The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had an interesting take on death, at least according to my second-year Existentialism prof. I’ve long had a kind of love-hate-don’t-entirely-get relationship with the man’s philosophy, but his analysis of death and what it means for those left behind has come to resonate with me.
According to the thinker and archetypal Parisian, the death of a human being leaves those who survive them frozen in time, in a sense. The living are left to contemplate how the dearly deceased saw them at the end of their life, and to grapple with the knowledge that that impression can no longer be changed. That’s about how I feel about the death of my grandfather.
My grandfather was a remarkable man, as are most people who live to accumulate as much wisdom and as many stories as him. But when he died, I was still a hyperactive pre-teen unable to fully appreciate such things. I’ve had to learn most of the interesting things I know about him from my dad, and to live with the regret that he never got to see what became of that restless child.
Papa, as we called him, was born in Halifax, and so he was well placed to live an interesting life. His family lived on the outskirts of town at the time of the Halifax Explosion. He was spared the direct impact of the explosion and the debris, but as the shock wave passed by it shattered the windows of their house, leaving him with a scar above his eye which never completely went away.
During World War II, he worked as an electrical engineer at the shipyard in Halifax. He helped install some of the very first radar on Canadian ships, an innovation which helped turn the tide in the vital Battle of the Atlantic. The one time he went on a convoy to Britain, the ship he was supposed to return on was sunk by German U-boats…and he survived because he was on a completely different ship with a friend he’d bumped into in a pub in London.
There are plenty more stories I could tell about the man. These stories captivate and fascinate the history buff I have become, but which would have been lost on the 9 year-old computer geek more interested in the latest Legend of Zelda than how Papa helped beat the Nazis. Because of that, I never sat at his feet eager to hear his stories. I never communicated to him just how deeply it all matters to me, or that I would pass it on with pride to future generations of Roué.
Nor did I get to share in his passion for reading. He was a bibliophile with an appreciation I have come to share for the works of spy novelist John le Carré. I’m told that one of his favourite books was The Naked Civil Servant, the memoir of British gay icon Quentin Crisp. Given the generation he came from, I find this remarkable…and I deeply wish I could talk to him about.
And that’s where his death has left me. If only he had lived a little longer, or if only I had matured faster or gotten into reading at a younger age, I could’ve had a different relationship with him. I, much like Papa, am not a man of faith, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t on some level hope for an afterlife from which he could look down on me and see the avid reader, the history lover and above all the young man I’ve become.
[Contributed by Edward Roué]