© Copyright 2018 by Ellen Gunnarsdottir
In the early eighties, when I was a teen, my grandfather gave me a summer job as a receptionist at his Reykjavik eye clinic. The clinic was on a street that runs from the pond to the harbour below the hill where ugly timber houses built by Danish merchants cast an oppressive pall over this wide space continually swept by the north wind from the Esja mountain. 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 on the staircase. The rooms were carpeted and the window openings were broken. They had their particular smell of disinfectant mixed with old textiles, dirty shoes and sweaty bodies wrapped in coats.
My grandfather had never had a receptionist before. He bought me a white lab coat and showed me his system. Patients entered the outer waiting room and were admitted in order of arrival to another, smaller room, which then led to the clinic with its reception room furnished with a desk, a bench, a filing cabinet and a steel medicine cabinet, as well as a windowless examination room that was always shrouded in darkness. My grandfather was the only doctor in Reykjavik who did not see patients on an appointment basis. It was so much faster, he thought, to do walk-ins, and besides, he was too busy to keep track of appointments. In this post-war era of civic building, he was on the city council, the city hospital building committee and the boards of various sports associations and nature conservancies. He had many meetings to go to every month and forgot about half of them. Sometimes he would leave his patients in the waiting rooms for an hour to run to a meeting he had forgotten. 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 as a member of Iceland’s water polo team, and later had prompted him to undertake the heroic feat, with a group of other Icelanders, 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, 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 and the long hours between were loaded with work of value and purpose. 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, as if springing into life on its own. On account of his prodigious energy for work he was a wealthy man and regularly took his cultured wife on luxurious vacations in Italy, but for himself he did not see the need for more than one pair of shoes per year.
He 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 family dinners he reigned over the table with hospital stories of patients and their curious ways. He admired educated, rational people, but they bored him. In his telling, people were either driven to folly by their overblown, provincial ego, or became the mice of this earth for lack of selfishness and intelligence. And in every human soul there lurked the slumbering shadow of insanity. Whoever became the target of his stories, their being was diminished so that I imagined them as small creatures inhabiting a spinning doll-house world controlled by his hand. In the same way he mocked those who succumbed to big ideas and never tired of reminding us that we lived in a country where for centuries people had been mostly scrounging like animals for food and warmth, and had only recently been promoted to finding a more lofty purpose to life.
My grandmother had taught me to fear and distrust my grandfather. When he came home for lunch I stayed in my shell and watched him carefully. My grandmother would stand by the stove while he read his medieval chronicle on 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 multitasking 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 in her armchair in the living room, smoking her daily cigarette while he slept. It was not until he had rushed out the door that we regained the house for our aimless selves. She regaled me with stories of his temper tantrums, his meanness when it came to money, his lack of attention to her needs. She made me the messenger between them, almost as if she could not bear to look at his face. They slept in separate bedrooms and my place was firmly by her side. Sometimes, late at night, while my grandfather lay in his bed reading, and we were reading in ours, he would bark at her that he was hungry and wanted a couple of fried eggs. She would then laboriously put on her robe and shuffle slowly down the stairs where I would hear her pottering about in the darkened kitchen. I would wait apprehensively until I heard her calling for me and then I would run downstairs, take the plate of hot eggs, climb the stairs to my grandfather’s bedroom and place it on a corner of his messy desk that I cleared by pushing books or magazines away. My grandfather would often be propped up on pillows, his knees pulled up, one foot crossed over the other knee in an active resting pose. 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 leave the room feeling relieved that I had come unscathed out 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 save and 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 too was going through his books, he began to interrogate me. Finding my knowledge more than adequate, he talked to me of particular battles and campaigns that had caught his imagination. We probably had similar reasons for our interest. I was fascinated by how humans replace order with chaos and destruction 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 corresponded to 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 draughty windows and place water buckets under leaky ceilings. While he spent a fortune on Danish porcelain it never occurred to him to get a new sink in the bathroom to replace the one that had broken. 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 medicine. 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 to be given his co-pay, but the boredom of sorting and signing them was too much for him. Many never made it and he never got paid.
As my first day on the job approached I felt growing apprehension for what lay ahead of me. I was used to being afraid of him; he was the wolf of my grandmother’s house and she Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, helplessly waiting for her annihilation. I felt a need to live up to his brilliance, but I thought slowly and spoke slowly, and I saw how quickly he grew impatient with me, even when he tried to hide it. With him everything was three times faster than with ordinary people. On my first morning I was in a state of panic, trying to follow his movements and read some method into his system of transferring patients between waiting rooms. I was too slow in writing out the slips for the patients and to top that off he didn’t have a fixed payment scale. 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 had to bark at me from the door where he was already calling in a new patient. His desk drawer was full of cash, bills and coins and he never counted any of it.
During that first week I discovered that the tiny window behind my desk that overlooked a dirty, enclosed space between two buildings had probably never been cleaned and that its grey sheen was what had contributed to the strange light in the room, which to me, since childhood, had manifested the mystery of my grandfather’s work. I remembered coming there with my mother to ask for money, fumbling our way along the narrow back corridor that led straight to the office itself so that we would not have to greet the waiting patients. That corridor was always pitch black as the light had been broken since my grandfather moved into his clinic in 1947. I tried to do some cleaning, but there were no cleaning utensils or 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 the sink with hot water, the bar of soap and a paper towel. I tried to do the same on the window 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 two rooms were always more than full and often people stood in the hallway to wait to get to the outer room.
In the clinic my grandfather, whose Icelandic name means both wolf and 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, ferocious animal with a sixth sense that would ensure that he made the right diagnosis and launched 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, often with the air of having rehearsed his explanation at home to better please the doctor, what was wrong with him. After that, a swift transfer to the windowless examination room with its throne chair that could be moved up and down using a foot pump and its robot arms that held different 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 patient tried to read his way through the letters on the wall. Everyone tried to be fast. I always heard 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 of the day to rise to the occasion, to enter for a few minutes the doctor’s dynamic dimension. They were like neurons trying to spin fast enough around their axis to keep the world going.
But my grandfather never lost his patience; his voice, gruff and barky at home with us, was pure melody: he asked men and women questions about their families, their work; he gossiped relentlessly. In between he would issue orders to look left or right, up and down, move closer or further away, put their chin here, their forehead there, lie on the sofa, put arms over the head, bend knee to the stomach. When it came to people’s bodies he was a meticulous craftsman. The first time I saw him wield medical equipment at his clinic I couldn’t believe that he was daintily following a system someone else had created, going from one prescribed step to another. 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 strached 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 serious eye problems like Glaucoma and injuries like metal splinters stuck deep into the retina. A breathtaking variety of ailments was processed 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 to the hot pots in the municipal pool to see his regular circle of friends and talk about the state of the world.
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 can 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 I politely overlook. I am used to her sitting in the waiting room with her endless knitting. I’ve 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 the story of 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 favoured 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, in the winter of 1963 when my grandfather got the call that his oldest son, a pilot, had lost contact with air traffic control half way 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. Since I first remember my eyes have 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 colouring 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. I pictured what I knew of my uncle. My aunt had told me that he loved expensive shoes, that his temper in the morning was such that my great grandmother used a broom to poke him awake from a safe distance, that he and my grandfather would get into shouting matches that turned into fights where they rolled on the floor, straddled one another and punched each other’s face with full, focused intent to harm.
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 was loved and cared for by his 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 until my mother’s temper was at explosion point. 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 out there, throwing his diminished life force into the mix of the world, we emptied his bookshelves and his closets, throwing out half of his things and stuffing the rest in black garbage 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. They 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 was doing a favour for a friend, ferrying a four seater Cessna from Kulusuk to Reykjavik, that a winter storm had caught up with his plane and that icing had brought it down somewhere midway 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 favour 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 telegrams. I threw them all in a black garbage bag and eventually they ended their journey in a trash container down by the harbour. When my grandfather got back, humbled and frightened after his brush with love in old age, suffering from a blood clot in his leg, he moved into his new quarters in the basement without complaint, but we all became targets for his withering looks of disappointment. He never asked about the telegrams and the shoebox with the newspaper clips. 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 the reason my grandfather was able to go on living after loosing 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 and complicated. I should have understood because I had observed his strange behaviour 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 and the family quarreled about money. 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 marry the wrong people, have unhappy lives and make impossible demands on him, my grandfather’s patients kept coming with their various made-up ailments, to sit with him for a few minutes and reiterate their devotion: a flock of lambs making a protective circle around their lone wolf.I am an historian with a PhD in Colonial Mexican history from Cambridge University and currently teach at the Iceland Academy of Arts. I have lived and worked in Mexico City, New York, Cambridge and Reykjavik, and am the author of Mexican Karismata: The Baroque Life of Francisca de los Angeles, 1674-1744, (Nebraska, 2004) as well as several scholarly articles on Latin American history. I am also the co-author of Go Green, a children’s book on sustainability published by Disney in 2014. In spring 2017 I graduated from the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course.