At first I thought to skip my turn this month and ask one of the others on the Strictly Writing team to fill in for me. The energy needed to post something here was going to elude me, and more importantly it might not be appropriate or respectful this week.
My mother breathed her last breath on Wednesday 20 May and I spent the week before sitting at her bed, watching every single breath. So what could I possibly say for Strictly Writing? The only thing that mattered had gone with that breath.
Then I thought again. This would not be the only inappropriate act on my part. My mother would not have wished for me to get drunk ten nights in a row – she hardly touched a drop. And let's not even think about the (temporary, I hope) resumption of smoking. Worse than that, I confess, even until the day she died I was taking notes. Unable to read, I must have attempted the same page of the Patrick Gale novel a hundred times and anything beneath the headlines on the newspapers quickly blurred - who cared about MPs' expenses? All I could do was watch her breathe and wait for anything she might say, or talk to my brothers and my father about whether we should call for another injection of Oxycodone.
Was it shameful that I was able to jot down notes? I wanted to capture some of her last utterances, it’s true, and that seemed a plausible excuse. It wasn’t just that, I must admit to hoarding details too – the name of the disinfectant in the plastic spray bottle at the end of the bed, a description of the pink sponge swabs we used to roll moisture along her lips, the hospital visitor with dementia who repeatedly lost his wife’s bed and had to be guided back – each morning they break the news to him anew. I can’t pretend I was storing all those for emotional reasons alone. You know my guilt: I’m a writer.
Then I thought a third time. After all, Mum was the one who taught us to love books. She read several thousand herself, scouring the shelves of the Upton public library and, years earlier, plundering the box of newly published Pans and Picadors that arrived each month because my father was a director at Macmillan.
Her vocabulary was immense. Whenever I craved the precise word for a story and the dictionary failed me I would dial her number. Even in her last days, profoundly sick and disorientated by high calcium levels and the elaborate cocktail of analgesics, when she had to force out every phrase, her precision in diction was commented on by many. Two days before she died one of my brothers came in and said, in that voice of forced hope we all used, ‘You're looking really well today, Mum.’ She replied, ‘There’s no need to talk to me as though I were an inebriate.’ My family all worked hard to suppress the laughter we often tried to mute so as not to disturb the other three patients in the ward. When I thanked her for acting as my telephone thesaurus, my ever self-deprecating mother said, ‘I was wrong to glorify myself in that way.’
And she wrote. Her letters were each a work of art, both the distinct writing voice and the crisp neat strokes of nib against paper. She accumulated thousands upon thousands of words in journals with grey cardboard covers. These she kept safe for decades, never showing them to a soul until, a few months ago, when she knew she was dying she passed them to my youngest brother to burn. She was confident he could be relied upon to do so without reading them, a temptation that might have been too much for me. Adam stood in his garden in the cold rain and tossed notebook after notebook onto a bonfire. How unpublished is that?
So, maybe my mother wouldn’t mind me posting this memento. It’s no more inappropriate than the notes I took in the hospice. It’s no more inappropriate than the Bank Holiday sun that should not be shining today.
One day, if I have the will to make use of those notes in some fictional account of death, they might help pin down more clarity and detail than writing from memory alone. The books my mother loved were real, stories that boomed with emotion not by shouting about it, but by accurately depicting the circumstances that generate it: T S Eliot’s objective correlative. If I can manage even a little of that, my mother will forgive me.
For now, and for a long time there is no possibility for me to write well about these matters. All I can do is shout . . . Oh, my mother I miss you so much. I miss your example of how a human being should be. I type through tears, trying to stop them falling onto the laptop.
Picture: Mum with me and Matthew (before Daniel and Adam were born).