16 Nov 2016

Funeral Blues

We said goodbye to Mum on a bright, clear day, at a church approaching its 900th year. Religious or not, there is a great comfort in waiting in a churchyard, knowing that this little ritual goes back centuries, knowing you aren't the first. Her coffin was bedecked in purple and red, a gift from my dad. Usually in church, we sat together towards the back with Mum in the centre, frowning at any giggles escaping, occasionally giving a stern 'church pinch' to restore order among the brood. But this time, she was at the front. And everyone who spoke spoke of her. Her faith. Her love. Her generosity. Her selfless spirit. Her hospitality.
I still can't find a way to talk about my mum, to bring my mum to life. I cannot draw with words her intricacies, her humour, her smile, her goodness, her love, because I don't think there are enough words.The words haven't been invented yet.
Afterwards, at the wake, we drank and laughed and exchanged stories and my mum would have loved it. She would have bought herself a small glass of red and got my dad to top it up out of a box in the car. She would have circulated through all her many relatives. She would have sneered slightly at the buffet, then told anyone and everyone present that she could have done it much better for half the price (and she could have done).
I think we did her proud. We did what she wanted. If she could have been there herself to check it all went off OK, she would have been. I think perhaps she was anyway. I felt her so strongly before we left the house to go to the funeral, I was just waiting for her to come in from having a cigarette and brush the fluff from Dad's collar. There, but not there.

And now there is a great period of adjustment. I have not cried for my mum. I feel like if I begin, I will never stop. Instead, I grieve piecemeal, always with one eye on the calendar. It has been three weeks since I last saw my mum alive, and two weeks and six days since I last saw her. It has been one month since I last spoke to my mum on the phone. It has been 36 days since she was last able to text me. It has been two months since I last cuddled her properly. It has been three months and three days since she was discharged from hospital. It has been three and a half months since she was first admitted. I can't yet mourn my mummy because I have not yet assimilated the shock and the pain of these three and a half months. We had our son christened, and my mum was pale and thin but herself, still catering, still gossiping, still socialising. And six days later, everything that was possible to change had changed.

This is something the vicar read at Mum's funeral, one of the things that Mum did not plan. I love it because my mum loved the sea, and the idea of her being just out of sight, just out of reach resonates with me more than anything. I can feel her with me, I just can't be with her yet. But one day, I will be.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side, spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, "There, she is gone."
Gone where?
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast, hull and spar as she was when she left my side. And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me -- not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, "There, she is gone,"
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, "Here she comes!"
And that is dying...

(wrongly attributed to Victor Hugo)

3 Nov 2016


When someone you love perhaps most in the world dies, people don't know what to say. What can you say? It's in our nature, at least generally, to comfort the lost and the sick. Grief is a loss. Grief makes you sick. Grief is like having a terrible illness that requires long convalescence to heal and after which, you can never be the same. Grief is intangible and yet so intensely physical.
Until you experience it yourself, which you will because that is the order of things, you cannot hope to know quite what it feels like. I am aggravated by people telling me how I must be feeling. I resent every text and message on some level, because it intrudes, because it reminds, because of the fallacies and clich├ęs. And yet, I value and crave the acknowledgement.
She is dead. She is dead. I am hurting. Can't you see my pain? Can't you feel it coming off me in waves? Can't you feel my grief?

I felt a great vast expanse open in my chest, and stay there, throbbing and empty. And it throbs on. I have to come to terms with so much, we all do, and my ability to write my feelings doesn't change the experience. But I must write. We are together in grief, but our loss is unique and grief is peculiarly personal. The only way I can make sense of it is words, because nothing feels right anymore. Like a hat on askew, like socks that wrinkle at the ankle and are too tight in the toes. Every single action feels wrong in some odd, small way. And then the sledgehammer again, through me. I've only cried once. It is unfathomable.

We had three months to get used to the idea, and when you are caring for and about someone in terminal illness, time loses meaning. A week is a year, a day is a minute. Three months seemed like a thousand years and nothing. I had a mum and then I didn't. I had a healthy-ish mum who did things like go to work and cook food and who spent hours on the phone telling me she had to go in a minute, and who cuddled and smelled of Chanel and red wine and cigarettes and Mum. Then three months of limbo, of watching her decline and knowing there would be no cure and taking a strange solace in the absence of hope. And then she was gone, pinched out like a candle. In a heartbeat, I had no mummy.

This is me and Mum in early August, when she was still in Scarborough hospital. We were messing about, doing pictures for her "MY BOWEL BURST IN BRID! HOLIDAY HORROR!" Take A Break spoof. I had a mock up made and sent it to her and it made her cry laughing. She had the best sense of humour. That was the day I realised I had hardly any photos of us together. And after a few weeks, I stopped taking photos. I hadn't before because I thought we had an eternity together and then I didn't because I couldn't bear a record of the changes to her appearance, which reflected the changes to her insides.

I viewed the changes to my mum through a medical lens, because of the cognitive dissonance in seeing what was happening without understanding why. I envy those who didn't need to. I watched her for the signs of jaundice, I took her pulse, I stared at her monitors in hospital like a hawk, I read her blood results, I read her hospital letters, I watched her having medical procedures done, I looked at her ultrasound, I asked doctors what was happening, I checked her reflexes when nobody was looking, I checked her output, I learned about her medications, I tried not to be doomy but I couldn't bear the false hope of optimism.
I held her hand. I told her I loved her. I told her what things meant. I tried to take the fear out of it. I tried to advocate. I was blunt with her when she needed it. I translated. I told her when to look away, and when it was safe to look. I held her sick bucket. I gave her drinks. I stroked her hair. I put cream on her. I tried not to hurt her.
I saw her at least every three days. Before she got ill, I would go weeks without seeing her and not really mind too much because I knew she'd still be there when we caught back up.

There is peace in the darkness. There is peace knowing that she is quiet now. There is peace knowing she can't hurt now. There is peace in hoping she has gone on. There is peace in the pain of loss.
But nothing is right anymore, and it will take time to grow used to her absence. Mum had a presence like no other. She was all scent and hair and love and chat and humour. You always knew she was there. I don't know where she is now. That is the loss they speak of. Where did she go?

My sister said we will miss her every day of our lives. She is right. It is the endlessness of grief that outfaces me. When I am 88, I will miss her. I will wonder what she would think of things. I will wish I had her to ground me. I will miss her every day.