An empty chair (and the power of stories)

Beneath the Floor - April 2023
Wallpaper forest

Hard to believe that it’s been a year since my last published blog post. Twelve entire months have slipped through my fingers one by one, and repeated attempts to ‘get back on the horse’ have resulted in me falling off the saddle every time. But I can’t seem to stop trying either, so here I go again - one foot through the stirrup. Giddy up…

2022 gave me plenty to write about. My life opened up in a way I can’t remember experiencing before - I’ve encountered my share of branching paths or forks in the road, but 2022 almost felt like I’d been dumped in a new land and could wander in any direction I wanted - equal parts exciting and daunting. There’s a wealth of things I could choose to write about in a meandering blog post - separation from my ex-wife, untangling our two lives, starting over and feeling born again, visiting family in Canada, plunging waist-deep into my new job, almost starting my own engineering company, finding someone new and wonderful… But I’m going to save those for another time.

Instead I’m going to talk about a moment that resonated deeply with me; a final major memory from 2022 - an empty armchair.

Most of the year was positive for me, but December seemed to hold all the misery and stress one month could manage. One of my friends tried to take their own life, and whilst I was looking after them, a week before Christmas, my grandad passed away.

I told myself a lot of things after it happened. I told myself he’d had a great, long life at ninety years old. I told myself I was fortunate to have been able to visit him at home the day before he died. I told myself he wouldn’t have wanted to be a burden to my mum, or my nan, or anyone. I told myself that I wouldn’t have wanted him to suffer, that it was his right time to go, and if somehow he could have chosen his moment, I think he would have chosen this exact moment. All those things are true, but the hardest thing to tell myself came later, when his absence felt strange and colossal - he’s not coming back.

That truth hit me hard, twice. In an abstract way, at his house. In a concrete way, at his funeral. His children - my mum and my uncles - picked out beautiful photographs of him and our family, and as a lifetime of familiar smiles were projected in front of me, the one that broke me was where I shared the stage. Just me and my grandad, taken years ago, both beaming with arms around each other’s shoulders. Already emotional, everything seemed to collapse in on me. He was gone. It didn’t feel real until that moment. Sometimes it still doesn’t feel real, even now.

When I visited my nan for the first time after he passed, it felt utterly bizarre. They’d both lived in this house for all my life. They’d always sat in the same grey armchairs, side by side, with a sofa for guests. But now his chair was empty. Almost like he’d popped to the pantry, and we were waiting for him to return.

Their electric fire had the same glow, and pumped out the same borderline-ridiculous heat it always had. The room was exactly the same in every way except for one, but without his presence, it was completely alien - it felt cold, and quiet, and empty.

My nan has always been a chatterbox, and so have I really. Get us together and we’ll talk for hours. When I was little, she used to call me ‘trouble’. When I got older, I started calling it her instead. One of us will always greet the other with a fond “Hi, trouble…” and a cheeky smile. Grandad was my sidekick whenever I was feeling mischievous, and we’d all take turns making quips and teasing one another. I used to love making them laugh, and never had to think of anything to say, as the words would just spill out easily. But visiting nan alone, my mind went a little blank. As I tried to avoid looking at the empty chair, the room fell a little silent for the first time I can ever remember.

Nan filled the silence with stories. Memories I’d shared, or tales I’d never heard. Soon I was adding my own. A lifetime of little moments filled the room again, and suddenly it wasn’t so strange. As we spoke, and laughed, and remembered, that chair didn’t feel so empty.

After I hugged her and walked home, I told myself something new. Something true. Even when we’re gone, our stories keep us alive.

My grandad was a great man - kind, caring and wise. In his long life, he experienced so much, and raised a loving family that each went on to start their own. I miss him, and every now and then something will remind me I’ll never see him again. In those moments, my whole body tenses up. It feels like someone is grabbing my heart. But then memories will bubble up, and I don’t feel sad. I feel grateful for the time we had together. It reminds me to visit my nan.

I remember the last time I saw him, the last time I heard him laugh. He could barely walk, and was exercising with his walker - a zimmer frame with wheels. He could only manage a lap around the living room since his recent fall, but this day - his last full day - he did two laps then went into the hall to do more. I accused him of showing off because I was there. He gave the smallest chuckle, but it came out as a wheeze. “Aaah,” he said, which was his way of agreeing with you.

He’d always been the strong one. My nan had so many health problems, and so did he. But she always had the lion’s share, and he did his best to look after her. That day though, I could see the worry in my nan. She was trying to do too much, pushing herself too hard. She was trying to be the strong one. I could see it in others too - my mum, my uncles, all my family - trying to be the strong one because grandad couldn’t any more.

He kept zipping down his cardigan, but was cold to the touch. Nan would tell him he was cold, and to zip it back up. Normally he’d tell her to stop fussing, to “give over”, but this day he just nodded and zipped it back. He was a strong willed fighter, but not this day. Some of his last words to me were “I feel really dizzy.” He’d only say it when my mum and nan were out the room. Even when he was at his weakest, he was trying to be strong for them. He wouldn’t want them worrying.

Those are some of the last words I heard him say. But those aren’t the words that stick with me. Not the words I remember him for. The words that ring in my ears now, I only heard in a story. The last words he ever spoke before he passed. Two words that tell the kind of man he was. Spoken to his wife, as he went to sleep for the last time.

“Love you.”

Stories are powerful things. They can give us strength, make us smile, make us cry. They can fill an empty chair, and make pain hurt a little less. Once we’re gone, our stories stay behind and keep us alive. After a year, it’s time to carry on telling mine.

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