Last week I drove 'down south' to the town I called home for the first 18 years of my life. These days it's not a place I often return to, and this was no happy homecoming, but rather a trip of somber possibility. Both my grandparents were in the hospital, the last place you want your grandparents to be.
After arriving late at night I stayed with my oldest friend Darryl. When we were kids he and I used to ride our bikes pretending to be cops from the TV show "CHiPs." He was Ponch and I was Jon. Together we used to race around the block on our bikes in imaginary car chases like those we used to see on the show from the late seventies and early eighties.
We cut squares of card from old breakfast cereal boxes and peg them into the spokes of our bikes rear wheels so they sounded more like motorbikes, at least in our young imaginations. One Christmas I got a bright yellow police siren that attached to my bike and could be activated with the touch of a button, and with that, in my world at least, we WERE "CHiPs"!
Back then I would often ride to my grandparents' place just around the corner from our house. Arriving in a spectacular whirlwind of speed and energy, I'd lay my bike against the side of the house, lift the latch to open their side gate, and enter their patio area amid the familiar sounds of barks as the dogs in the house would announce an arrival.
Granddad would often make his way to the back of their place to see who had come calling and to calm the canine commotion. "Watcha Sie." He'd say as he opened the door of the conservatory that was often stifling hot in the summer months. If Yogi, the family nickname for my Grandma, wasn't close by he'd call through to her as I stepped inside. "Doll, it's Simon." From somewhere inside their little bungalow I'd hear her call back, "Whatto Sie!" Granddad would then go through a familiar routine of getting into a boxer's stance, rubbing his nose with his left thumb while saying, "See that, see that?" then he would take a pretend swing at me with his right arm, "Ah, you didn't see that did ya!" he'd say as we both laughed. That never seemed to get old, not once.
At the foot of their garden, that like so many things seemed to shrink as I grew older, there was a small natural pond. I spent many an afternoon sitting beside the pond catching newts, diving beetles, and other unsuspecting pond-life with a net made from a kitchen sieve attached to a long cane. I'd fish them from the water and place them into one of Yogi's old washing up bowls then look carefully at what I had caught so as I could identify it from my pond life book.
At varying intervals, either Granddad or Yogi would come to the pond with a drink and maybe a sandwich, cake, or selection of candy to choose from. I'd show them my catch, giving them a blow by blow account of the most exciting moments of the day, and of course, like all good grandparents, they would stand there smiling, nodding, and being interested, if only in appearance.
As the sun went down on the years when all I needed was air in my tires and a clear sky, Yogi would still ply her grandchildren with candy each time we visited. Granddad would still do his usual "See that, see that" boxing routine, only now much slower than before. As we grew taller, they grew smaller, but they didn't seem to grow that much older. In the nicest possible way, they always seemed old to me, just as grandparents should be.
You never imagine your world without the people who traveled through the years with you. Without those faces that towered over you when you weren't tall enough to open a door unaided. Without the people who punctuate the mass of memories in your mind. But then a day comes when one of those people will punctuate your life no longer.
Granddad celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday in hospital last week. In those years he has been privileged to witness some of mankind's most significant leaps forward, from the first appearances of cars on the streets on London to a man walking on the moon, supersonic travel, the internet, live pictures from the planet Mars and more recently the landing of a probe on Titan, the moon of Saturn. He fought and lived through a war, raised a family of two children, became the grandfather of five, and the great-grandfather of another three.
I decided to make an unannounced visit to see Granddad and Yogi this week. After meeting up with Mom, the two of us drove to Colchester hospital, a place not dissimilar to most other hospitals in the UK with its antiseptic smell, and large print signs pointing to various wards, rooms, and offices.
Granddad looked old and tired, his sudden illness had knocked the steam out of him somewhat, but nonetheless he smiled when he saw me standing beside his hospital bed. Mom and I sat down and I cleaned his glasses so he could put them on and chat.
After the obligatory exchange about the quality of hospital food, we joked about his new electric mobility scooter with its top speed of four miles per hour.
"You can get ones that go eight miles an hour, but I'm in no hurry these days," he said, with a smile that echoed the strong old man who used to box with me when I was a little boy.
The three of us chatted for a while, talking about the probe that just landed on Saturn's moon, Titan. Mom pointed out of the window at a building that Granddad could see from his bed.
"That's the building where Jacob and Sumalee were born Dad," she said. He slowly turned and looked at the building standing beyond the parking lot outside the window, the place where his twin great-grandchildren had been born just a year ago, then smiled and quietly said more to himself than us "Ah, that's the building is it."
As we stood to leave I took ahold of his old hand and wished him better, saying I would come and show him my pictures from my recent trip to India just as soon as he was back home. We then said our goodbyes and began to make our way to see Yogi.
At the foot of his bed as we walked away I turned back, stopped, and waved at Granddad. He lifted his hand a little and smiled back at me. That was to be the last time I would see him. My brother called me just after 11 AM today to tell me Granddad had died early this morning.
I'm not going to take that moment as my lasting memory of Granddad, as connecting as I think it was. Instead, I have a whole host of brighter times to look back on and remember, to be thankful for, and to cherish. Like the many playful boxing moments, and the times when we were young enough that he would put us in his big old wheelbarrow and give us rides around the garden as we squealed in delight.
I'll remember him driving their little orange mini with its speedometer in the center of the tiny dashboard and the ticking sound it would make whenever he'd use the turn signal. Or the time he took me to see the vast computers that filled an entire floor at the Royal Insurance building where he worked before he retired.
Then there's one of my earliest memories when I stayed awake listening to the sounds of adults voices the night my sister was born at home, and the moment he opened my bedroom door and silhouetted by the landing light he said, "Come and meet your baby sister."
So long Granddad, I will miss you.