Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Greatest Generation

It is over a month since the Republicans won the US election, an occasion for much flag-waving and hand-wringing. Fallujah was stormed within days, a pharmacist tried to deny the presription for the pill to an unmarried woman, the dollar sinks every week to a new all-time low against the Euro, and we met a couple of Christian ladies in the street today giving out leaflets claiming that only homosexuals suffer from AIDS.

Of course, many of my friends have been angry and ashamed at this lurch, especially after such a close call in the election. This particular form of democracy gives all the spoils to one winner, though the United States is more firmly divided, it seems, than at any point since the civil war of 1861-1865. As an outsider I am more fascinated than appalled - I don't think that everyone who voted for Bush is either evil or an idiot (I know some very good and intelligent couterexamples, though unfortunately they have to keep somewhat quiet around the office - confessions by the coffee machine, answering an honest question with a furtive answer). The picture of red states and blue states you may see on the map is quite misleading - the boundary is quite sharp but much more detailed and fractal than any map will show. In Pittsburgh, we are in the city, and the major cities are strongly democrat. But we are right on the border - a half-hour drive at most will take us to rural areas where the overwhelming majority of people attend churches whose orthodoxy is extremely republican, and this view of Christianity appears to have played a cruicial part in the election - and certainly its aftermath.

My Grandfather, John Widdows, died two days ago, and in amongst everything that is happening in the world I must give him some epitaph, more for my own sake than for his. He couldn't be happier - for 15 years he has been waiting to join his beloved wife Doris, and told us of a pub in heaven where he knew she was saving him a seat, and was sure she'd be asking him "John, what on earth took you so long?" And then with a smile she'd moved her handbag off the seat and he'd finally got to sit down next to her where he belonged.

Grandad was a role model to us, and still is. He fought for five years in India during the Second World War, not for any sense of glory but because with a heavy heart he concluded that the alternative was even worse. To the end of his life he wrestled with this decision - one night of bombing in Dresden killed 150,000 civilians, and these events burdened his conscience, and his poetry. He rose from nowhere to the rank of Major, and his amazing stories included semaphore signals under fire, monkeys fiddling with radio aerials that nearly brought down communications, and quelling riots by walking through the crowd totally unarmed, begging people to come back the following day when they would be promised a fair hearing for their grievances. (It was Sunday, and the local people had come to understand that this was John's day of prayer, after which he would be as good as his word on Monday morning.) At times mischief got the better of him - when he caught the monkeys playing with the radio equipment of an American regiment, he gravely told the fresh-faced Allies to put barbed wire in a special shape around the roof, allowing them to believe that he was some kind of crop-circle genius at tapping into exactly the right shape of electromagnetic waves. But of all these stories, the one that made him the most quietly proud was that, when it had become clear that India would be an independent country, he was one of the few British officers who was asked by the Indian leaders whether he would consider staying and working with them.

But Grandad wanted nothing more than to go home to Doris and build the home they had struggled so hard for - and for this, the welfare state and the national health service, still a gleam in people's dreamy eyes, mattered so much more than the grandeur of a worldwide empire. Living in the United States, I appreciate this revolutionary commitment as never before - universal healthcare remains a never-never land beyond the most idealistic American's dream, and yet, for a fraction the cost, is a basic right for the British.

Grandad's own calling to service was education. He became a headmaster, wrote for Oxford University Press on the teaching of poetry, introduced classes on 'how to write a job application letter' in the days when the syllabus still thought it was more important to know the declarative imperfective subjunctive of Latin verbs, and had the good fortune to work with a school secretary he was head over heels in love with (Doris, of course - a great encouragement to me and Maryl, who are also just about to start working together). To me, he was the teacher who brought history to life. He talked of Pharaohs, Roman Consuls, Elizabeth I's Ministers and the American Founding Fathers as though they were personal friends who he had tea with every week. He told stories that made soap-operas and thrillers seem tame - you felt the frailty of the greatest people, the dignity of the smallest, and the humanity of us all.

Like all great teachers, he never stopped learning - sensing the world changing and forever growing with it. However much it hurt, however strange it was, life changed, relationships changed, the rules changed. Grandad and I disagreed on the subject of same-sex marriage - yet after we had written several letters to one another, he asked if he could take the correspondence and share it with his prayer group, because he thought that a thoroughly different point of view would enable his fellows to pray about the issues and the people involved more profoundly. After September 11th, and all the talk of a conflict between the Christian and Islamic worlds, Grandad (mad old duffer that he was) took it upon himself to start a focus group so that the Christians and the Muslims (and the Sikhs and the Jews) of Brighouse and Rastrick could get together and visit one another's places of worship. As I see religious people defining themselves more and more by how they restrict, not how they reach out, I give thanks for Grandad's continuous example of what it can mean to be Christian.

The latest chapter in this story I must tell second-hand, for to my sorrow I have not been there, and though much of the tale I heard from Grandad himself, much has been left to other family members to fill in for me. Early this year, a serious cancer was found in one of Grandad's kidneys. Much to everyone's amazement, the specialist offered him the chance of an operation to have the kidney removed - even at the age of 88. Grandad of course agreed, on the grounds that either he would go quietly under the anaesthetic, or get better, either of which was way preferable to wasting away under some of the other much more brutal forms of cancer treatment. And the old horse pulled through marvellously - a miracle in itself. I don't know if he's the oldest person ever to recover from a kidney being removed, but he must have been pretty darn close. But as the year wore on, other pain became more serious and it became clearer to everyone, most of all to Grandad, that the machine was finally packing up. Secondary cancers were in the wings and his approaching death became a primary topic of conversation and source of comfort - having waited for years for his Promotion to Glory, his earthly struggle was coming to a close and his wish to join his wife and his maker (in that order!) was gradually being realised.

Last Monday - just a week ago - his children moved his bed downstairs so that he could get about on one floor, and he stopped taking drugs except for painkillers. Weaker than ever but clear as crystal once more, he talked more and more of worlds of wonder which to us are still distant but which were growing closer and realler every minute. Even so, he kept up his earthly contacts, recognising when he may have seemed distant and apologising that all this must seem terribly strange to those of us who stay so very far from the boundary between mortality and immortality.

On Saturday, the children and grandchildren were gathered around. Maryl and I even received a 'phonecall in Pittsburgh, and with some effort but still full of beans Grandad said "I think I'm probably going to pop me clogs on Monday". He asked to speak to Maryl and wished her a "temporary goodbye". Within a couple of hours, the family had celebrated communion and Grandad had died peacefully in his bed. In the front room where he and Doris had hosted so many of us so many times, he gave us one last glimpse of a great man, quite at peace, relaxed, in control, and completely accepting of everything life and death could bring. The nurse, the doctor, the priest, in all the years of their professions, had never witnessed such a gentle and organised departure. Like an Ancient King, he lay back and crowned the greatness of life with the unbounded dignity of death.

Now colder, harder, it feels that we must all shoulder a burden of responsibility for the wellbeing of the world like never before, for nothing forces us to grow to the task more certainly than the passing of those who made the world safe for us before we were even born. Forever I will treasure the strength, the pride, and the example of the Life and Death of you, my Grandfather and my hero.

Thankyou. Farewell. Enjoy.