I sit bolt upright in bed. It’s 6.30am here in Montenegro, 5.30am in England. My phone is ringing and my sister’s name flashes up on the screen. For a split second I hesitate. I know that once I press answer there is no going back. There will be no way of unhearing what I’m sure she is about to say. My Mum is gone.
Moments later I sit hunched on the bed, silently screaming for all that is lost. My friend hovers beside me, desperate but unable to take any of the pain away.
Around an hour and a half before, at almost the exact same time as I got up to visit the toilet in my holiday apartment, my Mum did the same in a hospital ward in Nottingham. I went back to bed and sleep, the woman who raised me and loved me for 38 years collapsed and died.
The need to get home, to be back with my sister and Dad, is overwhelming. All my life we have been four. Now we are three.
The kindness of strangers, once again overwhelms me. My friend, Victoria, speaks to our Air B’n’B hosts as I throw items into a bag. There are no flights from the local airport but they will drive me across to Croatia and the bigger Dubrovnik airport. Three and a half hours, one border crossing and a ferry ride later, I dash to the Jet2 desk at Dubrovnik.
‘Please can you get me on your flight in one hour?’ I beg. They look unsure. ‘My Mum has just died, I need to get home.’ Their faces change. Yes, there are spaces and there is time. They will get me on the flight. For the next couple of hours quiet tears stream down my cheeks as I gaze at clouds. I am eternally grateful to Vic, Semra and Ernad and the staff at Jet2 for being so wonderfully human to me that day.
As I come through Arrivals at Stansted people all around me are smiling and greeting loved ones. My Dad, sister and I cling to each other and cry, holding tight to the unit we have become. United in that which we have lost and that which we once had.
You were loved
My gosh Mum, you were loved. Not just by Sian, Dad and I. Not just by your cat, Felix, who misses you terribly, nor Sprite the dog, who looks lost. By hundreds…hundreds of people.
I look out at the sea of faces at your funeral; those who have travelled from other countries, those you worked with, those you lived near at all stages of your life, ex-pupils, childhood friends…the list goes on. The church is full, even the extra seating. The choir stalls have to be used.
One neighbour and another of your dearest friends have gathered wild flowers and decorated the church. They match the ones woven into your wicker coffin. The coffin which your brothers and cousin so bravely bear into the church – you’d have been so proud.
We didn’t really have to ask people to speak at your funeral, they were already waiting. We tried to sum you up; your sister in law, Sian and I and your wonderful poet friend John. I think we did you proud.
You came into the church to a Runrig song; Every River. You left to the song which always reminds me of you; Annie’s Song by John Denver. You’ll be pleased to know that my best friend, Jo, was in charge of pressing ‘play’ and ‘stop’ and that I told her you would haunt her if she got it wrong!
My gosh Mum, you were loved.
How do you sum your Mum up in a few paragraphs? How do you write the words which you and your sister will stand up and say at her funeral? With difficulty is the answer. And with one almighty family row involved – it had to come, all dams have to burst. But the row was put aside because Mum, as always, brought us together. Here is the reading my sister and I read at the funeral – my sister’s words in bold.
It’s been a while since I’ve been stood up here. Some of you will remember that my mum ran Sunday School and would get us to give readings during church services. Being a small child with a pronounced lisp, standing in front of a whole church and reading verses which liberally contained the word Nazareth was somewhat challenging, but I now see that mum was just preparing me well for the future! If only she’d also prepared us for the impossible task of trying to encapsulate all she was in just a few short paragraphs.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks desperately searching my mind for the perfect anecdotes to sum Mum up. But, when I needed it the most, my mind seemed to fail me. How could I not remember anything now? But one night I realised…it was because she was always there – she was in everything I did and was. There is no way I could sum my Mum up in just a handful of memories.
In truth, we could tell you a thousand little stories but we don’t need to because you are all Mum’s story. Over the last few weeks so many of you have been in touch to share your own special memories of Mum. In sharing your love of her with us you have brought back to life the vivacious, sharp witted, loving woman she was.
Some may say my sister and I are headstrong, stubborn, fiery and passionate (I’m not sure why?) but that comes from Mum. Her strength, not only as the lioness of our family – protecting and watching over us all – but also of conviction, was formidable. At a time when our family was rocked by tragedy Mum held us together. She scooped us up and kept us all strong.
Mum loved to host and New Year’s Eve parties at Ivy House became the stuff of legend. Celebrating was in her heart…the house was decorated for Easter and Christmas and lavish meals prepared for Chinese New Year (I’m not sure where that one came from) and of course, latterly, Thanksgiving.
Her main desire was to make others happy; to ensure they were well fed and watered and most of all, that they felt at home. She took people in when times were tough and never expected a thing in return. She was consummately generous and gregarious. She made friends easily and was fiercely loyal to those who were close to her. A testament to that is how many of you have joined us today and how many more people have been in touch to say how sorry they are that they can’t be here.
There is a saying that no-one truly dies until the last person who remembers them leaves the earth. If that’s the case, choosing teaching as a profession is a canny move – you’ll be filling many young minds with indelible lifelong memories of yourself! But for mum teaching wasn’t just a profession – it was a calling or a way of being.
And we don’t just mean teaching in a school – mum’s teaching role extended far beyond the job she was paid to do. Part of the joy that others seemed to get from Mum’s pub quizzes was the fact they felt like naughty school children when her stern glare and ‘be quiet’ was aimed in their direction. As a teacher she was firm but fair and I got no leniency for being her daughter. She took such joy from seeing her pupils progress and bloom.
Mum never expected us to be like her. She delighted in watching us become ourselves and in sharing the new worlds we created.
Mum never held us back. Never judged our choices. Only occasionally reminded us when we got things wrong! And never put conditions on her love.
When I was agonising over how to come out, she took matters into her own hands. Being given a book of lesbian love letters for Christmas when I didn’t even know that my parents had figured out my not-so-secret secret was agonisingly embarrassing at the time but in retrospect it just seems overwhelmingly lovely and also pretty funny. Later she welcomed my wife Emily into our family with joy and pride.
She was ambitious for us and expected us to aim high, but the goals that we were shooting for were our own to set. We spoke most days, often multiple times and it is those simple, caring everyday calls I will miss the most.
Mum was a cherished teacher. A much-loved friend. A treasured neighbour. A wonderful wife, mother and sister.
She was all these things and hundreds more. But you know that. She leaves behind oceans of love which lives on in each of us.
And now? Back to normal?
We have thrown petals onto your coffin. The earth is laid. There can be no debate; you are gone. Yes, yes, others will say ‘she will always be with you’ and you will. But you will also never be with me. You will never call again. My last call with you, just hours before you died, will always be my last conversation. We ended with ‘I love you’. We always did. You taught me that.
My brain is in protect mode. Not truly allowing the enormity of you being gone to hit. At times, like feathered wings, grief brushes against me. As fast as I feel it, it is gone. Flitting out of reach.
Life goes back to normal. But it all seems to mean a little less. At work it’s hard not to find things trivial. My focus struggles.
I still enjoy life; I laugh (big belly laughs), go on adventures and appreciate every day how lucky I am. And I know how to deal with this. I know that to get through grief I must use the great resources in my life; my loved ones, the outdoors and exercise. I must keep moving, whilst also giving myself time to reflect on all that is lost.
I’ve written a post on my other blog, An Adventurous Girl, on using the outdoors to get through grief. It sits better there, with less raw emotion and hopefully more help for others. You can read that here.