At the end he didn’t take anything apart from the morphine. It was too little too late. The cancer had eaten into his lungs first but had spread to other organs and now his body was shutting down. He knew it too.
I guess it was the first time in my life I had taken any drug seriously. In my Grandad’s case I had the naïve belief drugs might even cure him, kill the tumours and clean his body. He would be ok. After all, he had survived being shot down in the war and a six month stay in a German POW camp. It’s hard to explain it all, and I won’t, but what I can tell you is that man was my hero. Without his survival my father wouldn’t have been born, and I wouldn’t be here. But there are some things you can’t win, like this terminal inner war; cancerous cells chewing their way through the best of you.
I saw my Grandad three days before he died. He was at home with my Nan, emaciated, finding it hard to talk, walk, move. He’d regressed back into the war again, and in that final week the only thing that terrified him about dying was his belief he’d meet his crew again – the guys in his bomber aircraft who had died – and the fear they would be waiting for him to pay him back for bailing out and living. He reckoned his old friends would all be standing there in the afterlife and feared telling them he wished he’d died too, that he was sorry he’d took his chance and survived, sorry he’d tried to put it all behind him.
I hugged him before I left. His wiry body tensed up and he tried really hard to hug me back but just didn’t have the strength. I said I’d see him soon, but he simply smiled and shook his head. I left him sitting in the armchair looking into the middle distance, still riding the bullet-strewn curves in the night sky and fighting the morphine urge to sleep it all off.
He lost his final battle in the early hours, surrounded by the ghosts of his past, terrified of life beyond death, scared of finding out there really was a Heaven. It was no way for my hero to die, and no way to end his war.
We scattered his ashes at the airfield he had flown from all those years ago – his last wish – and left a small brass plaque. I sometimes sit and think of him at 21, bold and brave, smiling, before torture and horror ravaged his mental health and took his happiness. It’s what he would have wanted me to miss, the same as he did: the man he could have been.