Our world may have gotten smaller, but you should see it as an invitation to look more closely.
In the years before he died my grandad’s world shrunk. It wasn’t all that big to begin with; he wasn’t one for travelling, never understanding my incessant desire to leave Ireland each time I revealed to him the latest country that I would call home. A creature of habit, he found meaning in the known. Every morning before breakfast he would cycle to the 40 Foot diving point for a swim. He retired early at fifty-five, allowing him the luxury of a morning dip. Before long he was a regular, becoming close friends with his fellow swimmers in the seamless years that followed. During the summers he and my granny would sojourn in Wexford for weeks at a time. The sea was even closer to the chalet than their house in Dublin, and could easily be reached on foot. Even with a change in scenery, my grandad’s precious morning routine remained untouched.
My grandad lived a healthy lifestyle by most benchmarks. He was physically active, ate well, never smoked, and rarely drank. But old age takes no prisoners; eventually, his body began to let him down.
It is amazing how quickly change can arrive, stunning us momentarily and then, with a dawning realisation, alter our lives inexorably. A single visit to a cardiologist was swiftly followed by triple by-pass surgery. Although the operation was medically successful, my grandad never returned to his former health or even close to it.
His body had become a source of mystery. Like a house of horrors at a carnival, it aggravated him in unexpected and perplexing ways. Right up until his death he was plagued by an incessant and stubborn pain in his back that rendered even the slightest movement painful. As the pain progressed, he would find himself overcome by spells of shaking. Endless appointments with a host of specialist consultants yielded no clear medical cause, nor any particularly effective treatments. From painkillers, to patches and lasers, nothing made the slightest dent in the armour of his pain.
With each new affliction my grandad’s mobility decreased. The world in which he moved became smaller and smaller until all that remained were the four walls of his home and his garden. All his energies became concentrated on his lawn, his vegetable patch and his greenhouse, besides his children and grand-children who were his pride and joy, and his ever loving wife. The rest of the outside world concerned him less and less; it might as well have not existed.
My grandad always tended to his garden with great care, but this duty took on a vocational quality as the outside world became increasingly off limits. He was extremely protective over his small plot of land and guarded it fiercely against intruders, waging battle against slugs, snails, and the next-door neighbour cats. Although outnumbered by the army of garden variety Mollusca who feasted on his leafy greens, they were no match for his dedication. But he would never kill them. Like a loving yet stern father he made daily rounds of his vegetable patch, picking them up with forceps, dropping them in a plastic tray and dispensing them on the green down the road. I like to think the same slugs and snails came back each time, slipping and sliding doggedly down the path under the cloak of night to return to the same patch from which he plucked them, the toing and froing all part of an elaborate, unspoken game between its players.
Although only a foursome, the next-door neighbour cats with their wily cunning and nimbleness proved formidable enemies. Undeterred by his seething anger in their presence they would leap over the partitioning wall and defecate on his immaculate lawn. My grandad’s acts of reprisal were contained and peaceful, to begin with. His first defensive strategy was to lay out bottles of water, whose shimmering in the sunlight, according to an old wives’ tale, is said to perturb cats. If caught mid-act the cats would be hosed off the lawn, doubling down on the humiliation of public defecation. Although for all I know, they may not have been embarrassed at all. Perhaps their acts of defecation were intended as the anthropomorphic equivalent of the ‘flaming bag of poop’ prank, and their only regret was getting caught. After all, there was nothing unspoken about this battle; it was all-out war between its adversaries.
When water proved an ineffective deterrent my grandad turned to a more resistant material – steel – and attached a tall wire fencing around the perimeter of his garden, giving the impression from within of being contained inside a fortress. It’s likely my grandad’s efforts only emboldened the furtive felines, for they always returned. Eventually he resorted to installing a device which emitted sound at a frequency only perceptible to cats. Of all his offences it was most successful, but by this stage my grandad was spending increasingly more time indoors due to ill health.
Recalling these memories I find myself marvelling at my grandad’s unparalleled tenacity and focus. Never in my life have I dedicated my energies so fiercely to a single corner of this world, instead preferring to flatten myself like a pancake across the earth’s globe, spreading myself wide and thin as far my resources would allow.
Recently, however, everyone’s world has gotten smaller. Like my grandad, we found ourselves unwillingly confined to our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them, confronted, perhaps for the first time in a real and substantial way, with the vulnerability of our corporeal selves.
Once I let go of the frustration that mired the opening days of lockdown, my attention shifted to the details of my newly magnified surroundings. On one of my countless, looping walks around my estate I noticed for the first time a solitary bench on a nearby green. Had it always been there? I delighted in the colourful and verdant foliage of my neighbours’ gardens, warmed by my appreciation for their green fingers. I became interested in the people that came in and out of nearby houses. Who were they? How were they?
Like my grandad, I now endeavour to spend as much time in my garden as my pinky, Irish complexion and the temperamental Irish weather will allow, setting up a makeshift office in the back garden on sunny days. A wooden chair serves as my desk and like a mystic I squat on a mound of cushions while tapping away at my laptop. During my outdoor yoga sessions I share my mat with crawling ants, taking care to avoid them as I shift from one pose to another with the grace of an elephant. To close a session I lie down and stare at them intently. I observe them carrying the dead bodies of members of their colony, a sanitary measure to stop the spread of infection and disease. It reminds me of the horrific scenes I had seen on the news, depicting countries overwhealmed by dead bodies in the wake of Coronavirus.
A single ant bears the weight of a deceased brethren. One for one. I watch it struggle, pause, and continue on for the good of the colony.