Ellen Gunnarsdottir, 2019 BLR Nonfiction Prize Winner
In the early 1980s, when I was a teen, my grandfather gave me a summer job as a receptionist at his eye clinic. The clinic was on a street that runs from the municipal pond to the harbor. From a hill above, ugly timber houses built by Danish merchants cast an oppressive pall over this wide space continually swept by the north wind from Mount Esja. My grandfather’s clinic consisted of four rooms that ran along the length of a dark building, a lonely place where I never saw any other inhabitants. The rooms were carpeted and retained a particular smell of disinfectant mixed with old carpets, dirty shoes and sweaty bodies wrapped in coats. The windows no longer opened.
My grandfather had never had a receptionist before. He bought me a white lab coat and explained his system. Patients entered the outer waiting room and were admitted in order of arrival to a second, smaller room, which then led to the actual clinic with a reception room and a windowless examination room that was always shrouded in darkness. My grandfather was the only doctor in Reykjavik who did not see patients by appointment. It was much faster to do walk-ins, and besides, he was too busy to keep track of appointments. Since the end of World War II he had been on the City Council, the City Hospital building committee and the boards of various sports associations and nature conservancies. He had many meetings every month and forgot about half of them.
Sometimes my grandfather would jump up to run to a meeting he had forgotten and leave his patients in the waiting rooms for an hour. The patients took this as a given and the stream of people, from the moment he opened his door to the moment he locked it, never ceased. ‘That’s just how he is, our dear doctor,’ people would say, and by this would they meant that it was this very energy that had sent him to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a member of Iceland’s water polo team, and later to escape from occupied Denmark on a leaky old fishing boat and thread, unscathed, the vast fields of sea mines the Germans had laid for the Allied Atlantic convoys.
My grandfather had several sisters and brothers and nephews and nieces and he knew hundreds of people – some well, others by name. He was the fixer, not only for his family, but the Reykjavik community at large. The phone rang ceaselessly at home and most nights he was called away on house calls. He was never alone except when he swam in his local pool, or took his noontime nap and his hot evening bath. Yet he was a lone wolf, the loneliest man I have ever known. He entered and exited his house, agonized and solitary, wrapped in a vortex of his own.
His days started early and ended late. He thought it a waste of time to sit in cafes or go to restaurants, the cinema or the theater when there was so much real work and living to be done. I remember him in old black shoes with big holes, a worn, crumpled suit, a tie splattered with food stains. He wore a hat and whatever glasses that he could find in his collection of old eyewear that seemed to gather in his room. With his prodigious energy for work he was wealthy and regularly took his cultured wife on luxurious vacations in Italy, but he did not see the need for more than one pair of shoes per year for himself. The back corridor of the clinic was pitch black because the light had been broken since he moved into his clinic in 1947.
My grandfather had been raised by his Danish mother amidst a large flock of siblings at a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Reykjavik where his father was director. This had given him an appreciation of the power of madness on the human mind. At our family dinners he reigned over the table with hospital stories of patients and their curious ways. In his telling, people were either driven to folly by their overblown egos, or became the mice of this earth for lack of intelligence. And in every human soul there lurked the slumbering shadow of insanity. Whoever became the subject of his stories, their being was so diminished that I imagined them as small creatures inhabiting a spinning doll-house world controlled by his hand. He never tired of reminding us that we lived in a country where for centuries people had been scrounging like animals for food and warmth, and had only recently been promoted to finding a more lofty purpose to life.
I lived with my grandparents during extended periods of my childhood; first when my parents went to study in Germany, and later because I felt more at home in their quiet house. Everyone I met talked about my grandfather as the best and sweetest man in Reykjavik, but at home my grandmother taught me to fear and distrust him. She told me stories of his temper tantrums, his volatility when it came to money, his lack of attention to her needs. While he spent a fortune on Danish porcelain it never occurred to him to get a new sink in the bathroom to replace the broken one. She made me the messenger between them, almost as if she could not bear to look at his face.
When he came home for lunch I stayed in my shell and watched him carefully as he read his medieval chronicle of Iceland’s clan wars, a huge book that obsessed him his entire adult life. He kept it on the windowsill and opened it at random places at lunchtime. He read while he ate and listened to the noontime radio news. This relaxed him so that afterwards he could go upstairs and have his fifteen minute nap. Having him in the house in the middle of the day was a disruption, like having a wild bear sleeping in one’s cave. My grandmother would stay fixed in her armchair while he slept, smoking her daily cigarette. It was not until he had rushed out the door that we regained the house for our aimless selves.
My grandparents slept in separate bedrooms and my place was firmly by her side. Sometimes, late at night he would bark at her that he was hungry and wanted fried eggs. She would then laboriously put on her robe and shuffle down the stairs, puttering about in the darkened kitchen. I would wait apprehensively until I heard her calling for me and then I would run to take the plate of hot eggs to my grandfather’s bedroom. My grandfather would be propped up on pillows, his knees pulled up, one crossed over the other. He might fiddle with his toes while reading his magazine, and as I came into the room he would shoot me a quick, critical look over his glasses, as if searching for evidence of my allegiance to the enemy. I would push away some books to make room for the plate on a corner of his messy desk, and then bolt out, relieved that I had come unscathed from of his agitated vortex.
If we were both too shy to openly say so we were nevertheless connected by our fascination with wars. As a medical doctor my grandfather spent his life trying to preserve people´s bodies. But in his spare time he read everything he could find on the destruction of life during World War II. When he saw that I was going through his books, he began to interrogate me. Finding my knowledge more than adequate, he talked to me of particular battles that had caught his imagination. We probably had similar reasons for our interest. I was fascinated by how humans replace order with chaos because that was my experience of life at home. And if my grandfather’s mind was a cycle of war and peace it was mostly war. At home, his temper tantrums followed a bi-polar rhythm that my grandmother swore followed the cycle of the moon.
The spaces he inhabited were chaotic and his procedures were idiosyncratic. In the house he let things go to rot. He would tape up drafty windows and place water buckets under leaky ceilings rather than fix them. His attentions to his family members were of an erratic nature, offered and withdrawn without warning, lacking the predictable sequence that comes with purposeful parental love.
His office was pure chaos. There were needles, drops, gauze pads, sterilizing fluids strewn about on glass shelves. There was a steel filing cabinet of shallow drawers that were supposed to help him keep his tools separate, but which, in reality, were stuffed with papers, bills, old glasses and expired medicines. Nobody was allowed to clean or organize, for this would disrupt his system. On his desk were piles of bills that he had to send to the State Insurance Office in order to receive payment, but the boredom of sorting and signing them was too much for him.
Despite my fierce loyalty to my grandmother I did feel a need to live up to my grandfather’s brilliance. But I thought slowly and spoke slowly, and he grew impatient with me. On my first morning at the clinic I was in a state of panic, trying to follow his rapid movements and read some method into his system of transferring patients between waiting rooms and how he billed patients. He charged old ladies one krona while he charged middle-aged professionals the full fee. Often I wouldn’t catch what he said to me about the price and then he’d have to bark at me from the door where he was already calling in a new patient. His desk drawer was full of bills and coins, and he never counted any of it.
During that first week I tried to clean the grubby windows, but there were no cleaning products in the office. My grandfather usually stole paper towels and bars of soap from the old people’s home where he was a visiting eye doctor—not because he was penny pinching, but because he didn’t think he had time to go to the supermarket, or because it just bored him too much. I scrubbed with the soap and paper towels, but it didn’t work so well. I was fifteen and had done plenty of cleaning at my house, but for some reason it never occurred to me to bring supplies from the outside world into the office, I had too much respect for my grandfather’s system to do so.
Over the course of the summer I got better at my job. I learned which patients got discounts and how much. I quickly wrote out the payment slips and stacked them neatly in alphabetical order in his drawers, ready to be sent out for repayment. I knew not to re-organize his medical cabinet, because then he’d never find anything. There never was a morning when nobody came to the office, the rooms were always more than full and often people spilled out into the hallway.
In the clinic my grandfather, whose Icelandic name Úlfar means warrior, was a domesticated creature. If he was a wolf at home, he was a lamb in the clinic: a lamb with the heart of a wolf. This was part of his magic. People knew that beneath his sweetness was a merciless animal with a sixth sense that would ensure that he made the right diagnosis and launch them on the appropriate path to recovery. For this reason, half of the patients who came to him did not have complaints with their eyes, but digestive issues, joint pain, sudden headaches, trouble breathing, hair loss; the list was endless.
The patients were eager to please him. When called, they would jump to their feet, even the old ladies who were rickety on their legs, and scurry into the office. My grandfather would sit in his chair for all of five to ten seconds while the patient hurriedly explained what was wrong with him, often with the air of having rehearsed his explanation at home to better please the doctor, After that, a swift transfer to the windowless examination room with its throne chair that could be moved up and down with a foot pump and its robot arms that held equipment for eye examinations. If the problem was with the eyes, my grandfather stood to one side of the chair and inserted different strength lenses into the slot on the machine while the patients tried to read the letters on the wall. I could hear the effort in their voice: its tenor changed and become more assertive as they read through the letters that kept shrinking or growing according to which lens he put in the machine. They were acting, but they enjoyed the act: it was their chance to rise to the occasion, to enter the doctor’s dynamic dimension, even just for a few minutes.
My grandfather never lost his patience. His voice—gruff and barky at home with us—was pure melody in the clinic. He asked patients about their families, their work. He gossiped relentlessly. All day long his voice was in my ears, soothing, calling the old ladies ‘my love’ and the children ‘sweeties’. But when I saw him at home this sweet connectedness had gone and he was a creature onto itself, either loudly telling his stories without much regard for the wants and needs of his audience, or grim and withdrawn, unreachable.
By the time July came around I began to recognize the repeat patients, mostly elderly women, but also men. A few came almost every week and none ever had to pay more than one krona. One week it was headaches, another it was stomach complaints, a mysterious rash on the neck, trouble sleeping, a swollen knee or ankle. My grandfather did not waiver. In his starched white lab gown, the collar setting off his tanned face and ice blue eyes so beautifully, he showered these bent and spent creatures with devoted medical attention. I learned that he often wrote out prescriptions in Latin that were placebos, like sugar water with a few drops of licorice oil that became the magic formula for that scratchy chest; an ordinary intense moisturizer became a healing joint balm; a sugar pill became a miracle cure for headaches. In the confines of his badly-lit, dirty office he restored the health and confidence of hundreds of forgotten old people in between tending to glaucoma and fishing out metal splinters. A breathtaking variety of ailments passed through his door, but all healing was completed in time for him to attend this meeting or that, or make it to his badminton game, or go relax in the hot tubs at the municipal pool—after his ritual solitary swim—to discuss the state of the world with his cronies.
In my memories of this summer I’ve constructed a scene where I am sitting with one of the old ladies, waiting for my grandfather to return from a quick run to the football club where his vote is needed for a big decision. We are alone; she is the last patient. She was here only last week, but she doesn’t seem to think that she should leave and let me go home to my intensely desired free time. I try to make conversation, but she looks at me with dull eyes. I could never approximate my grandfather’s presence and I shouldn’t try. But I persist for I have watched his operation and understand that once the patients are in here one must make them feel that they are important. I would like to have a touch of his charisma, to experience people’s response to my presence as they respond to him, to see the pleasure and gratitude in their eyes, their recognition of my power. So I continue to sit there and I ask her how long she has been coming to see my grandfather. It’s a direct question so she cannot in good conscience not answer. She thinks for a while.
I look at her, seeing her now as separate, not only from the sea of patients, but from my grandfather’s presence which usually blurs the outlines of other people. She is small and brittle and walks with a cane. She has a permanent expression of confusion that is accentuated by her tufty, short hair, weakened by age and a mysterious dying process that has left it with subtle hints of orange and pink, a feature that is politely overlooked by those who are younger and have their lives together. I am used to her sitting in the waiting room with her endless knitting. I’ve even seen her act as my grandfather’s informal receptionist, moving people between rooms, remembering who came before whom.
I once asked my grandfather about her and he told me how, in the winter of 1949, he was called to a small quonset hut that she had occupied after the American army moved to its new base in Keflavik. The neighboors called him for they had heard her moaning throughout the day and were worried that she was critically ill. When he arrived he found out that she had just got the news that the ship her son was working on had been lost en route between Boston and Reykjavik. She was a single mother who had raised two boys on her own. Her grief knew no bounds. Whatever my grandfather did for her on that night had the effect that forever after she considered him her doctor and best friend, and often she would simply sit in the waiting room throughout the day, allowing others to pass before her. ‘I just need to see his face,’ she would say, ‘that’s enough for me.’
After some thought the old woman does not answer my question but tells me that my grandfather’s clinic has been full every day for more than three decades. Because of him. Her small face takes on a grave expression. This last remark is meant for me to understand that before I dropped in here in my white lab coat, with my favored status as his granddaughter, my grandfather had been doing just fine on his own. I almost get the feeling that she sees the operation of the clinic as a collaborative effort between him and his patients, something everybody has a stake in, a place where his particular brilliance meets with the enduring power of ordinary people’s efforts to create a human project: a healing place where everyone benefits.
In my memory I say something to the effect that she has then been a witness to the most important events in my grandfather’s life. And this is when I imagine that she tells me that she was here, in the office, sitting in the chair where she is sitting now, when my grandfather got the call that his oldest son, a pilot, had lost contact with air traffic control halfway across the ocean between Iceland and Greenland. I am startled. This is the first time I imagine events surrounding my uncle’s death from the perspective of someone outside the family circle. I know that upon hearing the news my grandmother locked herself up in her room for days, that there was a memorial service attended by the whole town, that at the age of twenty-four my uncle left a pregnant wife who was already the mother of his three children.
I remember that my eyes brushed over his photograph: a black-and-white studio portrait taken when he was twenty, already the father of two and training to be a pilot. He is a dark, handsome man, with my grandmother´s coloring and soft eyes, and my grandfather’s high forehead and strong cheekbones. My uncle gazes into the distance, some secret knowledge in his eyes, as if he were already at peace with his awful coming fate. The same atmosphere pervades the only other photograph I know of him from a hospital in Copenhagen where my grandfather did his training before the war: he has been in the world for all of two hours, swathed in a lace baby blanket, a thick tuft of black hair rising from his scalp. His father, young and vigorous, with his blond hair intact, dressed in a crisp white lab coat, holds him in his arms, gazing down at him with a look of tender responsibility while his mother looks on, inscrutable, a statue of motherhood. It’s probably because the photograph is old and fuzzy, but it seemed to me that that all three beings in this scene were connected by love and knowledge of future tragedy, like Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Now my old lady tells me that ever since that day, when she watched the life drain from my grandfather’s face and heard him make some unintelligible sounds before grabbing his jacket and hat and making his exit through the dark corridor, to make the journey up the hill to where my grandmother was frying fish for lunch, ever since that day, she has been coming here weekly, to check up on him, to let him know that he is loved and cared for by the community. She is not the only one, she tells me. There are scores of them who do this, both men and women. They do not say it to each other directly, that this is what they come for, but they all know and understand what the other is doing.
Much later, after my grandmother died, my grandfather no longer wished to live alone in their big house. He left it to my mother and decided to move to the basement where my parents renovated rooms to make him an apartment. In spite of his declared intention to vacate the bedroom he had occupied for five decades, he always found an excuse to delay the move. To prevent a crisis, I took the lead on raiding and emptying out my grandfather’s bedroom when he had gone away for a week, at the age of eighty-six, to court a woman in South Carolina who, on a short visit to Iceland some years earlier, had declared herself in love with him. While he was throwing his diminished life force into the mix of the world, my parents and I emptied his bookshelves and his closets, throwing out half of his things and stuffing the rest in bags that we deposited in his new basement apartment.
In the course of this gutting I came across the contents of one of his upper shelves. There were thousands of condolence telegrams in several tall stacks, dated 24 March, 1963, the day of the memorial service for his lost son. There was also a shoebox containing newspaper clippings on the disaster and obituaries of my uncle. I learned that my uncle had been doing a favor for a friend, ferrying a four-seater Cessna from Kulusuk to Reykjavik that a winter storm had caught up with his plane and that ice had brought it down somewhere between Greenland and Iceland, amidst waves the size of the tallest church towers. I learned that my uncle had caught his love of flying from his father, that my grandfather had discouraged him from doing his friend this favor on account of the unpredictable seasonal weather, but that my uncle had been a loyal friend and fearless pilot who loved the skies.
I didn’t hesitate after glancing at these, and threw them all in a black garbage bag. As we agonized through the process of stuffing his long and eventful life into a tiny basement apartment, it felt almost unseemly to add testimonies of his life’s great sorrow to the clutter of his now cramped and diminished life. But I felt ashamed of having taken these papers out of my grandfather’s closet. It was almost as if I had uncovered a deeply personal secret, something that he had kept separate from us and never wanted us to see. The papers ended their journey in a trash container down by the harbor.
When my grandfather returned, humbled and frightened after his brush with love in old age, suffering from a blood clot in his leg, he moved into his new basement quarters without complaint, but we all became targets of his withering looks of disappointment. He never asked about the telegrams or the shoebox with the newspaper clippings. It did not occur to me then that perhaps it was these telegrams and that shoebox that prevented him from taking the initiative on moving out of his room; that these stacks of paper were to him the living voices of the people who counted on him, loved him and grieved with him, forever soothing his everlasting sorrow when none of us could, when one grandchild after another flitted by his beloved son’s photograph without giving it more than a few seconds of thought.
I did not think then of what I had learned that summer when I was sixteen—that perhaps the reason my grandfather was able to go on living after losing his son was that for most of the hours of his day he was enveloped by people who loved him with a love as simple as ours was fraught. I should have understood because I had observed his strange behavior at my grandmother’s funeral. Instead of walking behind her coffin with eyes downcast as is normal for mourners as they follow a beloved out of the church, he had his head high, turning in all directions, smiling and nodding at people, thanking them for coming. He wanted them to know that he saw them, noted their attendance, and that he was grateful. This was important for him, for they were his flock.
After living in the basement for a few years he died. The extended family quarreled about inheritance, but nobody asked about the telegrams. At the funeral I didn’t see any of the old people who had been regulars at the clinic that summer twenty years earlier. They had all died by then and there was nobody to talk about how, after his son’s death, when my grandmother retreated to live in her room and nurse her grudges against him, and his children went on to have complicated lives and make impossible demands on him, my grandfather’s patients kept coming with their various made-up ailments. They came to sit with him for a few minutes and reiterate their devotion, a flock of lambs creating a protective circle around their lone wolf.