My mum loved a superstition. That’s why today I go around saluting lonesome magpies, removing new shoes from tabletops and waiting in trepidation for an argument to erupt after scratching my nose! Her eccentricities shine through everything I do. In that way she will always be with me. When I originally set out to start a blog and write this post, I was losing my lovely mum. Her mind was slipping away, her body hanging on. As usual I put it off, always finding an excuse (usually the kids!) and now when I’m finally writing this, with great sadness, she has gone.
Mum had developed a lung disorder caused by smoking over a decade ago. At first the changes were small but gradually over the years her breathing deteriorated, her body started to seize up and for a long time she had been housebound. I’d get frustrated that she had given up, wasn’t fighting or pushing herself to get out and see the beauty of the world around her. My head reeled with feelings of love, resentment, anger and helplessness; and I’m ashamed to admit I lost my temper with her on many occasion. But I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t me living with the illness. I had to try and see the world through her eyes; for her it was much smaller and more cruel.
Mum liked to write. Her ambition was to write a novel. After her death we found some notes for stories she was working on. Among them she had written how she was sat alone, disabled and housebound, trapped in a 70 year old body but feeling 35 inside, remembering her glamorous expat life. Now I’m left wishing that I had done just a little bit more to relieve some of the sadness that consumed her life towards the end.
Mum was a cosy kind of mum. She was a hugger. Comforting, like warm buttered toast. I used to sit next to her on the sofa and stroke her soft arm. I’d snuggle next to her in bed when my Dad was working abroad. The nightly hum of the boiling kettle for her hot water-bottle made me feel safe and able to drift off to sleep. She always knew what to say to make everything better. Now she is gone, I am grieving for my mum but also for the little girl I used to be. Even though I’m nearly 40 with a husband, kids, a mortgage, a career and all the stresses that come with it all, Mum still managed to make me feel like I was young again. She’d indulge me. ‘Poor you’, she’d say when I was sick. For everyone else I had to be strong but with her I could be still be needy. I know it sounds self indulgent but it’s what we often crave, that cocooning feeling from our youth. Now my anchor’s aweigh I feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities and still not quite ready for this grown up world.
When we grieve we have a tendency to put someone on a pedestal, but of course my lovely mum was not perfect. Stubborn is an understatement. A typical Taurean I would say to her. And proud. She would rather stay within the four walls of her house for months on end than be judged for her disability. But what I loved the most about my mum and what I hope I inherited from her (along with bunions and a mirror face) was her compassion as a friend. Living abroad for long periods of her life she collected friends like shells and treasured them, for their beauty and flaws. She listened and advised, a true agony aunt. Even when she could no longer get out to meet her friends for a coffee she’d always be at the end of the phone. When she became trapped on her tiny island, they were her ocean. Her escape to the wider world. I know her friends relied heavily on her advice, as did I. I remember calling her in tears from a phone-box, just after arriving at university pleading to come home. I had been put in a shared room with a goth. She had black bedding while I had a giant poster of a kitten in a glass! It was not going well. ‘Just give it another day?’ she asked me. ‘Everything is always better in the morning’. And it usually is.
We spoke every day. A daily check in that had started when I was young and we’d sit down at the breakfast bar to run through the events of my school day in minute detail. Our calls were often interrupted by my kids demanding Nutella on toast but it was a routine we rarely deviated from. When suddenly she stopped replying to emails about the boys or commenting on my stories during our daily chats alarm bells rang. I spoke to her GP and she passed it off as depression. To me she seemed less depressed. She had stopped crying about her many ailments. She was forgetting things. Falling asleep mid conversation. All the signs pointed to some form of dementia, but she was clever at covering them up to the world.
The change in her mental state hit me like a hammer. It was cruel twist, one that I hadn’t been expecting. We were braced for the physical decline but not this. Over the years I had become used to her disabilities and living abroad I was able to bury my head in the sand. When we talked on the phone she was my old mum and I was blind to her failing body. Now all of a sudden my sharp-minded mentor was gone. On calls we’d exchange pleasantries before she’d make an excuse to hang up. Like a distant relative, not a mum.
Her mental decline inevitably led to a spell in hospital last summer before we had to make the agonising decision to move her on to a nursing home. Old nerves from client presentations crept over me as we sat before a team of nurses and social workers debating mum’s fate. A business meeting brainstorming potential solutions. But instead of deliberating where to put a logo on a Fairy bottle we were determining my mum’s end-of-life care. It all felt so clinical and cold, but we had to accept the harsh reality that we could no longer meet her needs. The memory that will always haunt me is listening to mum answer a stream of questions behind the drab hospital curtains and hearing her bizarre answers. She even called my sister by her full name, something she never did. At that moment my mum became the child and all I wanted to do was protect her. Her kind GP reassured me that the guilt I was experiencing was natural, inevitable. That each goodbye could be the last but I had to be back in Geneva with my young family. There was no timeline for her illness so we just had to keep on hoping that she would make some progress. Communication during her time in the home was difficult. I missed being able to tell her little snippets about the boys, pick her brains or just simply chat about mundane things happening in my life.
The last time we spoke we had managed to FaceTime on the day of my eldest son’s seventh birthday. She seemed cheerful, singing happy birthday to him and he gave her a tour of his bedroom and demonstrated his new computer. It was a lovely conversation, the best we’d had in months. But a strange glare in her eyes still gave away the confusion in her mind.
A fortnight later we had gone to London for a few days before going up North to spend time with our families. Fate can be pretty brutal. The Call came as I was packing our bags to head out on the M1. I had often thought about when it would come, hearing its footsteps creeping up behind me, getting closer and closer. Imminent yes, but the shock was still palpable. There was no sudden change, no rush to hospital; she had passed away quietly in her sleep. I had missed her by just a few hours. There is nothing I can do to change that now of course, but that feeling of regret will always be with me.
The car journey up after the news was comical in hindsight. Me squished in between two fighting terrors, several emergency toilet stops and a grizzly toddler who didn’t sleep for four hours. There was no time for hysteria, I had three kids to keep from killing one another.
A blurry week of awkward decisions followed. Who knew such a thing as a scatter tube exists to achieve the ideal distribution of one’s ashes? The coroner looked bemused when I guffawed at this additional option with its’ tick box. The funeral arrived and I played my part. I knew the script and muddled through the lines, but it all felt removed from real life. Like I was just going through the motions. Still now it feels like a bad dream.
Three months on the kind of thoughts and gifts from friends have been a huge comfort and life back in Geneva goes on pretty much as normal. I was prepared for the tears, I am a big crier anyway. The anger I experienced though was a shock. At first I was impatient, irritable with everyone and everything. Mrs Snappy. But my middle-of-the-night googling assured me this was completely normal. Apparently there are stages to grief – and I am stumbling my way through them all. Thankfully, young children are a great distraction. There is literally no time to be sad. It’s after the exhausting bedtime routine that it often comes back. A sudden tidal wave of sadness. But now I allow myself to feel sorry for myself, indulge myself, for that brief moment, then take comfort in the knowledge that ‘everything feels better in the morning’.
We were blessed with a crisp, sunny day for her funeral. The beautiful Yorkshire countryside was glistening. As we drove back home from the service I glimpsed a magpie flying out of the trees. Typical, I thought, and gave a little salute. Then down flew it’s little friend. Two for joy. Of course there will be days, moments when I am overcome with sorrow for the loss of my mum. The firsts this year will be hard – first trip home, first Mother’s Day, first anniversary – and there are the many milestones she will miss. But as my husband told me, now it’s my turn to be the kind of mother she was to me to our three boys. To make them feel safe, comforted and loved. So, I can’t afford to wallow in my own self pity, to let myself fall apart. I will stop and remember but now it’s time to focus on creating my sons’ memories. Creating their joy. And I am thankful that I had such a good teacher.