It’s pretty rare that you find a song that really twists your heart around; a perfect balance of melodic beauty and lyrical simplicity that also speaks to something inside you, leaving you fighting back tears on a packed commuter train while you nonetheless pull your phone out of your pocket as it comes to the end to make it start all over again.
This is the relationship I have with Afire Love, a song from Ed Sheeran’s most recent album. It’s by no means the best song on the album, and will never be a hit; they’re not the cleverest lyrics he’s ever written and nor does it show off the virtuoso guitarist that he is. What it is, however, is simple, beautiful, and about the death of a grandfather after suffering from dementia.
While the verses come across pretty bleak, describing a young Ed being told being told by his father that “it’s not his fault he doesn’t know your face – you’re not the only one”, it’s the choruses that get me. At the bridge, the minor tone of the verses takes on a more uplifting feel, to be joined by guitar and strings as he recounts his grandmother’s recollections of her husband’s romantic words of old:
Darling, hold me in your arms the way you did last night
And we’ll lie inside for a little while, here oh
I could look into your eyes until the sun comes up
And we’re wrapped in light, in life, in love
Put your open lips on mine and slowly let them shut
For they’re designed to be together, oh
With your body next to mine our hearts will beat as one
And we’re set alight, we’re afire love
My mother has a photograph of my grandparents on their wedding day in 1949. I have no doubt that grandad remembers every moment of that day. His condition is such that his grasp of the here and now is limited, and he can no longer really say anything that means anything to anyone but himself – but if you ask him about the past he becomes the man I remember from my childhood, full of smiles and vigour and totally in love with his role as teacher, storyteller, grandfather.
Three weeks ago, we celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. The gods of British weather were good enough to allow us a day awash with light and warmth, fitting of the outpouring of affection given by the many people my grandparents have touched in their long lives. I saw my grandmother, so lonely since the imprisonment of her lifetime companion in his own brain, chatting away happily to her 101-year-old sister. (I definitely hope I get those genes when it comes to longevity.) Meanwhile, if you looked at my mum’s old man from a distance, you could be forgiven for not realising there was anything wrong. Unlike Ed’s grandfather, mine has no problem with recognising people – the disease took root in a different part of his brain – and he was working the room like a networking pro, smiling broadly and chattering away. Of course, when you got closer, it was obvious that he wasn’t really participating meaningfully in any conversation, but nobody else cared and there’s no question that his smile was genuine.
I don’t know if back in 1949 my grandad whispered the words that Mr Sheeran’s did; nevertheless, at a time when it’s so easy to see him as nothing more than vulnerable, lonely and, well, old, his lifetime must not be defined as such. He is still full of joy and love and his life has been abundant with both, and when we too have to face the day that Ed describes his family confronting in his song, I hope that I can face it with the wisdom to see that and to celebrate it.