In the depths of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer. – Camus
My grandfather, Denny, is nearing the end of his life. I have heard people in his position, read their words, that talk of the coming of night, the encroaching darkness, and you can do nothing to prevent the dark curtain of night closing in all around you. When mum calls, she says, “It really could be any day now.” But it has felt like this for years. For four years, since his first heart surgery, and the many organ failures and heart attacks in between, we have thought ‘this is it.’ But he has gone on. A true Cockney, born within the sound of Bow Bells in London, where I lived with him and my grandmother as a child, he still has that fighting Cockney spirit. He looks death in the eye and spits. Spits with disgust. A “you’ll never get me”, Under different circumstances, I’d say he would win this fight – he’s tough. But not this one. It is one of the saddest things of all when you realize that from the minute you were born, you have been making a slow evolution to this point. You’ve been living your whole life, and with each day, moving closer to the inevitable. But none of us beats death. It beats us, and beats us and beats us. It is punishing for those who feel the encroaching gloom, and punishing for those of us who can do nothing but watch as the ones we love slip away from us, stolen in the night.
Death is never fair. We try to remain logical, make sense of it. We say things like, “He had a good life,” as if somehow this made it more bearable. It doesn’t. There is little comfort to be found anywhere under such circumstances. So, knowing that, I want to tell you a story about his life, our life, before the night came closing in.
Denny was never a large man, but he was always a strong man. In England, where we are from, Denny was a contractor who ran his own business, simply named “Home Improvements.” He operated out of an ugly but efficient brown van that he had hand-painted the company name on the side and outfitted the interior with shelves and hooks to hold his many tools and jars of nails and bolts. As a child, I never had to wonder who paved the streets of London; it was my grandfather. Paving streets takes strength, and as a child, I remember seeing him covered in cement dust, his hands so callused and overworked, that even when he scrubbed the gray grit remained forever embedded in his skin. He could single-handedly hang sheets of drywall, climb around church belfries and build new frames for the bells.
He was nimble, quick, sharp, strong. He had built the interiors in the houses of London’s richest men, and it was through one of these men that our family was contacted by a wealthy sheik by the name of Mr. Takhisadhi. He had bought a house in Kensington, gutted the place to the bones, and had hired my grandfather to build it out. To make him a home for his wife and his family. It was a big job and it paid well, and as an independent contractor with his own family and house in Tottenham, northeast London, the sheik was important to our family.
I was about nine-years-old when I met the exotic Mr. Takhisadhi. We met with him in the gutted house and stood around on cement dust covered floors, amidst large plastic tarps and the smells of construction. He had honey-colored skin and chocolate eyes. He wore a creamy white cassock and a cloth on his head that was secured with a black and gold band. He also had a big gold watch and diamond rings and a wrist full of gold bracelets. Mr. Takhisadhi was a gracious man, and as he outlined the work he wanted done, detailing it to my grandfather, I marveled at his jewels and fabulous costume. He was rich. Very rich. A millionaire several times over. After the meeting, he got into his forest green Jaguar with the leather interior and sped off into the gray day.
Mr. Takhisadhi was, for quite some time, our very livelihood. Where it not for his faith in my grandfather and his insistence on paying full wages, I don’t know how we would have survived. I suppose we would have. That something or someone else would have come along eventually, but they didn’t, and we had the sheik and he had us and we were all saved. That’s what if felt like, and I believe Mr. Takhisadhi felt saved as well.
The sheik had told my grandfather he wanted his house to be made of mirrors. At first, I don’t think Denny quite understood what he meant. Hang a mirror here or there? A mirrored wall in each room? No. Mirrors. Everywhere. They were both speaking English, but something seemed not to be translating. It was inconceivable to us that anyone would want their entire interior walls mirrored. Who does such a thing? Maybe Diana Ross, but not anyone we knew. But no; he wanted mirrors. No wallpaper, no paint, mirrors on every surface. And not just any mirrors. He wanted 2 by 2-inch squares of mirror attached in sequence, covering every inch of every wall. The inner support beams that leant the house a sort of palatial effect were not spared either. They too had to ‘mirrored’, the sheik said.
To my grandfather, a practical many and a cost-conscious man (for we never had or ever would have as much money as the sheik,) this seemed not only incredibly laborious and time consuming (why not buy large sheets of glass and cover the walls with those as they do in ballet studios?), but it was also bloody expensive. To get the best price, you had to buy the mirrored glass in large sheets, and then you had to hand cut each piece into 2 by 2-inch squares. When you had however many thousands of squar, the real work began; painting the walls with a special adhesive with a little brush, and hand stick every single square of glass back to back, side to side, on every surface of wall and column in the house.
This project took months, and for months my grandfather would return from work with sparkles on his clothes, like some magician or shaman, scintillating with finely ground bits of mirror that had been spit up by his special cutting machine and lodged in the fibers of his clothes. Other, bits of mirror, fine as grains of sand, were embedded in the skin of his palms and fingers. He was shimmery, otherworldly.
Sometimes, I used to plead my way out of going to school by offering to help in the family business, and on good days, I was lucky and my grandfather would let me come along with him and my cousin Martin who was his apprentice. I wasn’t any help – I was a kid, but I did know how to make tea, so I made them tea as they worked and Branston Pickle and cheese sandwiches for lunch. It was my job to pack the small box with the electric kettle, teabags and teacups and carton of milk that accompanied my grandfather on every job he went to. And I think they liked having me around, and I certainly liked being around all the smells of paint and turpentine and chemicals because I had long since associated them with my grandfather and with safety and with love.
To this day, I wander the aisles of hardware and home improvement shops, not looking for anything in particular, just looking at all the cans of paint, lined up so reassuringly on the shelves. Anything can be any color you want: you can change everything just like that. Magic! And sometimes, I buy paint and rollers and come home to this house where I live with my husband and cancer – a number on my head- I think I feel that encroaching gloom, the twilight hour that I dread because I know that one day, this cancer will probably beat me. It is sleuth-like, stalks me like a predator, wrapping around muscle and bone, slowly turning my insides to dust.
A few months ago, I was on my way home from a friend’s funeral – a bitter death, for she was young and newly married and this was a fluke. I drove through the pouring rain on my home, dressed in my blacks, crying to the rhythm of the windshield wipers. I was almost home when I saw the hardware store sign and without questioning why, I veered off the road and went inside. I wandered the aisles, the narcotic smells that soothed me, and I studied paint chip cards until I found the whitest white they made. I bought two cans, a roller, a pan, and two large tarps. At home, I stripped off my blacks and prepared the room. Then I went to work, and I lay out a tarp, cover the furniture, and began to paint the bedroom .
It is a large room with odd angles as it sits in what would be the attic of the house; I finished the job the same day I began. The yellowed and stained walls that we had thought were white were in stark contrast to the crisp blue-white as I began to roll on the paint. I cried as I painted. I cried for my friend, Ellie, I cried for Denny, I cried for me, for my husband. I was certain that by painting, I was somehow re-purifying our bedroom that had held me for six months as I recovered from my first cancer, where I had seen my husband close to tears, where I was hooked up to an IV. I was painting away bad memories. The way I saw it, at least the walls I’d be looking at wouldn’t be the exact same walls I was looking at through these last, very difficult years.
It was a gray, typically British day when we set out to Kensington again. I hate to say that, ‘typically British’, but it’s true. It was raining. I remember the comforting whomp-whomp of the windshield wipers as we drove our way through blurry London. I, along with my cousin Martin and my grandfather, Denny, got into his ugly but efficient brown work van and drove to Mr. Takhisadhi’s house to take the measurements and so that Denny could do the calculus to figure who much glass he would need for the job. The house was finished, pretty much; the drywall had been put up. Some large sheets of plastic still hung, but only because they hadn’t yet been taken down – they had no purpose. The plumbing still needed doing, and Denny and Martin would be doing that too, but we were there to take measurements of walls and columns.. Carrying his metal, retractable measuring tape as he moved from room to room, Denny wrote the measurements in his beautiful cursive in a little notebook he kept in his work apron pocket along with his cigars. When he was finished, the three of us stood around staring at the gray-white unpainted drywall, shaking our heads not only at the amount of work the job would involve, but the seeming absurdity of it. Why can’t he bloody paint like everyone else, seemed to be the consensus. So we drank our tea, shook our heads again in bewilderment, and set off to buy the mirrored glass.
Several weeks later, Martin and Denny began the task of using a special adhesive to place every two inches of mirror in the house. It took them three months to finish the job, and every day seemed to bring more frustrations (the adhesive wasn’t holding, they needed more glass) and new jokes, most of which were over my head.
Then it came: the day they were done. It was a special day, and again, it was a gray day and I stayed home from school and rode in the ugly but practical brown van with the tea kit on my lap all the way to the better part of London. I cannot prepare you, though I will try, for the site that I was to behold and that I will never forget. It was magnificent. It was a palace. It was like a dream of glitter and stars. It was like being in a star. The effect from all of the small squares was that you never got a complete, full reflection of yourself. You got bits and pieces. The sheik had been right; one large sheet of mirror would have been tacky, but this… this. It was like nothing I have ever seen. It was modern and ancient Arabic all at once. It wasn’t disco – it was holy. And I mean truly holy.
Standing there, the world shimmered, the walls came alive. Trees blowing outside reflected around the room and bounced off of other reflections. A bird flying by was flying inside and everywhere in all directions all at once. The walls were fluid and alive. The wet silver-green leaves of the trees as they swayed in the rain and the wind looked like sheets of moving silk as they were broken up into sections and bounced from mirror to mirror. The effect was not dizzying, as one might expect, not like a fun house that makes you feel nauseous. It really was like walking into a temple, and the mirrored columns were nothing short of a stroke of genius, for they were there and not there at the same time.
My grandfather lit a cigar and just stood there for a moment, and quietly at first, then louder began to laugh. He said, “Silly sod,” but I assure you, he meant it in the best possible way.
What is the point? I don’t know. I suppose that is the point. The point is this: that the sheik’s original request made no sense to us. It seemed an absurd flashing and wasting of money. It seemed like a lot of work when the same effect could be accomplished so much simpler. But that is not true. It would have been flat, static, dead. This shimmering palace showed us a lot; that the world is as we see it and also not as we see it. That we are used to seeing it in a larger picture, a single view. We learned that when you cut it down into squares, when you see bits at a time, you actually see more.
There is no big picture, only details that together may give the illusion of uniform image, but are worlds in and of themselves when broken down. Each square is a detail – perhaps an otherwise unnoticed detail – which shapes what we think we are seeing. These are hard days, and the larger picture does not look good to me. We are losing Denny, as his organs pack up one by one, done in by too many years of such hard labor. And my husband and I – we have seen each other for so long, perhaps, that I fear we don’t see each other anymore. That we see without taking in the detail. Those little details that are the things that make us fall in love. The way a lover crosses his leg, the way she absently twists her hair. The passion once held in a single kiss, that too, got lost somewhere along the way.
I believe this is what people mean when they say we take things for granted. That day, at the sheik’s house, when I saw the trees blow and the pigeons flutter on the phone wire outside the window, when the walls moved, when I saw not my face, but my hazel eye with the freckle below the lash line, it was different. I had never noticed the pigeons on the wire, the freckle under my eye, the silver-gray-green color of my eyes. Even at that young age, I had stopped really looking. My reflection in the bathroom mirror was what I expected, so I never questioned it, because it never questioned me. It always reflected what I expected. As my husband and I try to work through the aftermath of so many hard things, for these are hard days, I know that the obvious picture is not a good one. That it is ugly and sad and full of fury and questions and hurts.
I just need to go slow, I recently wrote a friend in a letter. To do things in my own time – whatever those things are, however this situation will be resoled. But I have done one thing; I have taken a sledgehammer to that glass and shattered the illusion and upset the smooth veneer of our life. There are shards all around me, and I see things there, not all of them good, not all of them bad. And I have seen things, discovered things, I never knew existed, or if I did, I never really saw them. I didn’t question our life – who has the time. We just accept that if the surface is smooth, then things must be fine. I could not have been more wrong. Yes, everything is shattered, and there is danger here and there, and sorting through these splinters is dangerous, painful work. But like Denny, I am lining them up one by one. I have the patience of a saint as I work, and I tell you, I am building nothing less than something sacred, something holy. A thing that one day I will marvel at and wonder how I could ever have lived differently.
Author’s Note: The subject of this story, Dennis William Wildman, passed away in February of 2003. His presence is still felt, but his absence is palpable. He lives on in his work and his laugh, which I still hear when I say something completely silly (in other words, quite often).
For help with grief and loss or to start your own Web journal for a loved one who has passed, visit www.beyondindigo.com, a wonderful site for those who are terminally ill, or for anyone who is going through the grieving process. Beyond Indigo will help you set up a memorial Web site and will host it for you for as long as you’d like. E-mail site owner Kelly Baltzell, who has been written up in numerous media. Tell her I sent you.- SRPPowered by Sidelines