This is not my usual fare, it’s something of a self indulgence.
Today would have been my mother’s 78th birthday. She was born in South London a matter of weeks before the Luftwaffe started dropping bombs on London. Too young to be evacuated like her brothers and sister, she grew up amid the nightly raids. Her earliest vivid memory was of the mini-blitz towards the end of the war. The nightly trek to spend the night on the platform of the Tube, proudly clutching her Mickey Mouse gas mask.
By the end of the war, the family home was deemed to be one of only a few on the street to still be standing. Though the criteria seems to be a bit lax from this distance in time. Apparently, houses still with two or more walls were classified as standing because you could use cardboard to fill in the missing spaces.
Even for me hearing all this, not just from her, but similar childhood stories from my father, it sounds completely unreal. A childhood I can’t relate to. For the modern generations, this must seem like unbelievable tall stories. Yet it was only 75 years ago.
I’m not going to relate her life, only to say that she achieved much of what she wanted in finding a route out of that poverty in to middle class affluence. However, one of her most satisfying days was the invitation to the garden party at Buckingham Palace. She rarely spoke of it, but in a house with no photo of her wedding day, the picture of the two of them in front of the palace gates took pride of place.
It’s a strange part of growing up that you don’t really become friends with your parents until at least your late twenties. With her, it was much later. She was an intensely private individual who had a will that could warp reality to conform to her views.
Her first battle with cancer happened when I was living in New York. Long before the instant communication of email or mobile phones, I was quite divorced from that struggle. The relapse and the second battle came a few years later, and bugger me, I was living in the middle of nowhere in New England. Again, nothing I could do about it.
She had a good fifteen years after that, ticking off many of the things she’d wanted to do.
It maybe maudlin, but it’s of the end I need to write for my own peace of mind.
That she was becoming ill again took time to dawn. I’m sure she knew, but she kept it to herself because my father was seriously ill. Only when it was apparent that he was recovering did she consider herself.
I well remember the conversation when she told me she had cancer again. I looked at her as she spoke the same words about will power and positive thinking that she’d used the previous times and I knew instantly that she didn’t believe them any more. I looked at my father, earnestly wishing those words to be true. As we grow older we first have the revelation that our parents are fallible, that’s about the time when you actually become friends. The next stage is more painful, it’s when you recognise their frailties and there’s a passing of the generational baton of duty and responsibility. This was definitely that moment for me.
It was in her final few months that I became as close to her as she would ever allow. The secret telephone conversations when he was out, telling me something of her real struggles, things she could never tell my father. Often they were about how badly he was coping and taking it out on her. I’ve never told him about those conversations and never will. They were married for over 50 years and those conversations with her brought home to me that in some respects he never really knew who she was.
Her last several weeks were spent in hospital. On her final evening she dismissed my father with a strange goodbye and later did the same with a family friend who was a hospital helper and dropped by to chat.
I got the email about 5 am the next morning just after my father had the call from the hospital to say she’d died.
Now we get to the crux of why I’m setting this down.
The timing rankles to this day. I was due to set off around 6 am to drive to see her that morning. I knew it was to be a final goodbye and it was important to me. She knew I was coming and everything I know about her tells me that she switched off deliberately so that I wouldn’t see her like that. Others concur with that view.
I did wonder if I felt some guilt that she switched off. A day or so wouldn’t have made any difference to the inevitable, so there is no guilt that there could have been a different outcome.
I don’t know if she was being selfish or altruistic. She had her reasons and although I can’t agree with them – perhaps for my own selfish reasons – she made a personal choice to exclude me at the end without any semblance of goodbye.
There was no great sorrowful hole, the inevitable had been obvious for months and allowed for a certain amount of preparation. However, being denied at the end hurt more than anything else and still does. The anniversaries of her birth and death bring it to the fore, though perhaps more wistfully now than the original rawness.
It didn’t help to also be denied the funeral and saying a final goodbye, but that’s a different story.