She was dying, of course, she had to. It wasn’t unexpected. As a young man I’d prepared myself by imagining at each place I’d lived the phone ringing, an unknown voice asking for me formally using the appellation “Mister”. An austere, yet sympathetic voice at the other end gently breaking the news of my Mother’s death. Without fail, no matter what lover I’d been sharing my life with, this audio warning had become internalised. It was my secret, never shared or revealed, no matter how intimate I’d been to a partner. Now I’m breaking the seal open for you: perhaps you’ll do the same, or maybe, being of a different time and happier circumstances, you’ll have no need for secrecy.
I’ll never know your thoughts on this, though your face will be the last image in my mind before my life ceases. Death will silence me but if you read my words I’ll be with you once more. Each time you read them I’ll be alive from your birth through the major events in your life. Do you think my words will succour like prayer? Each sentence, or verse if you deem it epic, resurrecting and filling you with memories and emotions of your silly Daddy. Similarly so, when Mother died I could say, “yes, I know, you no longer exist, but thank you. If there’s an afterlife I want to meet you again. If there are things I can’t, or won’t understand about my unknown journey, will you be my Mother once more?”
She’d seen ninety-two years, from the edge of the Great War to the precipitous calamities of a new century. From familiarity and knowingness to massness and impersonality. From closed religious worlds of convents and ignorance to public spectacles sped at first through cathodes and valves and then magically pixelated across the universe by technology she could never comprehend. Spy glassing towards her ninety third year she’d decided “This is as far as I want to go”, and rested, seating herself at the final stop. Behaving like a globetrotting granny berating a Saga tour guide, “I don’t want any more sightseeing today, thank you, young man”. Exercising her final words with the authority of one who’d lived life to capacity. Her one way ticket taking its final punch. Thin, worn, paper veined, exposing the fabric she’d become. An old relief map of a forgotten land that only the explorer remembered: now those memories were fading.
She was closing down, shutting all doors, locking windows, sealing the drawers to her expansive past. Dusting the draught excluders. Resolutely refusing to entertain the potential degeneration of what miniscule future she might palm grasp with wrinkled fingers. A realist from the cradle to her grave eschewing sentimentality. Whatever butterflies might flutter past her life’s windows she no longer attempted to reach. Nor approach the doors to what few friends remained. What vision was there in her sharp blue eyes increasingly macerated or of the memories she’d passed on? The caresses and tenderness she freely gave without thought of gain or advantage in her feeling hands and soul’s strength. Her words which only told truth. All were fading, tumbling into the earthy Irish peat she’d risen from.
She never shied from facing, no matter how unpalatable, the life she experienced daily, to articulate its realities. As in her active life, now in its dimming, she’d begun a systematic check list as a competent and courteous captain would knowing his vessel was finally docking. Running through the cargo’s manifest, ensuring everything was correctly labelled, consigned and despatched. She was dying, ebbing away, becalmed in her neap, dipping her feet into the Styx as dénouement dawned. Speaking her final, crystal clear words to my then wife: “Is that you dear? I thought so; I can smell your beautiful perfume”.
I’d spoken to her general practioner, a generous woman, captivated by Mam’s ability to stick her final years of illness with good humour despite her prognosis. Kindly she’d approached a consultant who several months before Mam’s death greeted me at the old peoples’ home she was to die in, a stone’s throw from where this story begins that desperately cold winter long ago.
“Your Mother has three options”, he said to me. “Put her in hospital where she’d be hitched to life support to ease her breathing difficulties. Two, we could leave her in the home, dose her with steroids and other medications to induce sleep and ease her discomfort. Or, finally, accept the way she is now; conscious and participating in the life of the home, where she’ll continue to experience the ebbing and flowing of pain as she slips away”.
A quality of life issue wasn’t it? A variation on the Buddhist prerogative that every soul experiences pain and personal grief. It was my time to help decide what course of action to take on behalf of another, as perhaps you have already done for me. By such means emotions of life and death are generationally shared, easing each one through their psychically flawed journeys. No one’s written my obituary: I’m expressing my thoughts to you, transmitting a personal narrative. It wasn’t Mam’s style, guess she was more able to show affectionate than I. She lived in the real world, and even though it was cruel, heartless and packed with ignorance, she never once surrendered her goodness to those clamours.
She displayed no tears, or mawkishness, hearing the consultant’s options: neither did you, informed of every aspect of her finality. Strong, understanding, mature: my sole rock. What was occurring was nature unstoppable. A slide into obscurity. I remember you watching a cat devouring a captured bird, commenting, “It’s only nature, Dad”, early childish evidence of your objectivity, eh? All we’d be denied was laying out the body in the front room. Death’s effrontery with its silent nothingness has no place in sanitised modern society.
The choice was easy. She wouldn’t be admitted to hospital. Nor would she vegetate, lacking dignity with uniformed strangers concerned more about their institutional hierarchies and salary chits than patients. She was certainly not staying in the home to become an ornament on a mantelpiece; a dog with a nod by wire head. Glared at, talked about, not conscious enough to bark back at dehumanising indignities, though each word would be heard. I decided. Whilst she stayed in this place, on this earth, in her chair, in her home, with all its common, familiar and tasteless vulgarities, she’d be conscious and aware of other lives and deaths surrounding her. I didn’t regret her decision and Mam’s final earthly words, casual and inquiring, vindicated the choice. On her behalf I had, in a small and significant manner, helped resolve her final weeks. Are these to be lessons for you to pass on to your children? Sometime in the future, me long gone, in a dark place, silent, and you ahead of me, experiencing what I’ll never know.
I hate the thought of dying. The finality of endless nothingness. Knowing I can never talk to you again, nor see your smile. Is it any wonder I needed my own ghost as a child to comfort me, to assure me there was something beyond the understanding of what we think we know. I can’t imagine you not here. I can’t imagine nothingness. All that lives beyond me of significance is you, and you too will become nothingness. Your jolly, happy, smiling face, no more. Enough of these thoughts. My writing is to clear my conscience, give you insight into your Dad’s life, to repay a treasure I laid waste. Waste measured by an inability to see that life is what individuals make of it. Instead I rather hoped an archangel would descend to earth and rescue me, switching on neon announcing I’d been discovered for the world to admire. If I’d made life simple there’d be no need to invent obscure reasons to explain myself.