The Cow and Calf are a large rock formation, situated on the stunning Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire, consisting of a large outcrop and a boulder sitting nearby, like a cow and her Calf.
According to legend, the Calf was split from the Cow when a giant named Rombald was fleeing an enemy — thought to be his angry wife and stamped on the rock as he leapt across the valley.
The day I found out my grandad had died, I was okay with it.
I wasn’t that sad when my grandad recently passed away, not in a heartless way you understand; I was more relieved for him. He had just celebrated his 90th birthday — a grand old age I doubt I’ll reach. He had his first stroke some years ago, which completely changed his life. Before, he was extremely active for a man 70+ years old. He’d often go walking in the countryside — he was part of a ramblers organisation. He was also a member of a dry stone walling group, a passion of his and indeed a great skill. He and the other chaps would trail the Yorkshire Dales, repairing damaged walls and building/rebuilding stiles and stepping points. I like to think about his handy work dotted around the Dales, lining fields and paths and helping ramblers on their way, standing the test of time.
He was the type of man that knew everything about everything. Whatever needed fixing he was capable, even if it meant scaling up a ladder to repair guttering or digging a great big hole in his drive to repair the gas pipes — all as an ‘old’ man.
The stroke put an end to his active life. Gone were the long walks in the wilderness, the gardening and bread-making — he hadn’t bought a loaf in years, opting instead to bake a fresh loaf every other day. It was a pretty severe stroke; I’m not sure the doctors thought he would make it. Thankfully he did. Luckily he didn’t lose any feeling in any part of his body. His speech was affected quite badly as were his eyes, and he found it hard to swallow food. Even though he recovered, the stroke had taken its toll; it had aged him quite drastically. Throughout the years that followed, he would have another couple of strokes, seizures and multiple setbacks. It seemed that every time we reached the brow of the peak, yet more hill would reveal itself. Lapse’s that if we were honest, we thought this is it. On one occasion I visited him in the hospital. He seemed like a broken man. He was confused and kept on repeating the words, ‘I don’t need to be here, I just want to be at home.’ It was heartbreaking, and as we left, I said to my wife that I didn’t think he’d make it out. Hospitals have a strange way of taking hold of a person. But he would surprise us, again and again, his strength triumphed and he made it back home. He was an incredibly strong-willed man. Until recently, of course, this time he went into the hospital and didn’t make it out. Pneumonia proving too much for him, as is often the case with the elderly.
And yet, I wasn’t overwhelmed with sadness, sad for my Dad and Nana of course, but as far as my feelings were concerned, it was more a sense of relief for him that after ninety years, the last ten or so being a struggle he was finally at peace.
He was ready. Towards the end, he would point up the sky and say ‘I’ve had enough, I want to go.’ The stroke stripped something from him and whether he enjoyed his life since I couldn’t tell you for sure. I know there were highlights, seeing his grandchildren and great-grandchildren always brought a smile to his face. A recent visit with my newly born baby boy was a highlight, and we got a lovely photograph of four generations, which is something I will treasure. His 90th birthday celebration, seeing his old walling chums — who he hadn’t seen for some time was a definite high. But day in day out I can imagine life was a bit of a slog for him. A constant battle between a mind wanting to get on and achieve things and a body unable to provide.
Imagine being an active person, a lover of the outdoors, a person who can achieve pretty much any test put to it, and then in the blink of an eye, without warning it’s gone. Coming to terms with that must have been incredibly challenging.
The fear of death
He said to me a long time ago that he never wanted to grow so old that he would become incapacitated in any way. ‘No,’ he said, ‘before that happens I’ll throw myself off the Cow and Calf rocks.’ We laughed, although I’m quite sure he meant it.
Facing one’s mortality is something that we all have to come to terms with at some point in our lives. Whether it’s because you’ve witnessed a loved one die in front of you, or that you’ve hit middle age and realised that you have lived more years than you’ve got left, or even that you’ve had your first child– it comes to us all eventually. Do I fear death? I’m not sure; I don’t think we can truthfully answer that until we come face to face with it. I fear growing old. Withering away in a nursing home with nothing to do all day but stare at gloomy walls is not something that I crave.
Is it strange that we fear something that we have known is coming all our life? It’s the one constant in our otherwise chaotic existence, yet the fear is genuine for a lot of us. Watching your loved ones grow old and die, is a stark reminder of what’s to come, and it is frightening. And if I’m honest, I’m not looking forward to facing the reality of it.
No, before that time comes, I’ll throw myself off the Cow and Calf rocks. However, I’ll no doubt leave it too late, just like my grandad.