“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Autum-Winter solstice 2016/2017
It was shortly after 2.30 am on Saturday February 17th 2017 when I returned to my parents’ home in Parkstone, Dorset. Mum had passed away at 12.45 in Poole Hospital, I remember the time exactly as I had heard the soft sound of Radio 4’s closing music ‘Sail Away’ wafting in from the ward next to hers. Poetic and prophetic on so many levels. I was with her when she had taken her last breath, as she had been for my first.
Numbness, exhaustion and an all-enveloping chill kicked in – and not only in a metaphoric sense – as if in defiance the boiler had given up and the house was very cold and suddenly stark: an empty shell. From that moment onward it wasn’t a home anymore. I can remember half-laughing, half-sighing a muttered, broken silence, the words of disbelief – ‘not now please….’
I sat in the dining room. Mum’s cardigan was still draped over the chair, her crosswords, a notepad, a recipe for a variation on marinated chicken torn out of the Sunday supplement. An offer for a new hybrid fuchsia she had earmarked in the paper and a treasured parker pen stacked neatly alongside. ‘Don’t disturb my office’ she would frequently chastise when we tried to move her paperwork.
Nothing ever prepares you for that solitary moment of emptiness, when a parent is gone forever. There were not the cheerful and familiar words: ‘I’ll get the kettle on. Call your Dad, ask if he wants a cup of tea and a biscuit. Oooh and I managed to get fruit shortcakes! Can you tell him….’ (always Dad’s favourites)
Only an eerie silence. Mum had not come home with me this time.
I’m not a naturally lonely person but I have never felt so alone in that room, at that moment. Just a few days previously I had sat at the same table with Mum. She had always been formidable. Indefatigable even. Small in stature but immense in every other sense: strong of will, unwavering, steadfast and so self- assured in every situation: but in the space of a few months she had become suddenly small, a lost and forlorn soul.
Just 11 weeks previously she had said her final goodbye to David, her husband of 57 years. My Dad. I truly believe that Mum never regained her sense of purpose after his death; her life’s raison d’etre. The years of ill health had now become all-consuming and she simply allowed all the ailments she had fought ferociously for years to mercilessly take hold of her fading spirit.
The adage: ‘losing the will to live’ was so very apparent in those elapsing 11 weeks following Dad’s passing….
British summer time ended on the day Dad died – October 29th 2016. Mum’s flickering light did not survive long enough to see out that dark and gloomy solstice. The following February she had followed him onto their next journey – wherever that might’ve taken them. He had promised her he would find their next house, a barely audible whisper before he left for the hospice the day before he died.
‘I miss your Dad’. He was a force of nature’ was the first time Mum ever admitted in those intervening weeks, the friend and soulmate she had often denied, in an unfathomable stubborn resistance for the majority of their married life became a rather wearisome ‘I can survive on my own’ mantra, yet all of us around them forever aware that this was patently not the case. Both tigers in the Chinese astrological year, and as if to emulate those majestic beasts, Mum and Dad fought their very own turf war. Mum’s ferocious individual spirit was both admirable and frustrating in equal measure, but there was never any doubt to all who knew them best that she was most certainly Cinderella to his Rockefella.
Mum’s apparent indifference mellowed when their lifelong friendship spilled into shared musical memories. An eclectic playlist marks a celebration of so many special moments: it is hard to listen to Neil Sedaka’s The Hungry Years. It somehow became the story of their lives, as if it were written just for them. They would drift into a nostalgic haze whenever they heard this song. Sedaka is a prolific writer of simple melodies and especially poignant lyrics.
Girl we made it to the top, we went so high we couldn’t stop, we climbed the ladder leading us nowhere, two of us together building castles in the air..
I miss the hungry years, the once upon a time, the lovely long ago, we didn’t have a dime. Those days of me and you we lost along the way….
On the Thursday of that week, two days before she slipped away, Mum spoke to the hospital radio presenter at her bedside and requested ‘Passing Strangers’ by Billy Eckstine & Sarah Vaughan to be played on his evening show. Her memory was still as acute and keen even if her voice was thin and her ability to hear almost non-existent. That song, as you can imagine, evokes bittersweet memories, she was keen to remind me of days in the past when ‘Dave Palmer at the Golden Cross always put that song on the jukebox as soon as we arrived, don’t you remember?’
As if to cling on for those final few hours, cherished family memories she was so earnestly re-playing in her mind. Dad had been the same: a lifetime of quirky, interesting and funny stories were flooding to the forefront as if to demonstrate how mentally adept they were and had always been.
I can smile now as I recall her telling me off for asking if she needed to rest – after a particularly hectic visiting hour at the hospital. It was the moment of realisation. Why on earth would she want to rest now, knowing her fate? She was constantly awake and alert. Her final mission was to take it all in, to talk to all of us. She smiled and joked with the nurses, the doctors, the cleaners. The dark humour that pervades our family memories were front of house even at this moment. It was a One Foot in the Grave line, straight from the David Renwick scriptwriting manual: ‘they came around to give me a transfusion. Can you believe it? Whatever for? I told them not to waste their blood!! And then ‘these people are absolutely marvellous, wonderful’. She was always gracious, grateful and humble. Mum never demanded anything of anyone.
She took off her wedding ring and gave it to me. I put it on the third finger of my right hand and it has never been removed since that very moment. Almost two years to the day.
‘I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter’ she said and then told me off again as she could see the tears brimming in my eyes… she didn’t want to cry so her default position – as ever – had been to distract herself by pretending to be irritated by any obvious sign of emotion. She told me what music she wanted at her funeral, Cavalleria Rusticana and Tara’s theme (from Gone with the Wind). We later added Doris Day’s It’s Magic. Our own memory of Mum trilling tunefully in the kitchen – she could hold a note could Leona Lanning. This was her favourite record and she adored Doris Day.
And then a final instruction: ‘Absolutely nothing religious at all’ she stated emphatically.
‘I’m sorry you’ve got to go through all this again Alyson’. An acknowledgement, a genuine and heartfelt pang she felt for me aware of all we had faced in the painful days and weeks following Dad leaving us.
I resisted the temptation to plead with her to hang on, to fight again, knowing that this was unfair and would’ve only served to make me feel better, that urge to cling, the small child grasping out for her hand:
‘please don’t let go Mummy’.
I listen to the lyrics of The Seekers The Carnival is Over. It is a beautiful, haunting track and I relate to the love story of Pierrot and Columbine.
But the joys of love are fleeting
For Pierrot and Columbine
Now the harbor light is calling
This will be our last goodbye
Though the carnival is over
I will love you till I die
Mum and Dad were our carnival. They were in every sense a festival, a fiesta, a jamboree. Glittering, vivacious and very much alive right up to the end of their 78 years.
Witnessing their fading star was harrowing, that pit-sinking feeling of inevitability when death is upon us. We can only hope that in coping with the loss of our parents we are able to bring another dimension to our own self – that of empathy, of understanding and accepting that one day we will have to let them go. The heart-shredding last goodbye.
We cling to their memory and the legacy they passed onto those they loved. The unflinching sense of belonging, their unswerving loyalty for their family; for their friends. If there is one lesson I have learned in life is that our sense of identity, the security of family and of those who ensure we belong – to someone, somewhere is the critical backstop in the development of the human soul. This becomes the super deluxe catalogue to which we unconsciously refer when we need to equip ourselves for the future certainty of death. Sometime. To overcome that feeling of helplessness as we watch on as their once vibrant selves diminish.
It is only small comfort to reflect upon the shadows they continue to cast over our lives – and even today they remain undimmed.
And after all flickering lights are often surprising – they can flicker on for a very, very long time….
How it breaks my heart to leave you
Now the carnival is gone
High above the dawn is waiting
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again