I set out to write the previous entry in a very different way, but got wrapped up in the explanation of death as I see it. I actually meant to write about my grandfather. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll have heard me speak of my first master, Gordon. Well by coincidence, my grandfather was also called Gordon.

Gordon was born in 1921, the son of Irish immigrants. He grew up in absolute poverty, his father having abandoned his mother shortly after his birth. At 14 he left school and went out to work in order to scratch together enough money to keep his family in food. Time wound on, and whilst working in a packaging factory he attended night school, gaining a degree in mathematics. After serving for six years in the war, fighting in France and Burma, Gordon eventually returned to England and his old job. Soon, he ran the factory, and with the recommendation he gained there, he went on to become the international packaging manager for Unilever, one of the world’s biggest companies. He had two daughters and two grandsons: my brother and I. To both of us, he was the sole central and dependable father figure in our lives.

Gordon was a calm, patient and intelligent grandfather. He was kind, and fun. He had an irreverent sense of humour and a positive mental attitude. He was rich, both materially and spiritually. At the age of 87, he suffered a massive heart attack in his bed and died.

I took the news badly; I was going through a bad patch in my life and lived over a hundred miles away from him, so when my tearful mother rang me to tell me he’d died I sobbed like a baby. This simply couldn’t happen. He was old, yes, but he was as strong as an ox. He was eternal; he couldn’t simply “stop”. I told my mum to look after herself and that I’d be home the next day, and hung up the phone. And I cried, and cried, and cried. That night, something profound happened to me. I can’t claim it as an effort of will, or a decision I made. But I felt something; something I didn’t have the words to define at the time. But I think I have them now – I felt my grandfather in the Force.

I wasn’t asleep, how could I sleep? I was too distraught. I felt like part of my body had been pulled out of my chest. I felt a gaping, open chasm inside me, a black hole which felt like it would suck me inside. I looked out of the window of my girlfriend’s room in university halls, at the beautiful Southampton shoreline. I saw the Itchen bridge, a notorious suicide hotspot less than a mile away, lit up in the night. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was hurt at the thought of death. This bridge stood out in that moment as a memorial to death, a great industrial reminder of what we all faced.

And then a stillness passed over me, like a gauzy curtain being pulled back. My emotion left, and in its place was a perfect and unimaginable calm. At the time I remember wondering if this was what it was like to lose your mind. I was convinced it couldn’t be OK to feel so much of “nothing” at a time like this. I examined the feeling, and came to a realisation: my grandfather wasn’t gone.

He had passed from view, away from our ability to talk to him, to reach out an arm and hug him. He would never give my cheek a stubbly kiss on goodnight again, something I still remember as one of the most vivid and valuable memories of my childhood. He would never counsel me on the decisions I was making academically, or ask about my love life. His lessons were in some sense over. And yet they weren’t. I could still “feel” him. I could still see him, in my minds eye and through a million memories far truer than crude sensory data. What was seeing him slumped in a chair next to the feeling of being bounced on his knee as a toddler? What was watching him fall asleep in front of the TV next to that stubbly kiss? I was sad that he had left the world, it’s true; but he hadn’t left me. His lessons, his love, his legacy would and could never, ever leave me.

I’ve held that understanding ever since. I consoled my mother and grandmother at his funeral, and they were both distraught as they had every right to be. I was still and calm, sympathetic and compassionate but more concerned for their emotions than for mine. I’d be fine. He was with me, and would stay with me for the rest of my life. It would be OK. Short years later my grandmother and my maternal aunt also died, and they were buried in a family plot with my grandfather’s ashes. Again, I knew they were with me. I could be the “rock” for my family, because I wasn’t hurt by death any more. It was sad to lose them from the world, but I knew they lived on. Flowers grow on their grave, and we planted a tree for my grandfather in a local landmark called the tree cathedral, where it will grow to maturity and reproduce itself. Some of his ashes lie beneath its roots, and so grow through its branches and leaves, the animals that feed from it and the whole ecosystem around it.

It’s the Force which gives this peace to me, as I defined it above. Death is never nice, but we can choose to understand it as a transformation rather than an end. The lessons my grandfather gave to me will be passed on to my son and daughter; they helped me earn the money for our home, and the mental and emotional stability to build a loving family around my children. He lives on in us, as I live on in them.

As we all live in the Force.

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