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Freyja’s Deathbed Conversations

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
Freyja talks to her grandfather on his deathbed. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay. - (1,650 words).

Submitted: August 21, 2019

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Submitted: August 21, 2019

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My name is Freyja and I have always sought the perfect deathbed conversation.

I was thwarted on my father’s side.

His father succumbed to a raging, violent cancer which transgressed his brain. The syringe-driver was double-edged: there as much to protect the hospice staff as to relieve his pain.

My father’s mother was no better: sat with her vacant smile in that noisy, shabby room suffused with smells of dinner, trying to remember if she’d ever seen me before.

But I had high hopes for my maternal grandfather.

---

I saw him in hospital, in a private room, just days before the end. He retained his lucidity, his intelligence. He wanted to talk, wanted me to put my phone down on the table .. and record everything.

He wanted to be a memory.

---

Naturally I started with the obvious.

“How are you feeling, Pétur?”

For Pétur was indeed his name; we had no time for honorifics in my family.

“Hi Freyja, and thanks for asking. It’s a dull ache, most of the time. Not many symptoms before the blockage is complete. A metaphor for life in general: our thoughts and passions soar in the arms of the sublime - then we’re killed by defects in the plumbing."

I was vaguely aware that my grandfather had been many things in his life, a scientist and a writer.

“I’m resisting the pain-killers. I want to experience it all, see how I respond, if I handle it well. I guess it’s like some tough rock-climb or the questions a soldier asks of himself before his first battle:  'How will I do?'”

I thought it was time to get down to business. Start with an ice-breaker.

“Excuse me for asking, but what exactly did you do when you were working?”

The truth is, like most people I knew little about my grandfather’s life. He didn’t live close, I didn’t see him often. I was only sixteen: our lives hadn’t overlapped much.

His expression changed. I've seen that look in school. On the face of our maths teacher when he was asked to explain something - quadratic equations I recall - to people totally uninterested in the subject. An ignorant audience with no clue as to what he was on about. That haunted look in his eyes.

But why? He's talking to me.

He sagged a little in his bed .. and made his best fist of it.

“I was a plasma physicist, spent some time teaching at St. Andrews in the physics department in my youth. Then there were the usual cuts and my career was interrupted. Still, one door closes and another one opens. There were the usual international tensions. Turns out that there were plenty of military applications for my skills.”

“I knew you worked in defence. You always said you couldn’t talk about it.”

“Still can’t. Let’s just say there was interest in vortex instabilities for quite a while, and later it turned out that neural nets were also amenable to stochastic quasi-equilibrium methods."

He made a face.

“Oh yes, they kept me busy right through to my retirement.”

Stifling a yawn, and none the wiser I changed tack, moved on to the next item of my mental checklist.

“Looking back over your life, do you have any regrets?”

I was thinking of all that work on weapons of mass destruction. Surely he must now feel guilt.

He looked at me with amusement.

“And what would you say, girl, if I answered no?”

He laughed.

“I met Iain Banks once, you know. He came up to St. Andrews to do some research for a book. I was visiting professor by then. It wasn’t far for him, he lived just around the corner - I think it might have been ‘The Algebraist’.”

My eyes glazed. Why do old people do this? Veer off into irrelevant anecdotes?

What do they say: anecdotage?

He didn’t notice, paid no attention to me, just droned on talking to himself.

“I think it was spacetime geometry at the centre of planets. Hah, that’s probably a spoiler! I found him quite congenial, kind of like an amiable chipmunk. I was shocked when he was diagnosed with cancer. I read his last interview, sort of tragi-sweet, I saved an extract. Thought it was relevant.”

He picked up his phone and began to read aloud.

My gaze wandered, the day was improving, I thought. Outside I could see clouds scudding, traces of blue, the sun promising to appear. What might I do this afternoon?

“Iain said: ‘I don't have many regrets in my life. I suppose like a lot of men I've hurt women when I was being selfish - or there's a real hurt towards ex-girlfriends that probably didn't need to have happened. That's probably the greatest series of regrets in my life.’ And I thought: Iain, you speak for me and most other men I’ve met.”

I perked up, my interest somewhat rekindled. I knew nothing of his romantic life. His wife, my gran, had died years ago when I was a mere toddler.

“What did you actually do to them? How have you treated women badly?”

I was eagerly waiting for some juicy revelations. He was having none of it.

“Nothing special. I’m not confessing details. I’ve been careless of their feelings is most of it. But I still look back and cringe. I regret those callous, selfish things even though I know I was being true to myself and my own feelings at the time. There’s really no escape: no easy alternative world in which those things couldn’t have happened. Given the person I was.”

No point persisting in the face of such evasiveness. I supposed he’d go to his grave with his secrets - though they sounded mundane enough to me.

Time to move on: next item.

“What are your regrets about dying?”

What I liked about Pétur was that there was no shilly-shallying. We both knew he wouldn’t be around for more than a few days and we were both prepared to talk about it dispassionately.

“People say (they think they’re being brave!) that they’re ‘not afraid of death’ - as if you could be afraid of an abstraction! It’s ridiculous!

“People are afraid of pain. Correctly. So am I. I hope it can be managed without the premature death of total anaesthesia. I’ll reject the syringe-driver as long as possible, that chemical guillotine!

“But death itself, the lack of consciousness we all accept each night, how could you fear that? No, I’m disappointed by death.”

I must have looked confused.

“I’ve spent my life, Freyja, trying to understand how stuff works. This strange universe of ours; the puzzling complexity of the very small. The evolution of life - an unfolding complexity over millions of years.

“How did we animals get to create such complex societies .. and get self-conscious about ourselves? What puzzles! We know so much and so little!

“I think about Isaac Newton. His was a new model of all reality, where you could calculate and predict - in an age of magic! As he died, don’t you think he lamented that his theories couldn’t be right, that there were huge and lethal flaws in his conceptions?

"His contemporaries had pointed them out. He knew he had no good answers. He knew he would never know.”

I was surprised at how abstract this conversation was turning. How boring the old could be!

As for myself, I think I’d miss my cat most.

And wouldn’t Pétur miss me? Why was he being so evasive?

So I challenged him.

“Of course I’m truly sorry I won’t be around to follow all your adventures, Freyja. I’m sure you’ll have an interesting life with the usual ups and downs. Given the typicality of your class, your education and your personality, in a reasonably stable society, I’d say statistically it’s pretty certain.

“Obviously I’d like to be here and cheer you and the other family members on. Trust me, I would!”

And here I got the warm smile, although on his gaunt face it seemed rather scary.

“But it’s the big picture I really regret missing. The next millions of years. Do we play out all those scripts the science-fiction writers wrote for us?

"- Do we expand across the galaxy?

"- Do we biomorph into a thousand varied species?

"- Do we meet aliens - and if so, who wins?

“How does this great play turn out? It galls me that I will never know.”

I was reminded why we’d never been that close, Pétur and myself. Our interests were just too divergent. I couldn’t get my head around it.

I scratched around for something to say. Maybe he was a secret Buddhist. That would be something.

“Perhaps you’ll come back, be reincarnated?” I suggested.

“We’re already reincarnations,” he snorted, “The biosphere recycles everyone. I’ve got plenty of atoms in me which were once part of Julius Caesar’s body - and so have you.

"Is that any consolation to the late Roman Dictator?

"I think not!

“The only consolation I offer myself, and let me tell you it’s not huge, is that desires die with the body. When you come for my remains next week, I won’t care that I cared so much.”

And with that little burst of negativity his energy was at an end.

He waved feebly at me.

“Goodbye, Freyja. Have a good and productive life. I wish you well.”

And then his eyes closed and he was silent.

---

I left thinking this deathbed conversation hadn’t really worked either.

Oh well, maybe the next one.

Still, it was shaping up to be a lovely sunny afternoon.

 

END

 


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