You were always strong, invincibly
in an elemental sort of way –
I was convinced you were unhurtable – like a hill,
or a weathered oak – all the stronger for being old.
And it’s true; Granny said you never were ill,
never even a cold (until the end of course
but I’ll get to that soon – everyone will.)
At five foot four – five five before, but you shrank –
you were never small,
though we, your grandsons (you called us “my boys”)
towered above you by a foot.
Nothing for yourself, no fuss,
you’d do anything for anyone
and eat anything near enough.
Standing outside Tesco on a freezing winter morning
rattling collection tins for charity,
or driving packs of housebound old biddies in the Lions Club
bus – to get them out the house, give them some company
You did that for years – till eventually you outdated half the stick-wielding
You had all the skills I’ll never learn:
with a garage full of dusty iron tools,
time and again you came and bodged jobs for us,
till eventually dad said to mum: “Whatever you do, don’t tell your dad it’s broken.”
You’d fix anything – or try at least.
You knew washing machines and cars,
trees plants grass,
woodwork and electrics,
plumbing and Scalextric.
Hey – aged 80 you even figured out the internet.
A child of 1919 – your youth was strict
no toys but a rabbit’s skin – not even a hoop and stick.
That’s why you collected those model cars,
I realised that late – after you’d gone I think.
And you always had a toy for us,
no miserable ‘I never had that in my youth’ words.
But when naughty brattishness took hold of us we feared
your silent glower over the lunchtime tabletop all the same.
I remember it all so well.
And I remember the ending too.
Your second war.
And you fought it without complaint,
fought the cancer in the piss- and chemical-smelling hospitals of Essex
Just like you’d fought the Japanese
in the damp fever-filled jungles,
of Burma, sixty years before.
You were solid, stoic, as ever,
never a cry for sympathy. Never.
And battling hard you showed titan strength
As your piss flowed back to yellow,
And the cancer died.
For a time, anyway.
And then it came back, years later, in your head,
growing in grey matter, under white skull,
pink skin, and grey hair – hair tha had always been thick whether
dark or white,
up to age eighty-six anyway, when the cancer made it begin to shed.
Of course a tumour in the head will change a person –
Somehow, so strangely, you mellowed.
No more glowers; you were softer –
strangely happy – I think more open,
perhaps at the end of a life lived well one feels that way.
You’d read about illegal raves in the local paper:
“Were my boys at that one?”
You’d ask Mum, curiously, uncondemning.
Sometimes you were confused, that’s true,
and it wasn’t easy. Well, you were dying.
But as your body and mind weakened
Your soul never could.
Holding your hand as the nurse bustled, your grip was iron strong,
And I knew you were gripping onto life,
gripping so hard, to stop the falling in your head.
It didn’t take you that night – you held tight to life –
but shortly after.
You left a family, and memories,
heaps of tools, toy cars – a nice half-page obituary
to a community figure –
and I hope a little part
of your deep strength and invincible heart
somewhere woven inside of mine.