Saturday, November 02, 2013

Grief is the word

In the month or so after her death, I had some very vivid dreams about my mum. In my favourite, she was in the bath, and she asked me to scrub her back. This was a thing that actually happened a lot -- I don't know anyone who saw their mum naked more often than I saw mine. She never got self-conscious, even in her last year, when her body changed so much, from the vibrant and healthy thing I'd seen a changing-but-the-same version of all my life, to something tiny, punctured, and randomly (or so it seemed a lot of the time) unreliable.

In my dream, she had her old body, the one that worked... with the strong, broad back, the hair in a headband, the freckly white skin that was so smooth but reddened so easily. She always liked a proper back scrub, though, so that's what I did, and then she looked up at me, stood up in the water, and gave me a proper big hug. I woke up feeling that I'd said the proper physical goodbye that I never managed in real life. I used to hug her a lot, but by the time we knew she was dying, she was too frail and too encumbered for anything more than holding of hand and stroking of head. So I thank my subconscious for bringing me that hug.

And generally, I am sleeping better since she died than I did during her last months. There's nothing I can do for her now, and however mind-gapingly awful her illness was, it's over. I feel huge - at times overwhelming - sadness much of the time, but I also know that, at least while she was ill, I did my best. That was something I learnt from Trish herself -- if you've done your best, you have nothing to feel guilty about. You may wish you were a better person or that circumstances had been different, but you can't do much about that and there's no point wasting energy on it.

There are (fairly obviously, I guess) some teenage moments I wish I could revisit, and many years of self-absorption where a bit of "it's not all about you, love" might have helped, but for much of my 30s, and my early 40s, we both worked to find a space where we could do things together that we both enjoyed, and we managed that. I'd (fairly obviously, I guess) have made more effort if I'd known she wouldn't live forever, but shit, she was the strongest person I knew. You just don't believe someone with her resilience will go and fucking die on you. She didn't believe it either. One of the last things she did was order a new bathroom. By the time they came to fit it, she was in the hospice. One of the others was to plant a monkey puzzle tree in the front garden. By the time that's grown up, we'll all be ashes.

Every day, there is a moment where I remember that my mum's dead. Sometimes it's like being hit with a blunt instrument somewhere deep inside, other days it rips my surface, like trying to crawl out of a bramble patch in your pants. Many days, whether raw or deep, it's nothing worse than sadness, which, at this point, feels like an achievement. I shed some tears on a bus, or in the supermarket, or when I catch a certain smell or hear a certain song. But sometimes it just stops me in my tracks, and for a few hours, there's quite literally nothing I can do.

I never read self-help books just like I never weigh myself. But you don't get to be 43 without absorbing some common wisdom about grief, if only by emotional osmosis. I know about the stages-that-aren't-really-stages. I know it's different-for-everyone. I know that losing a parent is massively significant, whether you got on with them or you didn't. That constant, that given, whether a presence or an absence, a source of pleasure or pain, now gone. If you're an adult, it knocks you forward into another phase of your life, closer to the centre of your family web if you have children of your own, more aware of your genetic cul-de-sac if you don't. I think I was prepared for that, to some extent, given that I had some notice. And my mother was one of the good guys. Our differences were non-toxic, our disagreements benign. I thought I had nothing really to fear but the sadness. I thought that I was probably at the lucky end of the people-whose-mothers-are-dying spectrum, however shitty a spectrum it may be. And that may indeed be so. But there are two facets of this beast called grief that I wasn't expecting.

One of them began to crystallise at her funeral, when my dad spoke about their life together and said, of its last phase, after they moved back to Lytham in 1997, "she really loved her life here". And she did. She really did. She was part of the fabric of that small town for more than half her life, she loved the house she lived in and the people she knew, and she loved her job and her family and my dad and the comfort that came from the rewards of their long years of careful sifting and saving. My mother was the very model of economy, but she loved to be generous, including to herself. Such balance I will always envy, and it will take me a long time to reconcile myself to the fundamental unfairness that a woman who overcame so many obstacles, and displayed such tenacity and grit, never got to spend that much time in the (figurative - remembering the white skin and the freckles) sun, and spent a year dying horribly before she was even 70. There are millions of people who can't see the point of life, and millions more who build their lives and their livelihoods on the exploitation of others. Why do some of them get to live out their old age when my mum, who wanted to be alive and spent her life (working and otherwise) looking after other people, doesn't? Huh? Where's the justice in that?

(I do know that there ain't no justice, before anyone sends me a book about it).

The other facet is harder to articulate, because it's the one I *really* didn't expect. I knew I was going to lose my mum. What I didn't fully appreciate was that she was the family's UN-Security-Council-cum-ACAS. Not that we're a family at war. More that I suddenly realise there was someone gently representing everyone's interests to everyone else, and negotiating settlements without anyone else involved (or at least me) really knowing there were issues to be settled. I just lost my best defender and I never even knew I needed defending. I have a bunch of relationships to renegotiate now, not with my dad, fortunately, as that has always been relatively unmediated, but from there on out, I'm like a wheel without a centre. There are times I think 'why didn't you *say* anything?' ... but then I think, hey, that was the secret of her success. Why would I expect her to change the habits of a lifetime on her deathbed? She took a bunch of our secrets and lies with her, and she absolutely had that right.

I fucking miss her though.


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Blogger Jeremy Day said...

My thoughts are with you, and though I know, yes, the unjustice of it grits my teeth.

7:32 am  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Love your writing, Jo. What you say about how grief sometimes disables you, sometimes hits you, sometimes is "just" sadness in the background - I get all that.

Won't send you a book on justice. It isn't fair. Sounds as if she was a wonderful woman.

7:25 pm  

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