At 1:08 a.m. on December 22, 2014, my mother died. She was eighty-nine years old and had been in pain with arthritis in her knee, varicose veins in her legs and was about to spend much of her time in a wheelchair (not that she knew this but perhaps she sensed it). On top of this she was being seized by dementia which over the last few years had been slowly stealing two of her most prized possessions: her razor-sharp intellect and her uncanny ability with words. She had a good death. The day before she left this earthly realm, she had been admitted to hospital and had two of her daughters by her side, holding her hand. She had been unresponsive but was just able to make a gesture towards the sign of the cross during the Last Rites. When one of my sisters found Ave Maria on her iPhone and began playing it, my mother simply stopped breathing, very quietly, very peacefully. No death rattle, no pain, no long drawn out suffering. Just as in life, she was decisive in death. It was her time and she did it in style without fanfare. Very mum.
Over the twenty-four hours that she was in the hospital and seemed to be fading, I was madly Skyping with one of my sisters in Turkey and phoning another in New York. There were emails flying around between other siblings in Berlin, Toronto and Ottawa. Should we go? Would we make it? I was also scrambling to find air tickets that would get me from Missoula, Montana to Ottawa, Canada in time to be with her and say my final goodbye. The only flights available required three connections, took around fourteen hours and cost a bomb. I was not able to get there in time. But I made it for her funeral on December 29th.
How do I feel about not being there the moment she died? I have been trying to work this one out. In a perfect world I would have been there stroking her hair and wiping her brow and telling her I loved her. I would like to have given her a final kiss and squeezed her hand while it was still warm. But I do feel that having two of your seven children by your side is a pretty good innings. Maybe one more would have made it confusing for her. Maybe the choreography of her two eldest surviving children with her as she died was simply perfect. One for each hand.
And there is another thing: My mother was not the sort of mother you got very close to. I loved her and I know she loved me. As a very young child I worshipped her. But when I became a self-righteous, obnoxious teenager she didn’t seem to like me much. I don’t blame her. In my adult years we developed what you might call an acceptance of each other. But she didn’t really know me, nor did I feel she particularly wanted to. We shared one thing and it did run deep: a love of books and a love of Victorian women writers. When we weren’t talking about books, our conversations were somewhat perfunctory: polite and civil but she didn’t pry. She was, to my relief, not a clingy mother, which is perhaps why so many of my siblings ended up scattered across the globe. She liked us to be independent which was probably her greatest gift to us all. She was that rare thing: a mother who could let go. My overriding feelings about her death are, firstly, relief that she isn’t suffering and, secondly, joy that she had two of her ‘babies’ with her in the final moments.
The grief I feel for her is real. It exists. But it is not a patch on the debilitating grief I felt when my sister Mary died ten years ago. Mary had been part of my daily life. She is responsible for me going to art school, for following my heart, for meeting my husband and by extension for having my daughter E. I shared apartments with her on and off for several years in Toronto. Although eventually we lived on separate continents, our lives were profoundly intermeshed. My mourning for her was extreme and lasted a very long time. I felt with her that I had lost a part of myself. Clawing my way back to sanity after she died was a difficult journey.
It feels distasteful, disrespectful even, to compare deaths, but I can’t seem to help it. The feelings that are washing through me at the moment are like a steady trickle of water running through the deep crevice that was carved out of my insides by the death of my sister. Back then, the grief washed through me in waves the size of tsunamis. It is the nature of things for one’s parents to die before one. I grew up expecting this. But for a child to die before her parents makes one question the actual order of the universe.
At my mother’s funeral, every one of my siblings got up and spoke, except for my sister V who read a poem she had written at a smaller gathering after the funeral. Some of my nieces and nephews also got up and said a few words about their grandmother. I am not good at speaking in public. In fact the last time I did it was at my sister Mary’s funeral with my mother in the front row mouthing at me impatiently that she couldn’t understand a word I was saying and why couldn’t I speak up a bit. So, for my mother’s funeral, I did what I do in difficult situations: I turned to a ‘real’ writer to express what I felt I couldn’t. In this case it was Marilynne Robinson whose novel Gilead I happened to begin the night I arrived in Ottawa. The opening words were so uncannily like my mother speaking to me, it felt spooky. And the fact that they were coming at me from a writer whom I knew my mother would have loved, had she lived long enough for me to send her Housekeeping or Home or Lila, seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore.
This is what I read:
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.”
The “I” could so easily be my mother and the “you” could so easily be me. She was forty when she had me and most of my friends at primary school thought she was my grandmother. I remember once she asked me how it felt to have an older mother and I can’t remember what I answered, but it was probably something like, “You aren’t old.” And I find myself also thinking of this with regards to my daughter who came into the world when I was 42. Cycles of life. From mother to daughter. It’s my turn next. I cannot stop these thoughts.
The day after my mother’s funeral, I went with my sister S to clear out her room in the retirement home where she had been living for the past two years. She hated the home, but towards the end she agreed that in fact she could no longer look after herself. I don’t think she hated the home as much as she hated knowing that her faculties were declining. She could no longer figure out money. And telling the time was becoming terribly confusing. She had started hallucinating and her mind was taking her to strange places. She announced to my sister K that Usain Bolt had spoken to her from the TV and told her to stop smoking. He had apparently held up his finger after a race and wagged it at her. She must have been around 86 at the time.
Much of the three days I spent in my hometown consisted of clearing out my mother’s drawers and packing her knickknacks. I had told my sister S that I wanted to help her do this as all our other siblings had to get back to their various jobs and families and commitments straight after the funeral. I felt that in some way by handling my mother’s most intimate belongings that I would get closer to her. Here I was sorting her clothes into piles of ones to throw away and ones to give to charity and ones to keep for people who might want them, just like I do with my own daughters’ clothes and just as she no doubt did with mine. While my sister and I took the pictures off the walls of her room, threw out her toiletries, bagged her bedding to be recycled, and her clothes to be sent to the centre where my father lives with his advanced Alzheimer’s, we talked. There was something so universal and so grounding about two grown women sorting through their dead mother’s clothes, an act that has no doubt been repeated through the centuries. The strange loss of meaning in objects whose owner has died was undermined by their physicality. The objects were not ghosts exactly, but close to it.
Back in Missoula, I can’t say my trip to Canada for my mother’s funeral was like a dream, but it was not like any other waking trip I have taken. I went there feeling like my mother’s child and came back half orphaned. Now that she is gone, the feelings I have for my mother have not changed so much as become fixed. There is no more space in which they can grow or change. But that is OK. We arrived at a place where we felt comfortable. I allowed her to be the mother she was and she allowed me to be the only daughter I knew how to be. Maybe this is all there is. Maybe the ultimate love between a parent and child is more of a sense of acceptance rather than anything else. As an adult and as a mother myself I have had to shed the impossible expectations placed on women and mothers. I have had to accept my mother as much as she has had to accept me. I think we got quite good at that towards the end of her life. And her somewhat aloof style of parenting perhaps allowed this acceptance to flourish. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my mother. To thank her for giving me freedom and letting me find out who I am rather than telling me. Like all artists, and in so many ways, she was an artist, she was better at ‘showing’ than ‘telling’. Her ultimate act of creation was making seven of us children and showing us that indeed ‘there are many ways to live a good life’.
My mother’s obituary from the Ottawa Citizen can be found at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ottawacitizen/obituary.aspx?n=jasmine-pocock&pid=173605149