Last night I sat next to my grandfather on a bench in his garden while he told me of the ways he planned to kill himself. He said that the pain some days gets too much to bear and he imagines how to end it all.
My grandfather is a hunter. His outside shed is filled with guns, bullets, gunpowder and other paraphernalia. In the locked safe are about five rifles and two shotguns. If memory serves me. When I was a child, growing up, he’d show me how to put together a bullet in that shed. A little after-school project. He sat over his tools like an artist over a water painting, lamps arched over his hands to illuminate the small casing and fine, fatal powder. I can’t remember much of what he told me. If I tried to construct my own bullet today in that same shed I’d fall short. I’d create something closer to a birthday cake sparkler. But my grandfather, he was a weapons expert. Is. His guns have been with him for longer than I have and I’ve grown up around them, whether they were locked away in the safe or splayed out like a butterflied leg of lamb on the kitchen counter as he prepared them for his next hunt.
I’ve been with him on a hunt and I’ve seen this aging man, his towering stature arched like the lamps over his bullets and brushes and clamps, stuttering like his voice over the rocks toward his kill. He walked in front of me in the open plains of a farm in the Great Karoo of South Africa, edging closer and closer to the kudu some ten metres away. I was twenty; he was seventy. His rickety amble terrified me as he carried the loaded and cocked rifle. I slowed my walk and stood by a tree to watch the action from behind the branches and leaves, as though they would protect me if the gun went off in the wrong direction, if my grandfather’s old hiking boots tripped on a root and the barrel flung to face my position.
I watched him raise the rifle to his line of vision, one arm up near his ear and the other holding it in position. I heard the shot go off as the bullet flew from its holding into the heart of the antelope grazing on the plains. I watched it fall, that strong graceful animal, to the earth, its eyes facing me, wide with fear, looking down the barrel, into the face of the afterlife.
I watched the farm hands cut open the kudu’s trunk and remove the stomach, hang it on a tree for the vultures to have at. I watched its tongue hanging limply from an open mouth and the blood swim out of the body, thick and fast, as hairy tanned hands closed the door across the back of the bakkie and drove us off to the farm’s butchery.
I’ve seen my grandfather take a life before.
He’s a complicated man, like I like them. When I was growing up, as an only child, my grandfather and grandmother looked after me in the hours my parents couldn’t, after school or on nights when they went out. My grandfather is a strong man. On my maternal side, but like my own father in many ways. My paternal grandfather I hardly knew. Parkinson’s Disease took him when I was five. We’re close: Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma and me. They are some of maybe five blood relatives I have that are still alive and living in Cape Town with me.
A few years ago my grandfather, a hunter as well as a builder, or rather, building supervisor, fell off a ladder leant up against a two-storey building. For a man of his age, such a fall almost killed him. He was in hospital and then home in a hospital bed for many months. For such a solid, usually resilient man it was beyond aggravating, bound to bed and powerless to do things for himself. He broke several bones and now years later those bones are giving him trouble.
Pain no one could conceive, he says. Pain that makes him imagine tying his rifle to a cloud of balloons, with one string tied between his finger and the trigger. As the balloons rise up he pulls the string so the rifle fires into his heart. (He’s a complicated man.) Pain over. Life over. Nothing but white clouds and the god he’s spent life going to church to praise for the day this moment came.
Sitting next to me on the bench in his garden, he says, God forgive me for what I’m about to say, Lord, I am sorry, but I lie in bed in agony some nights praying for him to take me. I laugh about it with Gran, but I’m not joking when I talk to God.
I’ve seen my grandfather take a life before.
When he talks to me, like this, I can’t help but put my hand on his knee, next to me, his bony knee that not too long ago boasted muscle a twenty-year old would be proud of. He’s always showing off his muscles, my grandfather. Every visit, he has never failed at muscling up for us, his audience, to appreciate and marvel at.
Ooh, Grandpa, what big biceps you have, I say when he flexes his arms for me. Look, look, hey, not bad, hey, for an old man. And then his stomach, his abs, strong hey? Feel. Come on, feel! You have no choice. Your grandfather is jutting his so-called abs in front of you in the kitchen and you have to give them a poke. And I do, I poke them and they are firm. Because it’s bone. And bone is firm. Not bad for an old man, I say. For a man of seventy-eight. Hmmm, yeah, wow. I say. I try and flex my own muscles for him. Because this has been our way over the years. Except when once I had muscles, I too am flailing. I too have had an accident and my muscles don’t show up when I attempt to flex.
I’ve recently been hit by car while crossing a road and my broken pelvis has restricted me from exercise. We’re a joke, the two of us now, comparing wasting muscles. The biceps he tries to flex for me, raising air-dumbbells to accentuate them, are non-existent. I say, not bad for an old man. And he tells me that I need to work on those arms, there’s nothing left, just bone. My grandfather and I sit outside on the bench together, just bone, talking about suicide; my mom and grandmother are inside drinking coffee.
I’m scared to talk about death with him, but I realise that every time I don’t ask the questions or say the words I want to another moment passes where it might be the last time that I can. He’s giving in, the pain is too much. Dear Lord, forgive me. But I just listen and tell myself, next time I’ll ask him the big questions. The ones no one in the family talks about, the things he’s hinted at on our trips together shooting buck or going to the fish market for lunch or playing cards over bullets in the shed. Next time.
As I sit here, at home, by myself, in my grown-up home away from home, I can’t help this desire to ask him, If today was your last day, Gramps, what would you do? I don’t want to bring it up, ask the burning question, because I don’t want to jinx fate, but tomorrow could be the last, his last, my last. And I have to know, Grandpa, my love, I’ve seen you take a life. Tell me, what would you wish to do today if tonight would be the end, when your eyes roll back like the kudu’s, if God fired his bullet into your chest, the last bullet, if you were gone, bleeding out like the animal I photographed you with out on the dusty veld in the Karoo, holding up the head of its corpse like a trophy? What would you want to do?
The balloons are being blown up; the bullets are being polished and slipped into the rifle, ready and cocked.
If you woke up today, Grandpa, and you knew it would be your last, what would you want to do?
Tell me and I’ll take you to do it.