I was 3 weeks old.
You’d come down to visit for the weekend and we had gone for a family shopping trip into town. You were pushing me in my pram, every inch the proud Grandad. We were walking out of the car park, heading towards the lift. You pushed me into the lift, stepped out, then pressed the down button. My mum had to rush in and rescue me.
We lived in Reading; you lived in Manchester. We would visit around once a year. You lived in a townhouse just outside the town centre. You and my grandma were teachers before you retired. Every room in the house was filled with bookcases, especially the spare room I slept in where they ran wall-to-wall. When I stayed there I’d pore over the books, skimming through the ones that looked interesting and reading random passages. Books are filled with worldly knowledge, with stories and fairy tales, with deep and intricate thoughts. I read a lot of books when I was younger. Now I rarely read. In our world of smartphones and social media, we don’t read enough books.
I was 10 years old.
It was your Ruby wedding anniversary. We had gone on a big family holiday to celebrate, staying in a large country house in Shropshire. Two grandparents, 6 parents, 6 grandchildren, and one dog. At school, we had learnt about the Tudors. I found it fascinating. Other girls in my class didn’t share my passion, and found my current obsession irritating, so I didn’t really have any friends. But with my younger cousins, it was all one big game, like fairies in the garden. In my childhood, cousins became my stand-in for friends. Friends have loved me conditionally; they loved me when it was convenient to love me and moved on when it wasn’t. But family loved me unconditionally, quirks and all. One day, a professional photographer came round and we took a big family photo. Grandparents in the centre, young children sat on laps, and me in the back, holding Harry the miniature schnauzer puppy. Friends and family don’t always come in human form. But grandparents are like the centre of the family, the roots of the tree, the core of the unconditional love; they’re magic.
I was 21 years old.
It was the summer after university had finished. I’d had to move back into halls for third year after the houseshare I had been in with friends from halls tuned sour. One by one, the friends I’d made through my job at the student bar had screwed me over and dropped me. My boyfriend cruelly dumped me, and a month later my friends met The One. My last 6 months at university had been spent in an empty room with no human contact, desperately trying to gather people for a night out every weekend but being passed over for other plans. I’d wanted the university party experience and the Friends For Life so badly, but I’d had to watch everyone around me have it while I didn’t. I felt hurt, angry, inadequate, and fell into a deep depression. You and my grandma came to visit for the weekend. You tried to talk me out of the black hole, but I was at the point where nothing would work. So you gave me £30 so I could go out with my Reading friends instead. Sometimes, we’re so caught up seeking approval from those whose conditional love we want, that we forget the appreciate those who love us unconditionally.
I was 26 years old.
You had moved from the Manchester townhouse to Bradford-on-Avon, to be close to my aunt and uncle. A carer came in to visit you each week. My parents went to visit every other weekend or so; I came with them sometimes. My grandma had to use a wheelchair for trips outside the house. Age began to wear away your once brilliant mind. You forgot my dog’s name. My aunt’s names. My name. We accumulate memories throughout our lives; they play through our minds like video clips. Some play more often than others, some play in sharper focus than others, sometimes we forget one existed until it randomly plays in our minds unexpectedly. But the only thing you could remember was that you were losing your memory.
I was 27 years old.
I was at my desk in my work office in London. I got a text message from my mother saying you had been taken ill, and they had gone to Bradford-on-Avon to be with you. I knew immediately in my heart that this was the end.
That evening, you died peacefully in your sleep.
On the other side of the country, my cousin and his fiance set the date for their wedding.
By the seaside, my baby second cousin smiled for the first time.
The circle of life continues.