Is to was: the tiniest change of tense that is the difference between my having a mother and then not.
Dead. Passed. Gone. Reduced to single words that remind me the world yesterday is not as it is today.
Mum died late at night on April 17th, on the eve of what would have been her 66th wedding anniversary. Dad, who became a past tense on January 23rd 1990, was the love of her life, and although I have no religious beliefs, there is still something poignant in the fairytale belief that she got to him in time to share the day.
Dad’s last words to me, when I last saw him at the hospital, were: “I love you.” Mum’s were: “I am compos mentis.”
Who would have thought her last words to me would be in Latin, a language she had never learned but, as with her limited French, one she resorted to when English was inadequate. Her greatest fear was losing her mind, which she never did. Being in control of her faculties was a blessing to her, but a frustration to others, not least the medical staff and carers who were powerless to make her eat, sleep, or do her physiotherapy if her favourite shows were on the TV.
Three days before she died, the river of morphine losing its fight against the circus of cancer entertaining her every organ, I sat at her hospital bedside and she looked at me with terror.
“I don’t know you! Who are you?” she cried, her tongue and eyes bloody with fear.
“It’s Jacqueline. JACQUELINE,” I managed through tears. “Your daughter.”
Calm subsided with sudden recognition. Reaching out to touch my face and then clutch my hand, she said: “Daughter.”
“You see, I am compos mentis.” They were the last words I would ever hear her say before she embarked on the big sleep.
Suddenly, everything seems to conspire to remind me of my ex-mum. Mother’s Day (in the USA) on May 12th, and the dozens of ads appearing on my social media pages, recommending what to buy Mom on her special day; security checks on my credit cards, asking to confirm what my mother’s maiden name is; a packet of smoked salmon in a supermarket refrigerator, and the memory of her shaking hand trying to deliver her favourite feast from plate to mouth; packets of humbugs on the shelves remind me of the opened packet in her returned effects from the hospital; a half-read book in her office, the ending of which she will never know.
Death magnifies the remains.
I am spending the time before the funeral trying to change tense: bringing my past back to life with memories that will remain forever present. My younger brother Nigel and I were blessed to have enjoyed a childhood filled with love and support that has seen us both grow into fairly responsible, caring adults, and, as always, we share a close relationship that has deepened still further during the past difficult days.
I remember the rare times when my parents sent out for a Chinese takeaway. Hating to exclude us from anything, they shared the chicken and pineapple and boiled rice between their plates and two saucers (fleur-de-lis – I can see the pattern to this day) and brought them to us in bed. Nothing ever tasted so good as that illicit feast.
We had many trips to the beach, for which Mum packed for hours before we set off. We could have gone on safari for six months and not wanted for anything. Lilo, lounger, dining table and chairs, deck chairs, Flotina, Tupperware containers full of squash and sandwiches; by the time we arrived at the shore, there was no problem finding a parking space because everyone and everything else had left – including the tide. We would have had to go to another continent if we wanted a swim.
Yes, I remember the Tupperware. Mum had Tupperware parties and became the most successful seller of plastic in the neighbourhood. Then she went on to wig parties. Being a hairdresser, she was a veritable topiarist constructing the pieces on her friends, who had no hesitation in buying there and then – only to discover, 24 hours later, that when they tried to manufacture the hairy beast into a semblance of normality without her assistance, they were faced with something more akin to a dead stoat.
Mum gave up hairdressing and went to college at the age of 50, where she obtained a degree and then a Master’s. She specialised in young people, in particular abused children, and it has been heart-warming, during the past days, to hear from many of them who credit her with having changed the paths of their lives, and, in some cases, having saved them.
She had her faults (as we all do); she could be difficult (can’t we all); but at 87, she knew, and repeatedly told me, that she had had a good life. She adored my dad, and her greatest fear was something happening to her children.
My greatest fear was something happening to my mum.
Every day will always be Mother’s Day.
Is. Not was.