Grief is weird. Thankfully I had very little exposure to it until my mid-20s, but it’s always managed to surprise. Its reality hits you at the most unexpected moments, like going to call the person, only to realise you’d need a very powerful phone to reach them, or hearing a song, or just hearing an offhand remark that reminds you of the person you’ve lost.
For me this week, only when I was in the plane, flying away, did (perhaps ironically) the gravity of the situation hit me.
Not when I first received the news. Not when I told people at work. Not when I called my girlfriend to give her the news. Not while booking the tickets north, boarding the plane or disembarking on a muggy Gold Coast evening. Not even during the viewing at the funeral home, delivering the eulogy or watching the curtains close on the coffin.
It was only as the plane back south was ascending, and I caught a glance at the neat squares of sugarcane in the Tweed Valley down below, that it hit me, and I burst into tears.
Those canefields had always been a signal of finality, though not as emphatically as they were that day. I usually saw them from ground level, through the window of a passing car. They told me, as we drove south on the Pacific Highway through the valley and back to Coffs Harbour, that the holiday was over, that we were heading back to reality for at least another school term.
They didn’t have the opposite message on the way up, though. That honour, of announcing that we’d reached our destination and that the holiday had begun, went to the view from the top of Sexton Hill, as the Pacific Highway wound through the houses nestled north of the Tweed River and made its way into the last leg before crossing into Queensland. The view of Surfers Paradise in the distance, and the smaller towers of Coolangatta told me that we were about to turn off and make our way to Nan and Pop’s house.
That was more or less the view from Nan and Pop’s place, as well. Over a hedge populated by buzzing bees and screeching lorikeets, the towers of the southern Gold Coast and the ocean could be seen from the front porch where Pop and I used to sit when I was a kid, he with a beer, me with a glass of Fanta as he told stories about the world.
His and Nan’s house was the definition of summer to me. Even though I grew up only three and a half hours away, in a city that is considered a tourist town and holiday destination in its own right, my grandparents’ house didn’t bring with it any reminders of school, homework or chores that needed to be done back at home.
All of that flashed through my mind as I looked down on those cane fields, and the grief brought along another little present: a feeling of guilt, wondering whether the sadness you feel is because of what you’ve lost, rather than at the passing of another human being. It’s all about your experiences, not theirs, not what they’ve said goodbye to. This feeling of selfishness was commonly brought up in the all-too-familiar panic attacks that come with anxiety, but this one seemed more existential.
Then another feeling came through of gratitude. As I grew up, I started to realise what a privilege it was to have such wonderful grandparents. Many people never get the chance to meet their grandparents; some are too far away to see regularly, others may not want to be seen or may have acted in such a way that their grandchildren do not want to see them.
And there I was, among that group of people who had kind hearted, generous and caring grandparents who also lived within reach. Who’d do everything they could to give you a better chance in the world. And so, every summer I’d journey north to relax, head to the beach, swim in the pool down the road and grumble about the inconvenience of living on NSW daylight saving time while receiving Queensland broadcasting signals on the TV.
Once I moved away from home to Brisbane for university, that house was a much shorter drive down the M1, or two buses and a train away. It was a refuge, albeit one for weekends rather than weeks at a time, in which I could recharge, remove myself from the realities of the world and listen to the stories and knowledge derived from days gone by.
From pre-school, to primary school, to high school, to university and then the jump from city to city for work, that house and my grandparents were a constant in my life and a place where I could step back from the world and relax.
Those days are done now. That generation of my family tree has joined the others. And only now, as the old cliche goes, that it’s gone have I come to appreciate fully the impact it has had on me.
Cue the return of the existential panic and feelings of selfishness again. Because I wasn’t just saying goodbye to my grandfather this week, I was saying goodbye to a time period and a place. Tweed Heads and the southern Gold Coast are likely to become a blur through the window as I pass through on the way to see friends in Brisbane. The place is too filled with memories with my grandparents that every experience, every familiar shop or beach or street feels somehow hollow and empty now.
That includes the fish and chip shop on Terranorra Creek where we would pick up fish and chips. The food’s still good, but without Pop there to wrap the oily paper in a blanket to keep it warm and pop it in the car boot, it doesn’t feel the same.
Coolangatta Beach’s golden sand and clear water is beautiful as ever, but there are too many memories of jumping on a boogie board as Pop watched from the beach, or making our regular trips to McDonalds across the street, followed by a drive up to Point Danger to watch the sun glisten off the ocean and the surfers making the most of the rolling waves.
Even the old house in the hills of Banora Point doesn’t seem the same. The place where I spent countless summers, sat on the porch or in the beergarden out the back, played on the embankment or sprayed its weeds, or sat inside with Nan watching repeats of Inspector Rex.
Pop sold the house a few months ago, when he went into an RSL care home, and so it became just another house on a street in a residential suburb.
The next little while is probably going to suck. But at least at the end of it the memories will remain. Tweed Heads will continue to have visitors, and people living, working and raising families, the one that I know will still be around in my memories. After all, the plane landed safely and life will go on. Grief is weird, but at least this time it should only be temporary.