behind his back or on his lap. He liked to walk, and clasped them behind his back as he walked.
He loved watching other people achieve. When I graduated from uni (the first time), he clapped as hard for everyone as he clapped for me.
He got depressed. A lot. But I can most clearly see his face, laughing. For that I am thankful.
He loved animals. He and Nana always had at least a dog or a cat. But often both. Or multiples. He once bred goats, and I have a photo of myself with a baby goat on my back. He was a vegetarian then, and people would order baby goats from him and when they picked them up Papa would realise that the goats were going to end up on spit-roasts. I think that was the reason he gave up goat-farming.
He was a vegetarian for years until he forgot that he didn't eat meat and by that point he probably really needed to eat it. He also made his own (terrific) bread, and grew and ground and drank his own wheatgrass juice waaaaay before it became trendy to do so. He grew his own vegies. He loved gardening.
Later in life he hated collars and ties. He loved Chinese-style collars and I remember Nana cutting all the collars off a batch of shirts she'd bought.
He loved musicals. Apparently he adored My Fair Lady, and wore out his copy of the record. I like to think it was the journey of self-improvement he admired.
In his retirement he took up art, which I think was always his aspiration. He did mostly painting and pottery. I don't have a painting (they are hotly treasured within the family) but I have pots and bowls he made. I like to think I got some of his creative genes, along with some of my cousins.
I'm missing him now. But, I understood the moment I was told of his death, I've been missing him for a long time. There's half a century between us, and the last ten years have been quite non-existent. But the time we had was valuable.
I'm very grateful to the people who became his family, his carers, who became very attached to him in his special-need dementia ward. He was rarely unhappy, and I think that is important. He was pared to his essential core, but that core was still lovely. I'm glad they experienced that.
I'm spending part of today with my grandmother, driving her from Canberra to Cooma after a medical appointment. After being a weird kind of widow for ages, it's suddenly happened. She's a widow. I have no idea what she's going through, but I'm looking forward to talking with her one-on-one, for the first time in ages. It'll ease the guilty pain, a bit.
So you see? Bittersweet. Shit happens, even on your birthday. I'm ok with that.