METERMy mother died on June 3, 2020, in the middle of the night. We were locked up nationally at the time. First. The one that none of us will ever forget. So when my mother took her last breath in a Surrey hospice that I have yet to visit, I was more than 400 miles away, at my home in Edinburgh.
I was wide awake in bed when my dad called to break the news that we knew was coming. He hadn’t slept an eye. My head, heart, and, well, there’s no hashtag-adjacent equivalent for this. soul I’d been full all night with my dying mother, like a cup to the brim. So even though he wasn’t physically there when she left this world, he was awake, lying under the same dark segment of the northern hemisphere. This matters. It is strange that what torments you in pain can also heal you.
And it’s strange what you cling to when you lose someone in a global pandemic. When it turns out that you are hanging on the bell of pain at the precise moment when normal life is suspended. When the oncology consultant breaks the news over the phone that your mother, who has metastatic breast cancer, is weeks old and you can’t just take a train to see her. When normal urges must be resisted, even when the country’s top government adviser mercilessly disobeys the rules. When you can only say goodbye once, briefly: masked, gloved, and terrified of risk. When you can’t spend the night with your dad after your mom’s funeral.
So what have I learned? Are you kidding?
As well as knowing that this question seems to make me want to throw a plate of spaghetti at the wall, like Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple (my mom, dad, sister, and I love, or should I say now loved? – that movie as much as Oscar pretended to hate Felix), I must also grudgingly admit that I have never learned so much in my life.
I learned that pain is a foreign country and here we do things differently. We become tourists in our old existences, constantly losing our minds and keys (twice, in my case), trying to get by with hardly any language. We are overwhelmed by the smallest things: overwhelmed by an episode of Gardeners’ World, undone by a leaf falling from a tree. We are in another place, in another time, visited by things said and not said. And to some extent, the blockage felt a bit like that, anyway. There is something curiously underwater about the duel that fits the austere nature of the confinement. Which is not to say, as some did, that the confinement was a real form of pain for a lost way of life. Not that. It was not. Pain is not a metaphor. It’s just pain and pain. I also learned this.
What I mean is that the astringency of the confinement matched my pain. In those traumatizing weeks before and after my mother’s death, when the sight of my own hand opening a tap could break my heart, I needed to live small in the world, big in my head. Lockdown needed this and it helped. I was glad that the government directed me to take the same walk every day. I probably would have liked to wear state approved clothing. I wanted to be alone, which I realize is a privilege to fall into the category of exhausted parents, especially women, with young children whose problem during confinement was not isolation, but the inability to forge a bloody moment of peace.
The confinement was a brutal lesson, of a Victorian spirit, in the abject and necessary solitude of pain. Much of the duel takes place within the ruins of your own head. I wanted the world to reflect that. Respect it, even. Basically, Auden was right. I wanted to stop the clocks and pack the moon too.
And yet, while the words were useless for a time, the correct ones were a life raft. Eventually, writing – the bio-memory-stick I’ve been working on; words like these – started to help. “Make it for her,” a friend of mine said about my book after my mother died. “You have to write about all this,” my mom instructed me at the hospital in March, when I was delirious with illness and brave as a lion. But be nice. You don’t want to scare people. “
I have not been able to carry out the rituals that I would have, pre-Covid. I haven’t slept with my sister, I cried and watched back-to-back episodes of Sex and the City. I have not brought my partner, our children, and dog to live with my dad on my parents’ council floor, the place I will always call home. for the summer holidays. I have not been to the hospice where my mother died, although I have haunted the website like a ghost. I have not scattered his ashes in Richmond Park. We haven’t seen Fawlty Towers together and laughed at the memory of Manuel’s impression of my mom, though my dad, my sister, and I shared YouTube clips on WhatsApp of Geoffrey Palmer, after his death, demanding sausages. in one of our favorite episodes.
One day my sister and I planned to walk on her old journey from London’s Waterloo Station to Queen Square, where my mother, who trained as a pathologist in Bangalore, was a second-term physician at what was then the National Hospital of Nervous Diseases. One day.
In their place, other rituals have arrived. My partner bought me a second-hand bike, a 70s Raleigh at least as old as I am. Although I haven’t ridden in over two decades, I ride to the beach most weeks. Sometimes the North Sea roars and sometimes it is as smooth as a sheet of glass. I drink a can of beer and I feel as alive as a teenager. Once or twice I even got into the water and literally came back to life. (The North Sea does this to you, even when you’re not grieving.)
I began a “mourning walk” through my Leith neighborhood culminating with a view of the river mouth and a private view of a stranger’s communal garden. (Apologies to the owner for being the one who randomly cries for your thoughts throughout the year.) My mom never came to this precise place, but how she loved gardening. When he was in the hospital, he begged me to write to Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don. My entire childhood can be summed up with an image of my cheeky little mommy fixing her sari to grab a cut from a stranger’s garden.
Now all this and more, my mother’s spirit, you might call it, resides here too, somewhere between the hipster shoreline of Edinburgh’s old trading port and the ever-changing sky.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.