Yesterday was the anniversary of my mother’s death. She died nineteen years ago. I was holding her hand as the breath left her body.
Every year we commemorate the anniversary in the same way, a mass said for her intention, and a day spent doing very little. Once or twice I have gone back to work after mass in the morning but usually it’s a non-working day, and this year it was a Sunday. This year, for the first time in years, we took both children to the graveyard and put some cut flowers on the flower holder at the base of the gravestone, purple tulips like the ones we had in the garden back in the 1980s. I had brought the bulbs over from Amsterdam (tulips from Amsterdam – what else would you bring back as a present?). They were nearly confiscated at Customs, and the inspector suggested that he might slice them up to make sure that I wasn’t smuggling drugs back into the UK. It was January. I didn’t know that we’d have to wait nearly a year to plant them.
We saw a stage production of “Goodnight Mr Tom” at the Richmond Theatre last week, in which Mr Tom visits the grave of his dead wife. A friend of my wife’s was in the production and we had a backstage tour afterwards, and a few minutes on the stage looking out at the empty rows of seats. My 9 year old daughter noticed the headstone, tucked away at the side of the stage with the other props. Thankfully the children haven’t had much experience of death, in their own lives or even in fiction, though some of their contemporaries have lost parents in the last thirteen months. “Goodnight Mr Tom” features more than one of its characters dying before the curtain goes down, and the deaths of Mr Tom’s wife and children are mentioned more than once, having already taken place before the events depicted in the play. We were warned in advance.
So, 19 years ago today I began the rounds of funeral preparation, for which we had done very little planning: first a certificate from our GP, then the death certificates from the Civic Centre, then first visits to a Funeral Director, visits to the cemetery to pick out a suitable plot. And phone calls, literally hundreds of phone calls. I had email for work purposes but not a single friend or family member had an email address back then. Some of the contact was to mobile phones rather than landlines, but 1997 was an era before texting, before social media, before Blogs and personal websites. All communication was 1-to-1, not 1-to-many. At least people listened to their answering machines and voicemails back then. I was always grateful when an answering machine kicked in, grateful not to answer the same questions that I had answered 10, 20, 100 times or more.
TS Eliot wrote that April is the cruellest month. I disagree with him. February is the cruellest month, but April is the only month that I have lost a close family member. Every year, as the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, it feels like my Month of the Dead, not November, during which the Catholic Church commemorates the souls of the faithfully departed. There’s nobody I knew who died in November.