Sunday, 20 September 2015

Our Mother, Val Doonican & Omar Sharif

The Urge to Dignify Death

After a death comes a funeral, pretty much anywhere in the world.The urge to dignify the passing somehow means that we try to despatch the departed loved one with a ritual. In Victorian times, certainly in London, it  took as long as possible and 'death-bed' scenes were strung out with weeping and wailing. There were specific words, rituals and keepsakes known as 'memento mori'.

Unless you work in a funeral parlour or something, the language of death, arriving right slap in the  rawness of your grief, comes as an experience both surreal and funny.

The first thing that happens, in Britain at any rate, is that your family doctor certifies that the recently departed is actually dead, and there's nothing suspicious about it.

The Doctor's Jaunty Tie
In our case, the family doctor had been calling daily throughout the final week of my mother's life. The visit was strangely similar to the day before's, except that he arrived wearing a dark blue tie instead of his usual jaunty scarlet one.

Naturally, my sister and I wanted new outfits for the funeral. Even when you know someone's going to die, there's a reticence about going out to choose your special frock before the event. After our mother passed way, without thinking we arranged this ludicrous schedule, making sure that when we felt that urge to shop, one was always available to stay at home.

Feeling That Urge to Shop
 That's true grief, we discovered. It's not about how sad you feel or what a huge gap someone's left in your life. It's about the little things. Forgetting that you can now go shopping,

Much-Travelled Posy
That week I learned, too, about floral artistry, and the unique terminology that goes with it.  For example, you don't order a wreath but a funeral posy. If you order for a funeral on Dartmoor when you live in North London, Interflora doesn't actually drive 200 miles with said posy, they just charge you as if they had.

Another thing that made us fall about laughing was a Cockney superstition that my Nana, born and bred in London's 'East-End', taught us. If you hear of a death, then the next two people you hear of in the same predicament will go to Heaven with the first one.  So for example, our local butcher died this week and will now go to the abode of the angels arm-in-arm with the critic Brian Sewell and the much-loved writer of erotic fiction, Jackie Collins.

Clearly this sweet old fairy tale dates back to the time when London was a collection of small communities centred around the docks, the alleys etc. To Ma and me, it didn't matter a jot that there were millions of people in the world and hundreds of deaths per day. We still applied the theory, to gales of laughter, every time we heard of a death in the news or in our part of town.

So for what it's worth, my mother, who died on 2 July 2015, went to Heaven with Val Doonican and Omar Sharif. And boy, won't she remind us of that one next time we see her.

  Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on;
So sing as well.

Joyce Grenfell 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

So On Thursday Mother Died

So on Thursday morning at dawn, my mother died.  My sister and I had received what we, for years, had termed 'the 5.30 am call'. It means, in our family, a cry for help from one of the tribe, delivered as 'early as decent'. In this instance the message was simple - 'If you want to see your mother alive, come now'.

A Cry From One of the Tribe
The experts say that bad news sinks into the human brain in three stages: disbelief, acceptance, fortification. So, for an hour or so we had this ludicrous disbelieving conversation in which we reasoned that we would probably arrive too late for our mother's departure and that, based on our kindly father's desire 'not to bother us' we probably should just wait until the funeral.

Over hot tea and buttered toas, we came to our senses and pelted down the platform for the first train out of Paddington Station, London, to a destination in the far west of Britain.

The First Train Out of Paddington
We reached the parents' cottage in time, in fact time enough to gather round our mother's bed, not for a maudlin death-bed scene but for a family sing-song. Ma even frowned at me for getting the second line of the Welsh National Anthem wrong, as I always do and she always does. She lived another four days, actually, while the temperature soared in the hottest July on record. Gradually the surreal NHS 'End of Life Package', became our accepted norm. We rang our places of employment, not once, but the next day and the next. As the sun baked the garden to death, we wheeled her bed to the porch where she could hear the seagulls.

Where She Could Hear the Seagulls
We moistened her lips with wet tissues instead of those awful sponge swab things, and when we weren't talking to her, reminding her what a great Mum she'd been, we got on and cooked the dinner like a normal family.  They say that hearing is the last sense to go, and I like to believe it fortified her, as well as us, to hear the family carrying on as usual, arguing over the washing up, reminding one another to water the roses, discussing the merits of the new vaccuum cleaner.

Flowers in Her Hair

After she passed over, I had the great privilege of helping to lay her out, instructed by two ladies, Kerry and Diana, who did a stunning job. Oiled and anointed, with flowers in her hair, she looked almost like a young girl again. Then, with the kind of tact only British bureacracy could manage, a psychotherapist called Candida telephoned from the local hospital. Mother had, she said, seemed a little depressed during her last visit to hospital. Would it help if she, Candida came around and had a bit of a chat? "Not really," I replied.  "If I'm honest."

How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with a love false or true
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your ever-changing face

William Butler Yeats 1865-1939

With grateful thanks to the wonderful teams from Devon C.Air and Pembroke House Surgery Paignton