This afternoon I’ve been sitting with a member of our congregation who won’t be here much longer.He was diagnosed with leukaemia a year ago, but kept remarkably well until the past two weeks…Now it’s obvious there will be no recovery.
He’s calm and, I think, pretty comfortable, and his family are at his side, his wife anxious about the next few hours, but determined to be there for him right to the end. We went outside briefly for some fresh air, and she told me how hard it was for her, adding
“But I know you’ve been here…”
And then I remembered.
It was 28 years ago today that I woke to a silent flat.
The painfully laboured breathing from my mother’s room had stopped.
Was she sleeping peacefully, after struggling through the previous day?
From this sleep, there would be no wakening.
The six months that separated her death from that of my father had been indescribably hard for her. Just 18, I knew nothing of the processes of grief, was absorbed in my own life, my own needs. I was fuelled by the selfish survival instincts of the very young,- intent on fulfilling our family dream, that I should win a place at Cambridge, sing in that chapel, conquer the world….
I came home from school at weekends to piles of unopened post, to red bills spilling over the kitchen table and I didn’t understand.
I was impatient…anxious to move her on to some semblance of normality.
But for her, nothing was normal. Nothing could ever be normal again.
So, once she knew that our dreams were on their way to coming true, she turned her face to the wall.
She’d been ill all through my childhood. There was no reason why that chest infection, rather than any other, should finally have provided an escape route…but that day in January, with snow on the ground and the rubbish of the winter of discontent piling up on our streets, she found an exit strategy.
I was an only child, and so many people worried that I would be lost, unable to cope with my overnight precipitation into adult independence.
It felt heartless to explain that things were actually easier now, that I no longer felt torn in two, forced to choose again and again between the windows onto a new world that beckoned me and the need to stay beside Mummy in the darkness that was all she could cope with.
Gentle, self effacing, with an inimitable way with words, Mummy spent so much of my life in and out of hospital…
Tempting, if pointless, to wonder how things would have been if she’d escaped the rheumatic fever that she suffered at some point during her childhood in China. There were impossibly glamorous photos of her about the place, (none of which, of course, I can find today: she'd hate my posting this, the one picture I can lay my hands on) and she and Daddy loved to tell stories of their young married days, and the fun they had during their 11 year wait for my arrival.
They were always ridiculously, delightfully in love…
Little notes by the sink, a couple of chocolates left on the bedside table, flowers bought on impulse…Every day they basked in complete contentment in each other’s company, and their love warmed everyone with whom they had contact.
It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect Mummy to linger long in a world without Daddy, and I guess that she knew, too, that I’d not be free to live the dreams we’d all dreamed together if she’d stayed on, in her brokenness.
I'm always conscious that I talk about her less than about my father. He, after all, was the “prime carer”, the rock on which our family life was built.
But for him, she was the sun, the moon and stars, always young, always beautiful.
When I was very young, little more than 2 years old, I had a run of bad dreams, and Daddy would carry me around my room, rocking me and singing old Jerome Kern songs, which were somehow always expressions of his feelings for Joyce, the woman with whom he shared his life for just short of 30 years.
Laughably sentimental, until I remember the look on his face as he sang
“And when I told them how beautiful you are,
They didn't believe me. They didn't believe me!
Your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair,
Are in a class beyond compare,
You're the lovliest girl that one could see!
And when I tell them, And I cert'nly am goin' to tell them,
That I'm the man whose wife one day you'll be.
They'll never believe me. They'll never believe me.
That from this great big world you've chosen me!.
That sense of incredulous delight in each other lasted until the day he died...
Small wonder that she felt herself lost here without him.
That final Oxbridge term at school I wrote essays on Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and briefly glimpsed the route my mother was taking. She would surely have giggled gently at my comparison of a banker's wife in St Leonard's-on-Sea with a great tragic heroine, but I know, too, she would have recognised the feelings
Noblest of men, woo't die?
Hast thou no care of me? shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty?--O, see, my women,
The crown o' the earth doth melt.--My lord!--
O, wither'd is the garland of the war,
The soldier's pole is fallen: young boys and girls
Are level now with men: the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
Growing up as part of a relationship like that was a huge privilege. Thanks to my parents, I've never doubted for a moment that Love is the foundation of everything.
I tried to share that certainty beside the hospital bed this afternoon.