Absence is a funny thing. When you're away from home, time passes in strange patterns and chunks. Difficult days, like settling in to new places, looking for a job, navigating your way around new cities; they often drag out. You can be sitting alone at an airport and the hours extend into nowhere, while you convince yourself the clock has paused, or is ticking backwards. Then the best days are over before you know it, leaving you wondering where the precious hours went. After returning home from living in the UK for two years, I notice changes straight away. A construction site is now a brightly coloured children's hospital. Old houses have been demolished and modern versions built in their place. A string of new bars and cafes have opened. Friends have moved away or settled down, bought houses and suddenly there are extra additions, like dogs and babies and engagements and weddings. Life goes on. But the biggest change of all was the one I was least prepared for.
I notice a difference in him immediately. His blue eyes are less focused, and he looks confused when he first sees me. As if he's thinking "I know that girl, but I just can't place her". His soft, wrinkled hands are shaky when he grasps mine in his, as I help him up from his chair. His smile is wide, but uncertain. He's unsteady on his feet as he shuffles forward, his slippers squeaking against the linoleum floor. He doesn't speak much. At lunch, eating is slower affair. He fumbles as he slowly peels the skin from an orange and a napkin clipped around his neck, catches the drips from his chin. He almost seems childlike in his actions, his attention span and his enthusiasm.
My Opa is 87 years old. He can speak five languages and he's read The Bible and the Koran cover to cover. During WWII he survived on tulip bulbs while hiding from Nazi soldiers in the Netherlands countryside. One day he tricked a group of soldiers and stole a bicycle. He rode it home, dismantled it and hid the parts in a friend's attic. When the war ended in 1945, he was the only person in all the surrounding villages to own a bicycle. He moved to Australia when he was 23 years old. When he arrived the only clothes he owned were white, tropical-style flannel suits. My grandma laughs when she recalls how he had to buy new outfits because everyone mistook him for a baker.
I ask him questions to jog his memory and keep him alert. Tell me about Holland and your family. Tell me about your bicycle. Where did you go on holidays when you were younger? He'll begin in a quavering voice, crinkling his eyes and tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling as he tries to recall details. He'll be mid-thought, in a crucial part of conversation and suddenly he'll pause, distracted by someone walking past the window, or a plane flying across a fraction of blue sky visible from his chair. And in this moment I see his thoughts stream away from him, so clearly, that I almost want to reach out from where I'm sitting and grab the wispy threads before they disappear forever.
When your grandparents reach this stage, you see them in a completely different way. Suddenly you're not looking at a grandparent anymore. You see them as a person, for everything they've experienced in life. All the decisions, both good and bad, the choices and the sacrifices they made, how they lived, how they raised your parents and how this influenced your childhood and the way you grew up. I never thought about this until I'd lived away from home. What would life be like for me if I did the same? Moved to the opposite side of the world, and never returned to live?
There's still small flashes of the intelligent and well-travelled man I know. He still surprises me every now and then. One afternoon we go to a quiz at the community centre. It's a fairly quiet affair but gee, some of those old people are sharp. While I puzzle over general knowledge questions with my Oma, he sits there, not saying a word. He seems fairly unaware of what's going on until I say "Opa, whereabouts is the capital city of Muscat?" and straight up, without missing a beat he answers "Oman".
It's difficult seeing him now because I feel torn between holding onto the image that I've always had. Of a tall, authoritative and stern man with interesting stories . Someone who fostered my love of books by ordering me special copies from London. Who spoke French with me when I was small. When I was younger he seemed to stay the same, no matter how many times I saw him, or how many years passed. I feel like I want to end with that, to keep him alive in my mind as he was, not what he is now.
But I've realised I have precious time with him. The next time I see him and each time after, he'll be that little bit frailer, that little bit more confused and unaware of what's going on. As C.S. Lewis says "Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back, everything is different". And the differences will keep coming. So the memories I have are what's important. And that's what I plan on cherishing the most.