Paris & Sharp
Mum died October 14th, 2001. She was 56.
It’s almost too big a subject to write about. The timeline of her death – a brief four weeks from hospitalisation to cremation – is beginning to sand over, events shifting and blown by the winds of time, memories waning. It’s an event that divides my life into two distinct epochs: the time with my mother alive; the time since.
There’s something ethereal, otherworldy, almost heavenly about this music, an unlikely description, perhaps, for a piece of percussive electronica. I heard it in the car a number of times as I was driving back and forward in the quickening nights between home and hospital. It soon became an earworm and I went out and bought the single. It’s a dance track, but a vocal sample from a Hans Zimmer movie score gives the music its spice aroma that draws my ear and fires my imagination. Concrete cityscapes, desert dry dunescapes. Sodium lamps, sunken tombs, dead roads. Incantation. Prayer. Ritual.
Mum was a Catholic. A really devout one. Which meant that I was raised as one. By the time I reached the end of my first year at university, I had given all that up, and for a while it created an unholy schism between my mother and I. She felt that my rejection of her faith was a rejection of her. But it wasn’t a personal thing. There was a moment where I saw the inherent doublethink and hypocrisy at the heart of religion in a wider sense and chose to reject it.
But you don’t escape lightly from a lifetime of indoctrination. I know the ins and outs of Catholicism even still, and even as I continue to reject it it stays with me. In the days after her death, I could not recognise the frantic rosaries, the rhythmic ritualistic murmuring that was constantly around us, as anything I once identified with. I had absolutely no use for it. It depersonalised her. It severed my grief. It made a stranger of me in the family home. When I was preparing the eulogy that I would read to the mourners at her funeral, a pious relative took me aside and warned me that my words had better not say anything too personal.
It took a week to arrange the cremation. In the days preceding that, my mother’s body lay in the living room, waiting to receive the blessings of those who came to pay their respects: family, nuns, priests, friends in Christ, all crowded round to recite, incant, sing mutedly.
I couldn’t connect with any of that. The body that lay in that cold, cold room, the body that had conceived me, that had carried me, that had been my conduit into the world and my first contact with it, my first source of comfort and strength, was now some kind of token of who my mother really was in the eyes of God. Religion treats the body as a device for the soul, a carrier of the spirit. Here, in her own house, my mother’s body had been reduced to an abstraction, a stand-in for the bit that God lay claim to. And that bit had gone, chased into the afterlife by prayer. The intensity of these rosary recitals was as foreign to me as listening to a room full of ululating Arab women. Why the urgency? It was all over. It was too late for words – unless you take the view that these rituals exist as a balm for the living.
Mum had died in the hospital days before. She had been transferred to the cancer ward where her condition rapidly deteriorated. We saw her one night, the last time we saw her conscious, and she was furiously reciting prayers through her oxygen mask. She knew, though we were still in complete denial about it, that she was going to die. We were no use to her. She sent us away.
The next time we saw Mum, she was in a coma. She had been moved overnight to her own room and had developed the rasping, laboured breathing associated with imminent death. It was a shock to us, as we were expecting her to begin treatment that day. A well meaning medic took us aside – my father, brother and I – and told us she was going to die.
We came out, reeling and numb, and went to Mum’s room. The violent rasping had subsided, her breathing getting shallower and shallower. Her best friend had arrived with one of their nun friends and sat together with my great-aunt, praying by Mum’s side. I stood helpless for a while, listening, frustration growing. To me, these useless words were getting in the way of any meaningful communication taking place. It was a waste of the final moments any of us would have with her. The cancer was about to take her life away and no-one could say anything for this endless stream of nonsense. Then I asked everyone if I could be with Mum alone, and they obliged.
What does a son say to his dying mother? What does she need to hear? What do you need her to know? What are the words that truly count? Words of love, gratitude, reassurance. In the repressed and emotionally straitened culture of the west of Scotland, we often lack the ability to make these words part of our lives, though we may crave to speak them, to have them spoken to us. It was hard to hold her hand with so many tubes sticking into it. We were never a very touchy-feely family. We make life so very difficult for ourselves.
I try to imagine her as a grandmother. I try to see her in my daughter. I’m sure my dad does too. When we visit Grandad, we play with the bangles and brooches in Mum’s old jewellery box. It saddens me that she won’t be part of my daughter’s life, but we say night night to Nana Honor every night. And as she gets older, we’ll continue to talk about her, to look at old photos and she’ll know the warmth and beauty and generosity of the woman I knew – not the God-bound spirit vessel, but the very real, very wonderful human being who drew so much love around her, who had so much love to share. An Aphrodite in her own way.