This year, March the 18th is Mother’s Day. Yesterday, while the kids were at school, I stood in the supermarket and allowed myself the experience of standing in front of the Mother’s Day cards, looking at their flowers, their pinkness, their lacy designs and love filled messages. I let the moment run further and selected the card that I would have bought for her, if she were still alive. I contemplated sending it anyway. No harm in putting a card addressed to Mum in the post-box. No harm in keeping her phone numbers in my phone. No harm in never deleting her email address. I put the card back in the stand and changed the moment. Mother’s Day is now once more about two mothers – me, and my Mum. I’m still here.
Mother’s Day 2007 started abruptly. I woke after a good sleep in her spare bed and knew straight away that in the room next door she wasn’t OK. An hour and an ambulance ride later a doctor wondered with great solemnity, tentatively, did I know how seriously ill she was right in that moment? I told him I did. That I’d talked to the oncologist throughout. That I knew more than Mum at most points of the illness; that the statistics, drug names and timings of the chemotherapy schedule were presently as familiar to me as my children’s birthdays. That I knew it was time because my grandparents were in the room and that this fact was making me feel nauseous. He looked around us, gestured to the empty chairs, asked a question with his eyes about whether I meant they were in the waiting room, in A & E. ‘They’re here’, I said. He’d later attribute this statement to stress, lack of sleep, the lunatic thoughts of a mad spiritualist, perhaps. But I knew they were there. They’d slipped in behind me, like swirling genies from invisible lamps, circling souls, come to momentarily cup my chin before moving onto looking after the littlest of their little girls. They’d come to hold a candle in the dark that she might see, might grasp, would certainly need. Their love and longing gathered around me with their pain and peace for watching a daughter die. So this is how it is, I thought. Utter perfection, somehow; blissful connections. I wanted to tell her about all of it and to see her face – but I knew then that they would leave me that morning; three of them would go somewhere that I couldn’t. Helplessness attached its weight to my gut and I chose mind over matter with regards my need to vomit.
That I had held her head in my hands and listened to her breathe her last were moments as horrific as I can imagine anything ever being; and yet there is nowhere I would rather have been than standing, pressing my cheek against her warm face for the last time and telling her it was OK to go, trying to sound brave and confident. Failing to sound brave and confident. And loving her more intensely in those seconds than I knew it was possible to love at all. Years ago she told me about how some people needed permission to die, they needed to know that their loved ones were OK with it, that they would cope and that the passing of this precious life was understood and accepted. Her words ricocheted around my head, searching desperately for an exit while my heart, my longing, my needs desperately clamped hands over every possible route that this permission might slip through. She could not have permission to go. There was more fighting to do. More battles to win and reflect on with a relieved smile. More strength to draw from.
But for betrayal.
I heard the words out loud, traitor sounds running the air in the short space between my mouth and her ear, our last communication from body to body to soul. ‘You can go. I love you so much. I’m so proud of you. You can go.’
She left before the last breath. She saw the candle and they took her outstretched hand, pulled her life from under my heart. Left me there.
Mother’s Day ended with me receiving my gifts and cards from my children and then telling them that Grandma had died. My daughter bunched up in a foetal position next to me on the sofa and pulled her knees into her nose. My son desperately fumbled for the bright side that brave six year olds have been taught to seek out. ‘We don’t have a Grandma anymore but we do have a cat now!’. Mum’s cat sat staring at me from the other side of the room, her fearful eyes like saucers.
Hello, little girl.
‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound’ - her favourite hymn, the one I least understood. We sung it at her funeral.
Friends sent poems. Kind words in cards, text messages and notes pushed into bunches of flowers or little books that would help me slowly find how I could understand that she had gone. That she had been in pain was a thought from which little anaesthesia was available. That she had sat up at night, alone, acknowledging to herself that the end was coming and making a list of things to do, words to say and decisions to make; all of this was a reality that caught my consciousness on a hook and let it hang and bleed into a sterile reality. Loss had hit me with its dart gun and there I lay, motionless, trapped in a moment of shock, paralysed by the enormity of it.
When she was a baby she had swallowed a Kirby grip and spent a long time in hospital. In a cot amongst the beds of a women’s ward she’d captured hearts and made hours disappear with her longing for the sanctuary of skin, babbling stories and attention. Shortly after her return home from hospital my grandparents received a visit from a lady patient who had doted on their daughter during her time in the ward. ‘You have four children, we have none’, she said.
‘No’, they said.
A constellation of realisations about my amazing mother gather in the sky above my head. Sometimes they are a dewy spider’s web of sadness, all just out of my reach but so utterly beautiful. Death is so achingly unending once more. She appears in a dream and my consciousness shifts slowly back to wakefulness. The thought of her standing next to the bed is so joy filled that I let my eyes open just a tiny bit and long for her to be there. But she isn’t there. And yet she was. Her cat sits next to the bed, purring and hoping for 5am warmth, squeezing loving eyes open and shut.
Hello again, little girl.
Sometimes the realisations are inspiration entire, an anchor and a shooting star; I can reach out a hand and catch their energy, her love, our power. Five years on, these are the days that happen most often. These are the days when everything is possible and she is dancing again, smiling at her slippers and leading with her hip across the living room carpet. Laughing. She can’t be found at a graveyard, or in a photo. She can’t be felt in places she once lived. She is found only in love, joy and dreams and, every now and then, a deep inhalation from a face buried in a certain pillow. Occasionally, she is looking out at me from the mirror.
I miss her every day.
I will grow older than my mother. When I die, my mother will look younger than me. People will see her photo on my mantelpiece and ask if she is my daughter. They will say she looks beautiful, kind and happy and I will agree. I will talk about her life and her death will feel like long ago and yesterday all at the same time. It will seem impossible to believe that I have lived longer without her than I did with her.
All there is for it is to live twelve times as hard, once for me, once again for her, once for each of my children, once for my husband and again and again for the grandchildren I hope to hold hands with. We have stories to add to her legacy. We grow with her love as the source of so much of everything that is good. I bury myself in life in this way and try to consume the experiences that would have brought joy to her heart and fairy light ribbons to her thoughts. I lay the foundations for the things I said I would do and have in years to come. I don’t duck when the camera comes out; I grin and pull people closer. I exercise more. I clean less. I create more. I cry, occasionally; on Fridays. Or Mondays. Or whenever there are too many tears pushing hard from inside, begging for release and air. I no longer care about whether this crying makes other people uncomfortable in their perception of my tears as weakness or fragility. My tears are strength. My tears are healing. My tears acknowledge a life that was important and a Mother’s love that lives on. My tears keep my heart soft.
I take her everywhere with me and immerse us both in fear and daring beyond the limits she’d have taken them to, I take risks that would have made her uncomfortable, I tease death and tell it that it can’t have me. I’m alive.
I’m so very alive.
Catch me if you can.
But, by the way, you can’t.