Living without grief
I ordered the book after watching 'The Centre Will Not Hold' on Netflix and learning about Joan Didion for the first time. It was intended as a gift for the friend I was visiting in Australia but it didn't arrive in time and was waiting for me on a shelf in the hall when I returned nearly a month later, hidden under letters from my bank and Inland Revenue. My 'to read' pile is unusually sparse, so I shrugged and decided to read it myself.
It was a bank holiday so I ran a bath at 4pm on a Friday and boiled the kettle. I balanced my Louis Theroux mug and a chocolate brownie in a brown paper bag on the edge of the bath and sank in. I hadn't intended to read the book because it's about grief.
I don't know anything about grief.
My last great grandparent Mrs P died last year, two days after my 28th birthday. She was 101 and her passing was inevitable; she had already outlived one of her children. It was strange seeing my grandad, a man in his 70s, grieve for his mother so late in life. She'd been in care since I was in my early teens and I didn't know her. It was the first and only funeral I have attended for a member of my family.
I don't know anyone who has experienced so little personal tragedy as me. I'm 29 now and it's looking likely, touch wood, that I will turn 30 with all of my grandparents still living. Because of my parents' divorce and my adoption, I don't just have four standard issue grandparents, but six.
"I don't even think your mum's upset I have cancer," my granny said after she was diagnosed almost five years ago. My mum's way of coping with hardship is to roll up her sleeves, get all the facts. Mike has remarked on what a morbid family we are. Since death has never come for us, we spend a lot of time preparing for it, musing aloud on the division of assets, which family members will cause rows and if the spouse left behind will cope. We are rolling up our sleeves, as if it will prepare us in the slightest.
I feel like a terrible friend. In my group, people are starting to lose parents and I nod along but can't possibly understand anything they tell me. Should I bother informing our Whatsapp group when one of my grandparents dies? It seems like nothing in comparison, a footnote. A boy I went to school with, 10 days younger than me; both his parents gone and a brother killed in a terrorist attack. Where is my share? What have I done to deserve six grandparents while his immediate family shrinks to nothing?
Knowing your grandparents as an adult comes with its own baggage. When you're a child, it's all about going to the shops, playing outside and being fed your weight in chocolate cake. As you become a teenager, you also become an edited version of yourself, one who spends money wisely, doesn't sleep around and makes sensible choices at all times. The criticism from grandparents is limited to your haircut and style choices as you make small talk with one another. Then you're in your 20s and a grownup and the criticism starts to go both ways. You actually have to decide if you like each other. Politics, racism and sexism are minefields to be crossed.
My granny won't discuss my domestic abuse case with me, changing the topic of conversation to the M&S sale whenever I try to bring it up with her. I don't call her for four months. I feel like a dickhead when I complain about it to my friends, whose parents are in the cemetery.
I experience two feelings simultaneously. I know I have to appreciate my grandparents (and parents) for as long as they're here. But I also know that nothing I do will have been enough when the time finally comes. There is no preparation, no sleeve-rolling to be done. I am 29; their deaths will be like falling dominos, boom boom boom, one after another. Maybe that is my punishment for being allowed to enjoy their company for so long.
I keep reading. I hope Joan Didion will teach me something.