It’s two years today since my mother died, and that’s an odd feeling. I can’t even remember if it was ten to three or ten past three, and that feels almost rude of me. She knew it was coming (I was there when she was told, very skilfully, by a hospice doctor, that she had very little time, and we had a conversation which went something like
ME: Well… I think he did that very well.
HER: So do I.)
She was very phlegmatic about her death, and spent most of her last three days saying ‘Thank you’ to anyone who lifted a finger. It was the last thing she said (to a nurse), and also the last thing she said to me. That was like her: always polite in public.
On the morning of the last day, I was rung by the hospice and told I had better come in fairly quickly (what they said was ‘No rush’, but in such a way that you knew they meant the opposite). It was a Thursday. On a Thursday, a gardener came and sorted out her garden, which was what she liked best. I went out to tell him. For no reason I can think of, he told me a story, almost by return, about his time in the Merchant Navy. The worst job he’d had, he said, was making and taking tea to the officers. It meant filling a large urn and then manhandling it up to the next deck. ‘So I worked a flanker,’ he said. ‘I got some slack tea’ – this is a phrase I had never heard before, and have never heard since (it means ‘loose tea’) – ‘and I put it in the urn. Then I waited outside the door while they drank it.’ He heard the officers splutter on the excess of tea-leaves, and he heard one say, ‘Who’s made this tea? Is it that daft Geordie? Make sure that’s the last time he does it.’ I laughed out loud, looking at the trees and shrubs she’d never see.
In the hospice, having rung my brother, who made it by midday, they had finally moved her into a single room. She was in a coma, and someone had carefully parted her hair to one side, and she had, I remember thinking, no lipstick on: not like her. She looked like the ghost of her father come to life, a resemblance I had never seen. The room was bland and full of rectangles, and I did what I needed to do, however bizarre you think it. I wrote a draft of a poem. When my brother arrived, I made a dangerous dash for a sandwich, fearful that I would miss the moment (it’s silly things like this which you hold on to). I knew it was possible that she might linger for a couple of days, but instinct suggested otherwise. Maybe we all have that instinct.
I’d never seen anyone die. My sister was there when my father died, although, alas, no-one from the family was there when my sister died. These things can’t be planned. I hadn’t any idea what might take place. What happened was this: she raised her head, very suddenly, and opened her eyes. They were grey, unseeing, the colour of sealskin. She attempted three breaths, and her body relaxed. I was talking quietly in her ear: told her we were all there, including my sister. In a queer kind of way, it was beautiful.
We waited fifteen minutes until calling in the doctor and the nurse. Better that way. She was someone I had spent perhaps thirty years, between the ages of twelve and forty-two, not getting on with. And then we clicked, made a truce. There was the palaver of removing her rings, her bag.
We stood on the hospice door-step. ‘Orphans,’ I said to my brother, and we laughed. I didn’t go back to see her dressed up in the funeral parlour. I wanted to hold the memory. So I hold this day sacred, as I do the day of my sister’s death. Not my father’s, and I don’t know why. I didn’t know how much I would miss her.