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Grandpa's universe

Leaving Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Photo: Harry and Rowena Kennedy/Flickr

“If you love being alive, you must learn never to squander time, for time is the stuff life is made of.”

-Benjamin Franklin

My paternal grandfather was a maintenance-of-way foreman on the Clarenville-Bonavista branch line of the Newfoundland Railway. After retiring in 1930, he came to Corner Brook and helped defray the cost of building our two-storey, four-bedroom home on Howley Road. He lived with us until his death in 1937. I’ve never forgotten his quirky character and sage philosophy.

He was nearly as robust and astute in old age as he must have been in his prime working on the railroad.

“I stopped getting sick,” he used to say wryly, “when I found out it was bad for my health.”

This was his sardonic reply to people who asked how he could maintain an apparent immunity to disease -- even the common cold -- well into his 80s.

His genes could no doubt take much of the credit, but Grandpa also had a healthy lifestyle. He kept physically fit, was never overweight, and supplemented a nourishing diet with two cloves of garlic and a mug of cider vinegar every day. His death, at 87, resulted from a fall off the roof, where he had been fixing some loose shingles. Up to then, his vigor had been undiminished.

I find myself thinking of my grandfather more often as I surpass (by five years now) the age at which his life ended. I think mostly about his philosophy -- his answers to the great questions of life and death.

Most vivid in my mind is an afternoon I spent with him on one of the few sandy beaches to be found near Corner Brook. I had just passed my 11th birthday. It was shortly after one of my school chums had died of a burst appendix before he could get medical help. As saddened as I was by my friend’s early demise, I was even more disturbed by the jarring reminder of my own mortality.

When I broached the subject of death to my grandfather, he picked up a stick and drew a line in the sand from the grassy fringe down to the water, a distance of about 30 feet.

“Think of this line as the progression of time,” he said, “From the birth of the universe to infinity.” He took out his pocket-knife and cut two thin slices across the time-line less than a couple of millimetres apart.

“That’s my life-span,” he said.

“And where’s mine?” I asked him.

He carefully drew the blade down his second time-slash again, widening it another few millimetres. “Your life-span overlaps mine, Eddy, but in the vastness of time it’s barely perceptible.”

“Jimmy’s was even shorter,” I said glumly.

Grandpa was silent for a while. Then he told me that each human being gets an allotment of time in which to exist.

“For some it’s longer than for others, sometimes much longer, but what you should try to understand, Eddy, is that each of us is immortal, regardless of how long or short our individual lives.”

Grandpa was an agnostic -- another of his eccentricities -- so I knew he wasn’t referring to a religious after-life. 

“Basically,” he explained, “what happens is that, when each person is born, the universe is simultaneously created for that person; and when he or she dies, the universe also ends.”

That concept was far too metaphysical for me to grasp at the time. Later, when I dabbled a bit in philosophy myself, I thought at first that Grandpa must have been a solipsist. But later I came to understand what he was getting at.

His argument was that the universe exists for each of us only through our senses. If we couldn’t see it, hear it, feel it, or smell it, then for all practical purposes it would not exist. So life and time are both subjective, and Grandpa was right: the universe, in effect, is indeed created and destroyed with the birth and death of every sentient creature.

“It’s pointless to worry about dying,” he told me that afternoon. “Like everyone else, you are going to live from the beginning to the end of time and the universe -- as time and the universe exist for you. In that very real sense, you are immortal. So am I. So is or was everyone else -- including your friend Jimmy, as hard as that may be for you to believe.”

Seeing that I remained unconvinced, he pointed to the line in the sand that led down to where he had bisected it. “Were you sad or worried because you weren’t alive before you were born?”

I laughed. “Of course not, Grandpa. I wasn’t alive, so I couldn’t feel anything.” 

He nodded, then pointed to the remainder of the line that led down from the cross-slash to the water. “The same is true of all the time that will follow you after you die. You won’t feel anything then, either.”

He gripped me by both arms and looked into my eyes. “Always remember this, Eddy: You can never be sorry you’re not alive.”

I used to think that was a flippant remark, but as I grew into adulthood and later into old age, I came to believe it was quite profound.

Grandpa didn’t try to deny the objective reality of time and matter, but he insisted that their interaction with each individual was purely subjective. He would argue, for example, that human feelings, whether of pain or pleasure, could not be quantified, since these and other emotions could only be experienced by the person in whose mind they existed. For him, a plane crash that killed 100 people was no more tragic and inflicted no more cumulative pain or grief than a car crash that killed one person. Each person’s mental reaction to anything that happens outside him or her, he maintained, is felt only by that person in his or her unique universe.

Still, he thought it was important for each of us to be aware of the entire life-cycle of the species to which we belong. He thought we should reach out with our minds and imagination and try to comprehend what went before and what will come after us. His view was that even a vicarious encompassing of the past and future of humankind would enrich our own comparatively short lifetimes.

He read hundreds of history books and historical novels and biographies, and so developed a keen sense of what had preceded his universe. The future was more of a challenge. Science-fiction was still in its infancy, but he read the futuristic novels of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and other science-fiction pioneers. He would have loved the later tales of space and time travel spun by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and other early sci-fi masters. And he would have delighted in the Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon-5, and the Battlestar Galactica movies and TV series.

He wasn’t sure that any of the speculative stories he read accurately portrayed the future, but he appreciated the authors’ attempts to extrapolate from contemporary social, economic, and political trends into the centuries ahead. They provided him with the sense of comprehension that he sought.

I sometimes wonder what passed through his mind in the last few seconds of his life. He would not have been human if he felt no fear or regret, but I like to think that, at some intellectual level, he simply thought as he was falling that here was the answer to the one question that had hitherto eluded him: At last he knew how and when the universe would end.

He had few possessions to leave his family. His gold-plated watch and other personal belongings he bequeathed to my father, and his property in Spaniard’s Bay he divided among Dad and his other two sons.

There was a brief hand-written codicil appended to his will: “To Eddy, I leave the universe.”

That cryptic note puzzled everyone else, but it’s a legacy I have always treasured.

Ed Finn: A Journalist’s Life on the Left is available from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and amazon.ca

Photo: Harry and Rowena Kennedy/Flickr

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