My grandfather was the strongest man I ever met. If you’ve ever seen someone on TV perform some superhuman feat of strength and thought that it wasn’t real, you’ve never met my grandfather. I have seen him rip a telephone book in half. He reached his full height of 6”4’ at the age of fourteen, and by the age of fifteen he had left school to work in the metal works. No one thought twice about it, because he was more than capable of the work and looked older than he was.
I am not strong. My joints frequently hurt, although I do not think I can convey to you how much of an understatement the word ‘hurt’ is in this situation. Most people didn’t understand why I didn’t run as long or as fast as the other children, or take delight in the frequent football scrimmages that almost all the boys I knew took such delight in. when I told them “I can’t, my legs ache,” they just told me to be strong.
My grandfather didn’t. “Rhaid cropian cyn cerdded,” he would say, with his deep, rolling Welsh accent that sounds like singing. You must crawl before walking, it means in English. Take it slowly. So that’s what I did. I learned not to try and run as fast or as far as the others, so that the relentless pounding of my feet on the ground didn’t make me feel as though my knees would turn to jelly and fall out through my feet. I learnt a style of walking that meant that my legs didn’t ache quite so much, and a writing style that meant I could write for more than five minutes without feeling as though my fingers might crumble to dust.
When I was fourteen, I was diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome. Everything suddenly made sense. The joint pain, the fact that I tend to sprain things doing fairly normal activities, the way I can bend my joints in rather disturbing ways, and a myriad of other symptoms. Before that, I had just been double-jointed, and a bit of a wimp.
I never told my grandfather, but these things spread through close-knit families. I doubt that it was very long before he found out anyway.
At around the same time, he began to get arthritis. It started in his hands. He never told me about it, the same way I never told him about my joints. We did talk a lot, though. We talked about politics, which I learnt a lot about in a very short time due to his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of 20th century British politics. We talked about horse racing, even though I never understood all the little details that meant one horse would outrace another. Of course, he was wrong more often than not, so perhaps he didn’t know how it worked any better than I did.
We didn’t talk about the time I almost dislocated my shoulder stopping some idiot at school from stealing a friend’s pencil case, or when his arthritis got so bad that he couldn’t fully open or close his hands anymore. We didn’t even talk about it when I showed up at his house limping because every step made me feel as though someone was sticking a red hot sword into my hip, or when the arthritis spread to his knees and the strongest man I ever knew couldn’t walk faster than a shuffle, supported by a cane.
People had a tendency to ask us if we needed anything, in order to prevent us from having to do it ourselves. When we were alone, my grandfather and I, we didn’t do that. “Adfyd a ddwg wybodaeth, a gwybodaeth ddoethineb,” he would say. Adversity brings knowledge and knowledge wisdom. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We never spoke about the pain.
A few weeks ago, it was my grandfather’s 83rd birthday. Our rather large extended family came to celebrate it, as was our tradition.
Before lunch, though, my grandfather stood up to give a speech. This was unusual. Everyone quietened down, even my younger cousins who would no doubt rather be racing around in the garden.
“Today,” he said, voice easily carrying across the room, “I will be doing something that I have not done for many years.” I overheard one of my cousins, who was about eight at the time, ask in an awed whisper “Is he going to do a magic trick?”, as though he was stage magician.
My grandfather turned and walked over to a flight of stairs. I knew then what he was about to do. For years now, he had been forced to take lifts, his knees not up to managing the stairs. But now, he was going to climb them, just like he’d climbed mountains when he was younger.
He did it. He climbed it. I could see how much it was hurting him, but he did it.
I realised then that was what true strength was. Not the ability to rip a telephone book in half, or lift a wonderstruck child with one hand. But the ability to do something that you found hard, that many others in the same situation wouldn’t even think of attempting.
When he reached the top, he turned, arms spread wide, a silhouette. I’ll never forget that moment.
People went up to congratulate him, even my young cousins who, with their fit, perfect bodies, couldn’t grasp the importance of what he had done.
I was the last to go up. My hip had been giving me problems that day, and I didn’t really relish the thought of climbing those stairs, especially with the children dashing around. But I went up anyway, leaning heavily on the bannisters and putting as little weight on my left leg so that it only felt as though a small grenade had exploded in it.
We didn’t speak about it when I got up there. That wasn’t what we did.
After a few seconds of comfortable silence, his eyes flicked down to my leg, noticing that I was leaning heavily to the right. It was the first time he’d ever paid any attention to my joints.
Then he said “Do you feel like helping me back down this mountain, son?”