Sunday, April 6, 2008

my mother

From: Arienh (

I just read of your mother's passing and I wanted to say that my thoughts are with you. I'm not good at condolences, but I'm sending you a hug and a squeeze of the hand. I hope the February weather is treating you well. I actually did want to ask an AN question, but I shall reserve that for another time. :-) Be well.

** note: As you can see, this is an old question. Older even than it looks. My mother died sixteen months ago. But Friday would have been her 80th birthday, so I decided to post this **

Thanks, Arienh. My mother had been ill for a while, her death wasn't a surprise--but it was a shock. Every time someone I love dies, I think I'll be ready. Every time I'm not. But Mum's death was qualitatively different to that of my sisters'.

A mother is the sun around which the family planets revolve. When she dies, everyone has to find different orbits. Roles change. Gravitational pull alters. The universe rearranges itself. Even after almost a year and a half, my family is still adjusting. It's the oddest thing.

I couldn't go to my mother's funeral; I was too ill. So I wrote something for my cousin, Clare, to read:

I said goodbye to my mother in February. I was flying back to Seattle the next day and we both knew it might be the last time we could touch each others' face, or say the final thing. So we drank tea and talked.

After I got back to Seattle we talked by phone while we could. When her hearing failed, I wrote letters and she dictated replies. When her eyesight began to fail I increased the size of the type. Eventually even that wasn't enough.

One day, about a month ago, Dad and I were on the phone, and he said Mum insisted on trying to talk to me. He held the phone for her. I couldn't hear a word she said. Clearly, she couldn't hear a word I said. So after a while we didn't say anything. We just sat there, and breathed together, separated by eight thousand miles.

I'll never hear her breathe again.

But she's not gone.

Every time I look in the mirror, I see my mother.

Every time I look at my sisters, I see my mother.

I see my mother in my father's face, too: laugh lines, and some frown lines, that Mum helped to put there.

I see my mother when I look around my own house, at the furniture I've chosen, the colours I like. "Green is your colour," she would say. I have a green carpet, and green shirts in my wardrobe.

I see my mother whenever I pick up a book, because she taught me to read.

I hear my mother when I listen to music, and I remember her singing along with Frank Sinatra while she washed up. I remember how after Helena died she said, "I can't listen to music anymore, it makes me sad." How, eventually, she began to listen again.

And that's one of the things I loved best about my mother: she never, ever gave up.

Mum never gave up joy.

She took joy in the smallest things: sunshine, a warm fire on a cold day, a hot cup of tea. Tea was the universal panacea. "I'll make you a nice cup of tea," was what she said when I'd dislocated my knee, or had stitches again. "Let's have a lovely cup of tea!" was for triumphs like reviews of my first novel.

Mum never stopped noticing.

She taught me to pay attention to the little things. As a child, I could never wholeheartedly hate or despise anyone, ever, because Mum would always say, "Yes, Nicola, I know he started it, but did you see the hole in his shoes, the poor lamb? I wonder if he has enough to eat..."

She taught me to look at the big picture, to plan ahead, but to never, ever lose that joy of the moment: the comfy chair, the perfect truffle, the big fat paperback bought for pennies at a secondhand bookshop.

So that's what I'll be doing tomorrow, next week, next year: enjoying sitting by the fire with a cup of tea, a box of chocolates, and a good book. And I'll look forward to spring, and when I put daffodils on the table I'll see my mother. And I'll miss her, but she's not gone.

When I look at my world I see my mother.

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