The night my grandfather died, I couldn’t get to sleep. I drank warm milk, which I detest, counted sheep and practiced relaxation techniques learned when my children were months from being born. At ten-thirty, , , although I was exhausted, sleep eluded me. I lay on my bed, next to my snoring partner, and marveled at how wide is the gulf between the two shores of a king-sized mattress.
Tree toads and crickets mumbled and chirped outside my window, boasting about the early Niagara summer. Ordinarily, these gentle night sounds would have lulled me into doziness. Not that night. That long, interminable May night, I kept a deathwatch. There was no sadness streaming from my eyes, no heart being held together by will power glue. My grandfather’s death was a celebration: He had long since made his peace with his impending end.
“I don’t know why God is keeping me alive, sure, darling,” he told me as I sat on the edge of the crisply sheeted hospital bed in April. “I’m ready to go, more than ready. Your grandmother, your Aunt Ida, all my friends my age are gone already. What reason do I have to stick around?”
I stood up, allowing Mr. John Jones to take my place of honour at his feet.
“You may be ready to go,” I assured him, “but we’re not ready to see you leave.”
“I’ve had a long life,” he said, nodding his head.The wisps of hair grew like frosty grass at the base of his bald head. “A good life.”
“We’re heading back to Toronto tonight, sweetie,” I said, kissing the top of his head as I had so many thousands of times before. “Neil, Jennifer, give Great-grandpoppie a big kiss.”
He hugged my children. When he shook my hand as he kissed me goodbye, I visibly winced. He may have been almost ninety-three years old and knocking at death’s door, but his grip was as strong as ever. It was a grip befitting the grandson of The Fortune Bay Giant.
I always knew my grandfather was a giant among men, long before he related the story of his ancestry. Towering above his son, my father, and every other male human in our community, he stood six feet five and never weighed less than three hundred pounds. His mother’s father had stopped growing at just over seven feet; I’m certain Mary Anne Clarke harboured fears her youngest son would take after her father. Life isn’t always easy for a giant among men.
Death, it appears, is far easier.
My grandfather stepped lightly for such a big man. And he cried like a baby, even as a strapping thirty-year-old, even as an over-the-hill pilot of the TorontoIsland ferry, every time he had to leave his loved ones behind while he traveled elsewhere to earn a living. He was a tough seagoing sailor on the outside; on the inside, he was a bowl of mush with a heart of gold!
Not just his family and friends benefited from my grandfather’s largesse. Over the years, I discovered he had been a veritable bank. I spoke with Anglican ministers whom he had helped financially. I talked with young men whom he had hired as able-bodied seamen when no one else would give them a job.I heard how he had almost single-handedly harassed the government into building a seniors’ centre in his small Newfoundland village.
When I was ten, my grandfather was the captain of the East Star. The ship headed to Cuba carrying various supply goods and a Russian circus, bound for Havana where they were to take on a cargo of salt. It was a disturbing time. Relations between Cuba and the United States were at an all-time low. My grandfather’s ship unloaded, took on the salt and the necessary fuel for the return journey, and left Havana. We always tuned in to the ship-to-shore radio transmissions, waiting to hear Poppie’s familiar voice, chatting with his captain pals. A few days after we knew the East Star had left Havana, we heard a disquieting conversation between two other ships’ captains.
“Anyone heard from Ned Clarke?”
“No. Should have been able to raise him by now.”
One by one, his captain friends called my grandfather’s ship. No answers.
A couple of nights later, we heard one captain remark that the East Star was overdue back in her home port of Souris, Prince Edward Island. Shortly thereafter, that news was confirmed by the ship’s owners. Poppie was officially missing. I cannot recreate the pain, the anguish of not knowing, the empty loss warring with the blooming hope, the tears and the prayers, but I can still feel all the same feelings when my mind wanders to those days. I can’t remember how we finally discovered that the East Star’s captain and crew had been rescued. I can, however, recall the joy I felt when my Poppie stepped out of my uncle’s skiff and I flew into his enormous embrace.
“Oh, Poppie,” I cried as he hefted me high in his arms, “I was afraid you were dead!”
“You should know better than that,” he teased. “Why, if I had died, I’d have come back the same night and pulled your big toe!”
My children know this story as well as they knew and loved my grandfather. He’d retell the story to my daughter as she sat in his lap, playing with his wispy hair, much as I had at her age.
“Tell me again, Grand-poppie,” Jennifer would beg. “Tell me again.”
And he would relate once more how his engines suddenly began taking on water instead of fuel; how the engines stopped and with them, the radios; how the salt cargo shifted till the ship was keeled over almost parallel with the sea, how they abandoned ship in a near-hurricane. He told her of the days floating in the lifeboats and the sharks circling the lifeboats. He recounted his frustration at seeing ships passing by and not being able to hail them. Eventually, he said, they were picked up by a British freighter. They were helped most, he said, by the Salvation Army officers; they had provided clothes and comfort.
He didn’t tell her how he, a big old man, had had to practically carry his young, inexperienced crew into the lifeboats. No, no. One of his crew told me that.
“Captain Clarke saved us, saved all our lives,” the seaman declared.
Not a chance my Poppie would take the credit.
When he entered the hospital for the last time, his roommate was a man of his age. Whenever we visited, the room overflowed with people—as young as fourteen, as old as ninety: my grandfather’s visitors. Relatives there were, but there were also teenagers whose lives he had touched in some unknown-to-us way. I will always remember the old gentleman who came in a wheelchair guided by his daughter. This man couldn’t speak because of a recent stroke and my grandfather was deaf as a post. Didn’t matter. Ned lay on his hospital bed and Bill sat in his wheelchair, holding each other’s hand, tears creeping down their cheeks. There were so many visitors, on many occasions, the nurse on duty kicked out a few of us because we were too many at one time. Everyone paid some attention to the old man in the next bed, who never seemed to have anyone around. We all marveled at how blessed Poppie was.
A couple of days after his ninety-third birthday, Ned Clarke succumbed to the rigours of old age. I called my children to tell them. We were sad for us without him, but happy for him because it had been his wish to join his old friends.
“I didn’t sleep very well all last night,” I laughingly told Jennifer. “I kept waking up, wondering if he’d keep his promise and come pull my big toe. But he didn’t.”
“Really?” said Jennifer. “And what do you suppose kept waking you?”
She’s probably right.
Time has passed now. I don’t think of my Poppie every day. But every Christmas, when I pass Salvation Army officers, I fold a bill into the kettles. “For a giant among men,” I say. They understand.