This piece is by Lynda Hiini.
On Christmas Day they went to Christmas lunch at their daughter’s house. Both their daughters, their son and partners and all the five grandchildren were there, even the two dogs came. A day of such promise, such impending joy, an explosion of happiness and rare gluttony.
Grandma had spinal surgery booked for the following January, and suffered pain that rendered her incommunicable and incoherent on some days. Christmas Day was one of those days when she woke up and wished she could sleep until Operation Day, and if the surgeon could not fix the problem then she wanted to die on the operating table. Grandma took a hefty dose of painkillers to dull the pain, but not enough to frighten the family with the consequences. Christmas Day, especially with Santa coming, was not a day that should have its participants contend with a snivelling, miserable, much pained Grandma.
Granddad woke happy on Christmas morning, he slept well. He loved family occasions; he put his guitar in the car. Granddad had always been a performer, still was – always the showman. He played air guitar on Grandma’s back as she lay on her side during the night, practicing his repertoire. What Granddad did not do at all on Christmas morning, was talk to Grandma. Not a single word. Nothing. They had had no argument, he just couldn’t be bothered being part of a conversation, couldn’t form the words. This was not rare. Grandma thought she was used to this, but found this silence on Christmas Day of all days when she was in such physical pain, suffocating and so very lonely.
All the family were there when the two of them arrived. Granddad was recharged the moment he left the car. He had so much to say, to everyone, even to Grandma. Grandma looked at him across the room and saw the man she had loved for over 45 years back from wherever it was he had been, and hoped that he would stay present, connected for the whole day or even half a day, or a morning, an hour or indeed, anything. Grandma was always looking for the kind, gentle man she fell in love with. The lead guitarist. The man who wept when he had to end a rabbit’s suffering at the side of the road. The man who carried Grandma’s dying mother everywhere that her wheelchair could not go, and the man who wiped her mother’s bum when Grandma could not, the hurts in that relationship longstanding and too deep to bridge, even when her mother was eaten up with cancer.
Over the past ten years or more Grandma had seen Granddad lose a great deal of himself intellectually and emotionally. He became moody, had rages and was unpredictable, was forced to retire when he made too many mistakes at work. He cared so much less about so much more. When Grandma tried to share with her children how much she feared the man she loved was following the dementia pathway of his mum and her siblings, all three children told her many times over, “dad was always like that mum”. No, the man she had loved and still loved was not always like that, and the isolation of it cut deep. Granddad was such a performer, still.
During Christmas morning, the effectiveness of Grandma’s pain killers wore off. Grandma apologised to the family and went on all fours to relieve the pressure on her lower spine. Ever conscious of Christmas Day, she tried to make light of the pain etched on her face, wracking her back. Such was her success that her three year old granddaughter went to climb on Grandma’s back. Granddad from across the room told granddaughter to leap on Grandma’s back, that Grandma would take her for horsey ride around the garden. Stunned silence from all the family before granddaughter was told “no hon”.
Grandma’s extreme physical pain was far eclipsed by the emotional wound that her husband’s words caused. She wept. For herself, for the Granddad she loved, for her children and grandchildren. For the loss of a day with so much potential. Granddad was furious, kept saying to everyone that he was only joking, he did not mean it and that Grandma could not take a joke. No, not that day Grandma couldn’t, not any joke and especially the joke that wasn’t a joke from Granddad.
Grandma did however later on that day receive the most wonderful Christmas present. Each of their three children phoned to see how she was. She was so much better thanks to the painkillers at home. And the present from all three?
“No, dad was not always like this mum”.