Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Today the road to work will be jammed with Headless Horsemen, Ghosts shall roam abroad, and probably here to. Tonight is THE night for things to go bump. Mainly door knockers, admittedly, clattered by sticky fingered apparitions of tiny horrors demanding sugar "with menaces". Tomorrow the saints shall have their day, though here in Blighty that one manages to slip by essentially unmarked, but tonight belongs to spooks and spectres.

Around this time of year I too often have a restless night when the ghosts of two decades come to visit. They do nothing to threaten, offer no harm, they just seem to feel the need to stop by and renew an old acquaintance, before shuffling off to whatever the hereafter has to sustain them.

Their numbers swell slowly over the years as old friends from this world move on to the next. Many seem content to pass through, let go, and be let go, but some insist on sticking around for some unfathomable reason. I can detect no common thread save perhaps for my involvement in their care before their passing. They are of all ages and have been claimed by a disparate assortment of causes of death, but somehow the connection they made in life has carried forward to the present, and they insist on being remembered.
Allow me to introduce a few. There’s three very small ones all claimed my Microcephaly, a cruel malformation that leaves an infant with just enough brain tissue to survive perhaps a few years, unable to develop beyond total dependence, and prone to fitting and repeated chest infections. At the funeral of one of them they played a Bangles song that I still can’t listen to without welling up.

There are two old soldiers, one who regaled me with crystal clear memories of the Somme, but couldn’t remember what he had had for lunch, and who was still suffering the effects of the mustard gas that had ended his time in the trenches seventy years on. The other had his leg shattered by a machinegun bullet on the first day of the same battle. He was lucky enough to have fallen directly into the hands of the "enemy". Bavarian surgeons saved his leg where his own countrymen might well have not. Later, recovering from his wounds, his hand was shaken by the King of Bavaria. After the war he had a long and distinguished career at the footplate of a locomotive before enjoying a long and happy retirement.

One wag always asked for his appointment with "Dr Pest" with a twinkle in his eye. Consultations degenerated into a sparring of puns, which he seldom lost. Another dour ex-miner with ruined lungs suddenly brightened up one day, and apropos of nothing volunteered that as a lad he had a brief career as a jockey, and had ridden a couple of winners. His tips for the Grand National generally turned out to be absolute donkeys though.

Two ladies, both terminally ill, followed very different paths to their end. One started her pain relief very early in her illness, progressing slowly form intermittent doses of morphine to constant administration through a syringe driver. Still throughout her illness she supervised her household, saw her children through one more birthday each, a Christmas, a New Year, Valentines day, and almost made it to Easter before succumbing to her illness, and this despite being declared "terminal" the summer before. The other lived in constant fear the morphine would hurry her end, and was determined to resist that last step. She tolerated pain rather than accept the fact that this was going to be her final illness, and with grim determination set her affairs in order and slipped gracefully into a coma with minimal interference, fiercely independent to the end.

There are many others. Why they insist on being remembered I can’t say. But they stay with me, and I suspect will continue to do so down the years to come. Now and again they come to visit, just for a night, and then they quietly return whence they came. They ask nothing. It seems remembrance is enough for them. And so I will remember them.

Happy Halowe’en.


greavsie said...

My Grandad never spoke about WW1 and it was only a rare occasion that he spoke about losing his leg in the trenches.

I'm reminded of him every time I look in the mirror.

Shinga said...

Neither of my grandfathers would discuss their experiences of WW1 - one had served in France and the other in Egypt. I do know that the one who served in France was the only one from his regiment who survived from 1914 through to 1917 when he caught shrapnel in his leg. He was scheduled to have his leg amputated but in the press of battle, he was stuck in a field hospital for 3 days before the medical staff had the time to draw breath. By that time, my grandfather decided that his leg had stayed on that long, it could stay on a bit longer - and it did, for the rest of his life.

The other grandfather 'just' picked up malaria, cholera, yellow fever and typhoid (I think).

Both grandfathers worked well passed their retirement age and rarely sought medical intervention (even when the 'Egyptian' grandfather had recurrent fits of ague and had to walk down a street by pulling himself hand over hand on the railings). All things considered, both had very rude health.

I think of them more in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday.

Regards - Shinga

Doctor Jest said...

Greavsie-- I had a great uncle who was much the same, a gas casualty in flanders, then a Tankie in the western desert in WWII! He didn't like to talk about either experience, but lived to a fantasticaly ripe old age, and baked the most fantastic fruit cakes (a skill he only learned when his wife died before him).

Shiga-- my grandad was tormented for years that he had been too young to fight alongside his brothers in WWI and in a reserved occupation and so excluded from service in WWII. The whole generation seems to have had a severe case of "Survivor guilt", and those that did serve talked very little about their experiences, I believe, almost as much to spare those that did not go as to save themselves from mental agonies.

Chairwoman of the bored said...

You've brought a lump to my throat. It's a bit like listening to Simon and Garfunkle singing 'Old Friends', always makes me think of my little old Polish grandfather, and his little old Polish friend.

Doctor Jest said...

madam chairwoman-- To Granparents!
*raises glass of slivovitz*

Anonymous said...

My Grandpa lost his mind after WWII - my Mom was 7 at the time...he had some sort of breakdown and never recovered - even after long bouts in a mental home. I remember him as a nutty old man who made me laugh and laugh and laugh..he was more childish than my siblings and I. Lost in his own little world from which he would occasionally emerge, have an adult conversation for perhaps 30 minutes, which made us kids laugh even more...it was like watching a child trying to be a grown up...then retire to madness again.

Poignant post...brought many other memories of my own to mind. Thank you. Very appropriate as All Souls Day is almost upon us.

Cath said...

My Grandad was a conscientious objector in WW1, and died before I was old enough to really ask him about it.
There are so many things I now think 'I wonder why Grandad did that'. No-one else in the family knows, and no-one ever will know why, now.
He was a fine man, my Grandad.

Anonymous said...

Your post brought tears to my eyes this morning and the comments brought them back this evening. I'd rather remember affectionately, but sometimes sadness come too.

Doctor Jest said...

wendz-- It's good you have some happy memories of your grandfather despite the apparent tragedy of his illness. Also good that he is remembered still with such affection.

cath-- It took a lot of personal courage to "object" in WWI. The world needed, and still needs many more men of conscience. You are right to honour his memory every bit as much as those poor souls who fought.

z-- so sorry. Sadness is an important part of remembrance, but it should be only a part. Remembering should also bring back to us those happy, funny, quirky things we have shared. That and the love.

Shinga said...

They were such a stalwart generation. Both of my parents were 'late' babies: apparently, both of my grandmothers had thought that they had an ovarian cyst. Cue their relief and surprise when they had babies and their social embarrassment at having babies at their age.

By repute, one of my great-aunts was known for her malapropopisms. She had apparently advised my grandmother to have "the Manchester railways" for her cyst: telling her that the hospital would take her "ovaries, uvaries, liveries, the lot". I've always wanted to know if this was her malapropism for some foul bit of surgery at the time or if it is descriptive of the scars that were left after such a radical clear out.

Regards - Shinga