If you are going to bury your mother it is best to do it on a cold sunny February day in a strange – yet familiar – place which makes an unreal event just seem all the more dreamlike.
The chill was just right. Funerals should be uncomfortable, I think, especially when you are saying goodbye to the one person who loved you unconditionally for 50 years. Yet we needed the sunshine too, in order to be able to bathe our faces in its warmth as we stood outside the church afterwards, talking to unknown mourners, and follow her coffin to its final resting place on a Mayo hillside, just minutes away from the family home and farm into which she was born 79 years earlier.
It’s a year since she died and nothing could have prepared me for the experience. In my imagination – and I had imagined it often, always dreading the moment when the world and I would go on without her – I would sink into an ocean of grief and take years to ever find my way back to the surface, my lungs bursting with the pain of loneliness and regret.
In reality, there has been no ocean, no near drowning. Instead I’ve sailed in peaceful waters, bobbing up and down in the love and laughter that goes on, long after the person I loved has gone.
I loved the bond I had with her. Someone told me recently that after four children in four years, she really didn’t care to discover she was pregnant with her fifth. I can understand that. It was the fifties and she had left her family behind in Ireland to move to London. Convenience hadn’t been invented. New men hadn’t been born. The last thing she needed right then was another baby.
Then she contracted German measles and the doctors advised her this could lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. In the event her baby was born alive, it might be blind or deaf, have a heart defect or be brain-damaged. My mum believed this was karma for her less-than-enthusiastic response to her pregnancy. She spent the next 50 years making me feel loved and essential in her life.
We rowed occasionally, not often. A career in the Diplomatic Service was not her calling and though she was one of the kindest, most generous souls on this earth, she often called a spade a spade when you really didn’t want to hear it. As I got older – and she got bolder – her directness became a source for much laughter. After one particular hair cut she told me I looked like the back of a bus. But she said it with such thoughtful earnestness we couldn’t help but burst into laughter.
Her sense of humour was legendary. She was self-depracating and she was often the butt of her own jokes. She had a low opinion of herself and often found humour in something she had misunderstood. She saw the funny side in difficult situations and many was the Sunday afternoon a gang of us would sit around the dinner table, washing-up forgotten while the stories were told. My mum’s would see us crying with laughter and struggling for breath.
My mum spent her entire life putting others before herself. She didn’t have a selfish bone in her body. She never forgot our personal challenges, whether that was an interview, a toothache or a long journey home, and she would be on the phone constantly showing how much she cared. She would never fail to slip a small wad of notes into a handbag or back pocket as we said goodbye.
As she got older, she became one of the central characters in the local parish. She and my dad would go to mass each morning and she would remember what problems other people were facing, always concerned to hear how they were so she could find a way to help out.
We woke, the day after she died, to heavy snow and bitter cold. The buses stopped running and people stayed home. She was gone and our lives stood still. It seemed only right that others’ did too.
I didn’t properly appreciate what people thought of her till her funeral mass. We were taking her back to her native home in Ireland to be buried alongside her parents and brother but her funeral mass took place in her local parish church at 6pm. We knew the cold and snow would keep many people away but how wrong we were. The church was packed.
Because we were taking her ‘home’ rather than burying her straight after the mass, people stayed behind in the church to chat and give their condolences. I was overwhelmed by the stories people told me about her many thoughtful acts and the great memories they had of her. Soon there was a completely disrespectful amount of laughter as the stories poured forth. I looked over to see my dad holding court, surrounded by a large group of people hanging on his every word as he shared his memories of sixty years of marriage. Every minute or two there would be roars of laughter from the gang around him.
Perhaps this is normal. Perhaps it is not. I’m fortunate to have hung onto the people I love and I don’t have much experience of death and funerals. I certainly wouldn’t have expected – during all those times I dreaded my mum’s demise – to be laughing at her funeral but I think somehow she would have approved.
It’s a year since she died and nothing could have prepared me for the experience. Yet it has not been a year of mourning. I am sad – of course. I have cried – obviously. I have dreamed of her in strange dreams I can’t describe. I have gone to phone her with my news before pulling myself up and remembering with a surge of loneliness that she is no longer on the end of a phone.
In a way, she is closer now than she has ever been. Now I can talk to her whenever I want, even at 3 in the morning. She is with me when I need her and has given me the most unexpected strength to get through some tough times in the last twelve months. She has told me – in that very direct way of hers – that this is MY LIFE and I had better get on and live it on my terms.
Today is her anniversary and she is right at the centre of my heart, today as always. It’s a sad day for me today but truly, I’m not mourning the last twelve months. I’m appreciating and celebrating the 79 years that went before. My mum wasn’t a drinker – that would only have made her even more impossible – but today I’m raising my glass – metaphorically – to the memory of a most wonderful mother. Thank you for all you gave me, thank you for just occasionally letting me give back to you. I am blessed.