Heeding the words of my grandfather
By MIKE ARCHER
'There's always someone worse off than you." That was the invariable response from my grandfather whenever I bemoaned yet another inequality of life I had encountered as a young child.
Born in a sprawling slum in the east end of London at the end of the 19th century, my grandfather was raised in an environment where fists and wits were the basic tools of survival. He knew just enough math to avoid being shortchanged in the grocery store, and improved his reading only by poring laboriously over pages from discarded newspapers with the aid of an old dictionary.
However, for all his poverty and lack of education, my grandfather was a basically happy man. Accepting life at simple face value, he was content to make the best of what he had. I have come to realize that there was practical wisdom behind many of his curtly expressed views, but it was only recently that I understood the full meaning of the one I quoted above.
A hundred years and half a world away, well educated and qualified, I'd always held jobs that provided my family with a good lifestyle. The down side was the late nights, the lost sleep and the inevitable stress that went with it. As a committed disciple of materialism, however, these drawbacks seemed the usual price to pay and I felt well in control of my life.
Then came that awful day when my head exploded in the blinding, unbearable pain that led to the diagnosis of an aneurysm in my brain.
I reached my nadir one morning, sitting in the den. Aimlessly moving things around on my desk, my hand fell on the familiar, rough cover of my grandfather's old dictionary. I'd been given it when he died and -- battered and dog-eared as it was with its yellowing, taped pages -- it had served me well. Idly, I picked it up. Riffling the unreadable pages recalled visions of that cantankerous, white-haired old man, and I actually caught myself chuckling at some of his more opinionated pronouncements. Whenever life dealt my grandfather yet another backhander, I seemed to remember, he would simply shrug his great shoulders and get on with it, always of the opinion that he was still better off than this person or that.
Not for one moment would I want to suggest everything instantly turned round for me at that point. There was no blinding flash of insight, no apocalyptic vision of the true path, but I did realize one thing that morning. A lot of people do not even survive what had happened to me and, even if I got no better than I was then, I was still alive to hear the cheerful voices of my two sons and to feel the gentle, caring touch of my wife's hand.
It's proven to be a long haul but, looking back, my recovery has been based almost entirely on the simple things of life. I started listening to sounds I had never taken the time to "hear" before -- the gentle rustle of timeless maples swaying majestically in breezy harmony, the abrupt ping of rain hitting a metal gutter pipe. As my sight improved, I enjoyed the subtly different shades of the late summer roses. I stood, transfixed, watching a blue jay screech raucous defiance at a squirrel, trying to oust him from a feeder in the back yard.
There is an aneurysm support group at the hospital where I had my surgery. At first I went to it because I had nothing better to do, but I was quickly struck by the fortitude of those whose experiences relegated mine to little league. After a few meetings I realized I had joined a wonderfully unique blend of people whose only aim was to help each other.
My strength came back through ever-longer walks over rough country that contained an amazing treasury of sights and sounds I had never even thought existed. As my frustration wilted, so my humour rose. Ideas began to dawn in a mind I had thought dulled forever. Slowly, slowly, the horizon brightened.
Obviously, I would never again want to endure such a dangerous affliction. However, I am grateful for it in one key respect. It presented me with a unique opportunity to assess what I really wanted from life. I gradually came to see that there was no gain for me in picking up the reins of my former, fast-paced lifestyle. The gentle simplicity and pleasure of the new one offered me far too much quality to be abandoned and, when problems have arisen, I have always seemed to be able to remember someone who reinforced my grandfather's words.
Today I have a bigger and much more comprehensive dictionary on my desk. However, on the bookshelf right in front of me is my grandfather's old one, fittingly retired but still there every time I look up, to offer its unwritten message, should I be tempted to forget it.