They say the good die young
That’s why I know that we gon’ have fun
In this life ‘cuz you only get one
When God calls for me, don’t cry, I just went home
–D12, “Good Die Young” (D12 World)
This month being the time of year that both my uncle and grandfather died (15 years apart), it seems like an appropriate time to talk about a depressing topic. It’s something everyone has to face, and something I need to learn to deal with — though, obviously, it’d be a lot worse if I were ever responsible for inflicting this emotion upon another…
I mentioned before that I can remember a family pet dying; death was something I learned about early in life — perhaps thanks to a diet of boys’ own comics, not to mention the Dark Judges from Judge Dredd — and I can even remember having a nightmare that my mother had told me I was going to die, and not being able to explain it to her without weeping like a, well, like a frightened child.
However, it was one day in December 1984 that I truly realised how final death is in the real world. My maternal uncle had been living with us (my mother, grandparents and I) for some time; I’d known him and enjoyed his company before, but he was staying with us following the failure of his marriage, and apparently taking me for drives and giving me sweets helped him get through depression, as did a great deal of weight training with his father (my grandfather), though our new dog Scraps took some time to get used to him! He was working a long way away from our home in Kent (Wimbledon, to be precise — one day he brought home a “genuine Wimbledon tennis ball”!), and so had to drive along the M25 every morning; I used to hear him starting his car (with some difficulty, due to it being winter) when he left, early in the morning. However, we were planning to move across to Surrey (where my grandfather’s job was moving), so his journey would have been easier.
Then one day, 11th December, I came home from school to find my grandmother in tears with two policemen hovering in the dining room, and no sign of my uncle. She told me what had happened, and I wept with her, and prayed to God to keep him safe in Heaven. This was a terrible car crash in foggy conditions on the M25 that claimed nine lives, but the knowledge that others had died that day didn’t, unfortunately, help my emotional state: in my anger at the world for taking away someone I loved, I actually began hoping that the driver behind my uncle — whom I, in my childish naivety, blamed for his death — had died as well.
How did we get through this difficult time? Well, I can only conclude that I survived due to the resilience of youth, but my mother and grandparents, in all probability, held it together for my sake. My grandmother told me, in a letter on my 18th birthday, that I’d kept her going during those dark days — and, indeed, that I’d kept him going following his divorce as well… and it’s worth noting that, one day as he walked me home from infant school, he saved my life by yanking me (by the scruff of my neck) out of the way of a car when I stupidly ran across a road!
I was lucky not to lose anyone else in my immediate family for the next fifteen years; the rest of the world, of course, wasn’t so lucky, with various horrors such as the Challenger disaster, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zebrugge, the first Gulf War and various terrorist atrocities all thinning out humanity’s numbers. I was even in America when the Columbine shootings took place. I was unmoved by the death of Princess Diana in 1997: she’d never been an important part of my life, and although it was a shock that “someone famous” had died, I disdained the exaggerated outpouring of grief expressed by my country at the time (much of it from the tabloids that had been about to print “what a filthy slut” headlines about her when news of her death came through).
However, my grandfather’s health declined over the years due to an aneurysm (which first became apparent to me in 1994), and with him being the main breadwinner of my family, we had to move into the flat above shops in Worthing where my folks live to this day (hopefully not for much longer, but that’s another blog post in itself). He’d done all sorts of things for me since I was a child, like drawing pictures and assembling models, and with his failing health, I began to step up as the man of the house (for example I put together a video cabinet in 1995 because he wasn’t about to do so). He also took me weight training, years before I’d begun to get soft around the middle…
It was my grandfather who enabled me to go to Michigan in 1998 on that student exchange scheme: this was because he stepped in to sort out the logistics when the staff at my university failed to live up to expectations. This trip, as you know, led to what remains the one big romance of my life, and I owe it all to him. While I was over there he was supposed to have an operation to circumvent the blockage in a blood vessel that caused his aneurysm, but unfortunately, one day I learned that the doctors in Worthing had aborted the operation, deeming the fabric of his circulatory system to be too weak to take the stitches. Thus, he was left with a kind of ticking time-bomb, which depressed me as it felt like I’d already lost him…
When I came back to Blighty, I learned that some doctors in London had disparaged the Worthing doctors and thought they could save my grandfather after all, which was a relief to me. He was thus able to help me when I got my first PC in late 1999, which is to say, he bought me a better keyboard than the brokers supplied. It’s a tragic irony that he was the one who took our elderly dog down to the vet to be put out of her misery… and, that summer, he also had to junk his old green Datsun Cherry that we’d had for countless years (not as long as I could remember, but nearly).
Thus, in early December he went into hospital again, with high hopes… it was the same night that a fire nearly broke out in my hall of residence, thanks to someone apparently leaving burgers in an oven to burn (in what may have been a deliberate act of sabotage). I still recall worrying that the guy in the next room was injured or dead when he didn’t come out, and expressing relief when he turned up alive… considering how much I grew to loathe the guy, and considering what happened to my grandfather that night, you can guess who I wish had lived and who had died (but hatred is the last negative emotion I’ll be “exploring” in this blog post category, later in the month).
I remember that Friday morning, 3rd December 1999, reading my e-mail at the end of a Volcanology lesson in a computer lab and getting an immediate sense of foreboding when my mother asked me to ring home — if it had been good news, she’d have said so. I delayed going back to my hall of residence (the building that hadn’t burned down the night before) to use the public phone outside my room, but eventually, I had to face it… and the worst had indeed happened, my grandfather had departed this world, albeit under more peaceful terms than he would have done if his aneurysm had killed him instead. At least we had that to be thankful for: he slipped away while taking a chance of getting his life back, instead of waiting for the time bomb to detonate tomorrow, next week, next month…
How did I react? Not by crying, which is something I never let myself do over this particular loss — I don’t think that was a desire to “be a man”, because problems in my own life have frequently driven me to tears, but simply a sense of disbelief. I couldn’t take it in, and after lying on my bed looking at the ceiling for a while, I remember getting up and playing a video game (the shareware version of Rise of the Triad, if you must know). I don’t know why, I think I just needed to do something normal…
Coming home gave me a shock: in my room (which he’d been using as his own while I’d been away), I saw he’d left his headphones on the keyboard of his PC. This, more than anything, brought home to me the knowledge that he wasn’t coming back — the fact that the person who had put them down no longer existed in the world to pick them up again. He’d even done as he said he would and bought me Thriller for Christmas; it was sad listening to it for the first time…
Naturally my mother and grandmother were living in gloom, barely hanging on (my grandmother crying on the Saturday was a particularly heartbreaking sound), but we closed ranks and made it to the end of the year, even “celebrating his life” at his funeral later in the month. A lot of people turned up for this, which was gratifying, but I found myself noting, understandably in my anger at the world, that there was no rolling news on TV, no phony outpourings of grief, as there had been when Diana died — and my grandfather had meant more to me than she ever had!
I’m told it’s normal to feel disbelief at the death of a loved one: just as I’d dreamed in late 1984 that they’d “found a way” to bring my uncle back to life, so in late 1999 I dreamed that my grandfather came home and sat in his normal armchair. Is it just the brain reacting to a massive change by refusing to accept it, and trying to fool our conscious minds into thinking “normality” has returned, or do our loved ones really come back to watch over us in some supernatural way, perhaps influencing events subtly to help us in the years that follow?
Now my close family is down to just my mother and grandmother, but although we also lost my grandmother’s brother-in-law in 2009 (someone I remember saying of me: “Give ‘im nothin’!” when I was a child… yes, that’s a “fond” memory!), for now it seems I don’t have to worry, as both are in rude health. Still, next December will mark another fifteen years… and then there’s the people I grew up with who I found out more recently didn’t make it this far, such as the excellent teacher I had when I was 11 (died of a heart attack while swimming), and a couple of school friends of my own age (one, sadly, hadn’t been a happy guy and left school after a nervous breakdown, so I fear the worst).
I know I’m not the only person to lose someone: one of my close friends lost a friend to suicide a few years ago, and another lost a friend on “Seven-Seven”. I have to keep in mind how they, and everyone else (particularly my family), would react if I ever died, which is why I’ve resolved to go on living no matter what — there’s enough bereavement in the world without being the cause of more, and the thought of not being around to have to worry about them doesn’t stop me caring now. Much as I love my mother and grandmother, I’m determined to outlive them (barring discovery of immortality within our lifetimes) — and, more importantly, to live, even if I have to go through the pain of losing them, because it’d be far worse if our positions were reversed.
(Hence this blog, which is the very expression of my determination to go on living! What, did you think it was some reference to Doctor Who villains constantly returning?)
It helps to hear people I admire talk about those they’ve lost: my hero Eminem, for example, lost his uncle (a good influence on him, much as mine was on me) to suicide, and his fellow rappers, D12, spoke in the song I quoted at the top of this post about those they’d lost over the years to the horrible situation in Detroit, the US “murder capital”. Indeed, they themselves lost Proof (Eminem’s best friend) in 2006, yet they’ve all carried on living. Similarly, Gwar… no, come on, this is serious, I’m not just throwing in a gratuitous reference to them! They lost lead guitarist Cory Smoot in 2011, and it was enough to make them break character and mourn his passing, as well as retiring his character, Flattus Maximus (who, in character, they said had “gone home”).
It’s becoming clear to me that many of the famous people I grew up admiring have passed on, which seems to be an occupational hazard of growing up; they’re not people who I met in person, but they still meant a lot to me in life. The first three main actors from my favourite TV show have all died (admittedly Hartnell before I was even born, but I was sad to see Pertwee die in 1996), as have many others who appeared therein; I was particularly sad to learn in 2011 that Roy Skelton had passed on, because as well as Daleks, he was also Zippy & George in Rainbow! It was also sad to lose some of my favourite comedians, such as Kenneth Williams (whose voice was well-known to children) in 1988, Frankie Howerd (who I’d only really discovered the year before) in 1992 and Kenny Everett (a childhood hero of mine) in 1995.
Perhaps the worst was Ronnie Barker: I’d watched his works, including Porridge and Open All Hours, but most notably The Two Ronnies with Ronnie Corbett, which I was into from a surprisingly young age. When he came back to TV in 2006 to make The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, I could tell he wasn’t at the height of his powers any more (though Corbett seemed as vivacious as ever), but was still shocked to learn in October that he’d died. He’d recorded a Christmas edition of Sketchbook before the end, and I remember watching this, and thinking at the end, as he read out the joke news stories with Corbett, that it was the last bit of work he’d ever done…
And finally, to lighten the mood slightly, as an adult I have begun to get emotional over deaths of characters in TV shows and movies — perhaps more than I ought, but still, it’s better to feel sadness under controlled conditions than to sneer about sentimentality. Deaths are common in Japanese anime, perhaps because (a) it’s generally more grown-up than Western cartoons, and (b) it usually tells a continuing story rather than consisting entirely of filler episodes that can be shown in any order.
(Yes, I know a lead character in Family Guy died recently, but the episode won’t even be shown in this country until next year, so I won’t dwell on it!)
I also remember a member of the main cast dying in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, though at the time I was more shocked than saddened (a recurring character dying? Inconceivable!). In the 21st century, 24 was particularly bad for deaths of beloved characters, either heroically or tragically (though at least one death in season 5 was spoiled for me when I rewatched it, because an idiot DJ had revealed the guy was alive after all in season 7!), so I dread to think how I’ll cope if I ever get around to watching Game of Thrones…