This post came to me unexpectedly. I was actually trying to write about someone else but I guess their lives were so intertwined that this had to come first. Or maybe it’s because I’m going to a place I know he would have known everything about. He would have quoted the length of the Great Wall, spoken of the importance of its history and of the war, and of course why it’s one of the wonders of the world. He may have even quoted some Chinese philosopher.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.” – Ray Bradbury
I knew a man once who was exceptionally intelligent. He quoted passages from ancient texts, acts from Shakespeare and facts from encyclopedias. He was so intelligent in fact that he seemed a tad eccentric to the mere average minded. He was athletic. He was strong. He was brave. He even saved a man’s life. He had more brilliance in him then most of us are gifted with.
His name was Reginald Victor Basil Lawler and he was my grandfather.
When I was 10, I got to experience a rare glimpse into the mind of what I would call a genius, others a mad man. Either way it was like a trip into a wonderland.
I was writing about his life. And the event that changed it forever.
He spoke his truth with the brush strokes of an artist. Powerful. Vivid. Intense. I wasn’t hearing words, I was seeing pictures. I was living the moments with him. I was right there in the war. Young and disillusioned. Hungry tired and scared. Looking around at a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Big trees, lush vegetation and a lazy flowing river. Life in abundance. And in one thunderous blink, that same landscape becomes a desolate, black, ashen mess. Life. Less. “This is what war is”, he said, “in an instant, a flash, life is taken away.”
It wasn’t the loss of human life that shocked him the most. It was the destruction of nature. It was the power of the human hand to either create or destroy.
He came back from war with a medal for his quick thinking heroics. But he didn’t feel like one. For how can one claim any kind of victory on the back of such loss? He came back with grief and darkness.
And the only way that grief and darkness could escape their imprisonment was through books. He poured his pain into books and drank it from a bottle of whiskey. The shackles of imprisonment held him tight like a comforting monster.
People may remember him just like that picture. Dark, desolate, scary even. I think he was largely misunderstood. He had the mind of a philosopher, poet, writer, artist, scientist and mathematician and yet he was none of those. He was born into a country and political system that forbade him from being all that he could be because of his pigmentation. He wasn’t supposed to think, he wasn’t supposed to know things, and he wasn’t supposed to have a voice. He was supposed to do as he was told, live where he was told and keep his big mouth shut when he was told.
Imagine a man with a beautiful mind being told to live like an empty headed boy. The pain, the disappointment and the effects of the war led to a gradual deterioration.
At some point he surrended to life. He held up the white flag and gave in. I can’t say if it was due to ill health or just no longer having the will to live. But even when he could no longer physically take care of himself he could still quote Shakespeare or Omar Khayyam. His mind remained razor sharp. And that is all he had in the end.
His books, his medal and the story I wrote about him are the few things that are left of him. I don’t even know if there are books anymore, just one, which my father is in possession of: Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
I paged through it 2 years ago. The worn cover and pages brown with age. And I saw the eyes that had run through those words. And I felt the fingers that had touched the pages. Not from one soul but two. My father never would have taken anything from my grandfather when he was alive but he insisted on having this book when he died.
I wonder if my father realizes that it is through this book that he is connecting with the soul of my grandfather. His father, a man he could never connect with while he was alive.
My grandfather left a part of his soul in that book, and it continues to touch those left behind with or without their knowledge. Because he is there.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies……………something your hand touched some way…………”.