As a child, I could always tell which adults genuinely liked children, and which ones just put up with us. I knew by the tone of their voices and how long they waited for my reply to their questions. Sometimes they rushed in and answered the question themselves.
Grandpa George liked us four grandkids. He read us Russian fairytales about the mean old Tsars in their golden palaces, conquering faraway lands and marrying beautiful princesses. He strictly rationed his Callard and Bowser toffees to one a day, and never forgot. We needed a lot of courage to creep into the living room early in the morning, and stand on tiptoes to open the faded Quality Street tin high on the mantelpiece, to steal one more. I was terrified he would find out and give us a prickly tickle with his bushy white beard. At breakfast, he would open the glass patio door and let the robins hop around and eat crumbs off the carpet. He was soft and scary all at the same time.
My grandfather, George Hunter, was a biochemistry professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and Mary Wylie, my grandmother, was one of the first female physicians to graduate from Glasgow University at the end of the First World War. They were Fabians, armchair socialists, when they lived in Scotland before emigrating to Canada. In Edmonton, George became an active member of the Communist Party of Canada and in 1949, during McCarthyism, he was fired from the university for using his professorial role as a platform for political rhetoric. He has been cited in several books on communism in Canada as a victim of academic mobbing. In many universities during the late forties and early fifties professors were forced out of tenured jobs for their political leanings. The family moved back to the UK under a blanket of shame, relying on George's strength of character to find its dignity again.
I learned the full story of my grandfather’s death in my twenties when I asked my mother how he had died. All I knew before then was that he had died of cancer. When I was thirteen, he tried to end his life with barbiturates and scotch, but failed. He was eighty-five and lived with advanced colon cancer with bone metastases and decided he had suffered enough. Unfortunately for him though, he didn’t know the fatal dose of barbiturates. I remember my mother leaving in the middle of the night to drive eight hours to Oxford where he lived. All she said was that Grandpa was very ill in hospital.
My grandmother had found him in bed, wide-eyed and unable to speak, but able to communicate. He was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. Once the attending physician determined that George was competent to make the decision to die, and after he received approval from my grandmother, and my mother, he administered Brompton's cocktail (a combination of morphine, cocaine, and alcohol) to end my grandfather’s life. I imagined that the doctor did not write any notes in my grandfather’s chart that day, but perhaps he left work with the satisfaction of knowing he had honoured the wishes of a man who had always known his own mind. My sorrow is for my grandfather for what must have been a harrowing and undignified experience, lying in a hospital bed at the mercy of others to determine his fate.
My mother, now in her mid-eighties, is grateful to this day for the courage and compassion of that physician who honoured her father's wish to die. She hopes for the same for herself, if she ever wants to make a similar choice. She told me she will move to Canada if she has to.