It seems timely, dear Reader, to share this with you. Content alert: see above.
There is a photo of my mother in a coffin.
Her eyes are closed but her glasses are still on, indicating that she is, in fact, alive. She’s clutching a bouquet of fake red roses, and is surrounded by bunches of fake flowers in real (although empty) beer bottles. She’s managing not to smile.
The coffin belonged to one of Gwen’s ex-boyfriends. I think his name was John, but it might have been Allan, or Steve, or Mike. It was a great prop to bring to a Halloween party in 1990, and much hilarity no doubt ensued as people climbed in and out of it, pretending to be dead.
My mother no longer has to pretend to be dead. Just before she reached that inevitable state, we were discussing funeral arrangements.
‘Hey Mum,’ I said. ‘Do you remember that boyfriend of yours – the undertaker?’
‘John?’ she said (or Allan/Steve/Mike).
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Could he do your funeral?’
‘No, he’s dead,’ she said.
And then we laughed and laughed, until the cancer in her kidney gave her a pain in the stomach and she was reduced to wincing and giggling.
It was a moment of levity, taking place for her in the midst of three weeks of surprise suffering, belated and incomplete taking stock, and indignities; and for me, in the midst of surprise anguish, attempted and ineffectual resolution-finding, followed by a years-long eruption of feelings of abandonment hitherto under- if not unfelt.
My mother had been threatening to die since I was seventeen. Then, she’d been diagnosed with emphysema, but continued smoking and living until a series of strokes at the age of 56 put paid completely to the first, and curtailed the style in which she’d been doing the latter. For eighteen years she’d been a hemiplegic, sustained primarily by a diet of ham sandwiches and pies, increasingly confined to her loungeroom chair, her legs and feet distended with retained fluid. She criticised everyone and everything from this vantage point, softened only by offerings of stuffed or porcelain meerkats, or by beating her husband in the daily cryptic crossword.
Every time someone famous or heroic died, she’d say, ‘Here I am sitting on my fat arse, useless as tits on a bull.’
She was regularly taken by ambulance to hospital after falls, unexplained drops in iron levels, twisted bowels, or cysts. After each phone call, on my way to the hospital, I’d wonder if this really was the beginning of the very drawn-out end.
‘They reckon there’s nothing wrong with me,’ she’d say, sounding irritated. ‘But what would they know.’
She hated her doctor and said he was useless, but would not go to a different one. Her husband was constantly going to specialists and doctors: when I inquired why, she said, ‘How would I bloody know? He doesn’t tell me anything.’ When I pointed out she could, as a concerned wife, ask him, she looked at me as if it was a stupid question, requiring no response.
At work, after her actual funeral, I found language to be inadequate to explain to colleagues how I was feeling, or the nature of my relationship with my mother. As a shortcut, I displayed the picture of Gwen-in-a-party-coffin as a shorthand way of saying I was having a hard day.
When I was crying next to her bedside, close to the end, she said, ‘Remember the good times.’
You can’t remember the good times unless you’ve reconciled with The Rest of It. The Rest of It is never simple, linear, or confined to one’s own experiences. Grief, if you had a childhood resembling mine in any way, dumps The Rest of It unceremoniously on you. First, you’ve got to dig your way out of it. Then you’ve got to sort it – that lump there, that lump there – until you’ve got piles you can Marie Kondo, and only then, beneath all the rubble, you can find the things that give you joy. Or, if not joy, a sense of satisfaction that The Rest of It is in the past, and you, by some combination of luck, love, and sheer bloody mindedness, are here.