I left a message on Mum’s phone the day after her death. I knew that the house would be empty, that the air would be still and that her slippers would be sitting, waiting for her, at the foot of her chair. There would be the still fresh memory of her moving around the kitchen, making a cup of tea – not the stuff that they made in the hospital – the stuff that she couldn’t drink, but the stuff that she made at home, in the cup that she always used. Mum would never drink from a mug and she always preferred the pottery to be China. When she came over to see us in Beverley, she would bring her own cup, replete with saucer. She was picky and once set in a certain behavior, she would never change. Those cups that were chipped, went straight to the dustbin. I have a more make-do and mend approach to possessions although my wife would suggest that I am just a hoarder as I never quite get around to mending. In Japan, when something gets broken the item is stuck back together with an adhesive that looks like gold. It’s a way of highlighting the fracture, of pointing out the pain of the break whilst also reminding us of the cathartic benefits of enduring trauma. We learn from pain and often we learn to live with it.
On that day, when I called, I imagined her at the sink. She had just finished a cup of tea, had watched Good Morning Britain, had listen to Dr. Hillary, and was set to endure another day in lockdown. Always, as soon as her tea was finished, she’d be up and turning on the taps, squeezing out the washing up liquid and running a sponge over the last traces of tea. Tea stains, it leaves a mark and, over time, it can become stubborn and difficult to shift. That’s why she’d be there, making sure that none remained. Like Dad, she had had to endure some punishing fortune since being very young. And like Dad, she had developed a coping mechanism, a way of putting the pain out of sight. When Dad died, she took all of his nearly new clothes and gifted them to a charity shop; a gesture that I found difficult to come to terms with at the time, but one I now understand. Those memories were too heavy, too saddened with love and years of togetherness, for her to survive them.
When we were very little, a message arrived at our house. We lived in a house opposite to where her best friend, Maureen was to come to live a little later. The message that Mum received was in the form of a telegram and telegrams were the gold standard for communications. To have such an important message arrive seemed to be a call for celebration – perhaps we’d won the lottery. Christine and me were caught up in the childhood zing of excitement until our mum read the message and we watched her face accommodate a new expression – sudden grief and tears; her father had died. Unaccustomed to such a show of emotion, I think that the two of us just stood by unsure of what to do. Mum crying in front of us was not an event that we had never truly witnessed. By the time our father had got home from work, she had dried her tears and washed her face; her own mother had died many years earlier, but now she was alone – an orphan, just like our dad. Dad died ten years ago and our mother continued to live for another ten years. We thought that she was going to live forever, she was a strong woman who could survive anything that was thrown at her. She rarely cried, not even when she was in hospital and had been told that hope was fading. I did see her shed a few tears and I did hear her apologize to me for her being unwell. Throughout her life, she had given herself to the task of looking after others. Always one to serve those who needed her, she had moved from home-help to old people’s residential care. She taught her children that caring for others was far more important than merely serving oneself. This is what she taught us.