A British Council survey of 40,000 people in 2004 found ‘Mother’ to be the most beautiful word in the English language. Often the first and last word most of us utter in our lives, it denoted the only human relationship recognised in the survey.
These are the things I noted recently as I sat by the bedside of my dying mother:
That she had the softest, most beautiful skin, still unlined despite her decades on this polluted, stressful earth. No creme de la mer was responsible. A dab of oil of Olay and my mother was good to go. No, it was good genes courtesy of her own mother who has outlived her.
That in repose, at a certain angle, with her hair swept back she resembled Eva Peron.
That, even as her eyes sank sadly with the knowledge this was the end, her cheekbones remained as high and elegant as those of Audrey Hepburn at her best.
That I chew my food just like her.
That I will never be loved so selflessly, so unconditionally and so completely by anyone ever again.
That I was blessed to have been born to this woman.
As I sat beside her I tried to etch her features into my mind so that I would never forget them. I didn’t want to remember just from photographs. I wanted that face indelibly marked in my mind’s eye.
Instead, In the days that followed her passing I was seized by a strange terror. I could not recall her face at all. When I looked at photographs of her it was like seeing someone I had once known in passing.
Grief and loss play havoc with your mind.
I looked at life through hazy eyes. Nothing made sense. How could everything be the same when I had changed so much?
How could people laugh? Didn’t they know?
I envied those who still had their mothers in a way I have never envied anyone their material possessions or career accomplishments.
After I returned to work concerned colleagues who indeed didn’t know looked at my face and asked if I was ok. For once I refused to answer with that universal lie, ‘I’m fine’. No, I’m not ok, I said. It’s a profound thing to watch someone take their last breath, the usual twee niceties seemed pointless now.
Most of all, in those early days of trying to get back to normality I realised that in a huge city there is nowhere big enough to contain raw grief. Nowhere where you can wail. Like a child. For your mum.
I was told my mother only had a week to live the day I started a week long case. Instinct told me I would not get to finish the case yet I did not give it up. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a barrister who chases every case. In addition, I have understanding clerks who would have switched the matter last minute to an equally understanding colleague. But I didn’t ask them to.
I went to court because the mind plays tricks on you when you are bereft. I got it into my head that my mother could not die if I was at work. She wouldn’t want to. There is something so solid, so soul sapping about the commute across London that surely, even death would not chase it?
So, I boarded the train each morning, took the least enticing seat, turned my face to the window and sobbed silently as I watched the summer fly past. On reaching my destination, I wiped my eyes, walked into court and cross examined the witness of the day. It seemed almost normal.
My mother would have thought it bizarre.
She always had a love/hate relationship with my career. Well, lukewarm acceptance/ hate anyway.
Despite her intelligence and education she had never worked outside the home. She never fully understood the concept of a job. She couldn’t understand why I had to go to court when the weather was really bad. Or really good. Or when there were better things to do.
My mother and I came to England as immigrants when I was 4. We came to join my father who was already working here.
We had all travelled far. From a hot land to a cold one. From a vast new country to a small, old island. From wide open green spaces to grey enclosed ones. From East to West. From a community where everyone knew your business to a town where the newspaper said a pensioner had lain dead in her home for 3 days before anyone noticed.
Shortly after we arrived, we heard that a young woman who lived opposite had died. On the day of her funeral, like good suburban snoopers, my mother and I positioned ourselves behind lace curtains and watched. We waited patiently for the hundreds of mourners who would surely pour out of the houses around us and weep for the woman gone too soon.
But the doors of our neighbours’ homes remained resolutely shut. When the woman’s husband finally emerged, fewer than a dozen people accompanied him, none of them locals.
My mother turned away, saddened. This was a strange, cold place indeed.
It was years before she saw an English death ‘properly mourned’. She watched the funeral of Diana, princess of Wales on television, saw the millions who buried her under a sea of roses and she approved.
I like to think that she looked down on her own funeral too and smiled. Never have I seen someone’s passing mourned with such genuine love, warmth and grief. Ironically or perhaps fittingly, the legal profession too paid its respects through me. Solicitors, barristers, children’s guardians, clerks, even a judge sent flowers and messages. And yes, the neighbours not only knew, they came round.
And because in life it sometimes doesn’t just rain but it pours, I am writing this whilst sitting at the bedside of my dying father. Just weeks after my mother’s passing, we have to prepare for that of the quiet, humble man whose role as ‘father’ was not recognised on the list of most beautiful words.
Philip Roth starts one of his novels with the line; Every man when he is sick wants his mother.
My father is sick and uncomplaining as he usually is, when the pain becomes unbearable I note that he calls out for his mother
This time I have decided to forego the cases I was booked for during this period. I now know that you can’t hide from death in court. So I sit and wait. I talk, reminisce but mostly I listen to a man who was part of the generation of immigrants that helped build the backbone of post war Britain in the 1960s. His title may not have featured in the survey but he is not just a footnote to this short memory of my mother. His story deserves its own piece and I will write it when the time comes.
For now, I want to remember my mother.
Everyone thinks their mother is the best in the world. I’m no exception. I know I won the maternal lottery in life and for that I will always be grateful.
So, ultimately, why have I written this piece? Personal catharsis? Undoubtedly. But also because there are more articles about the death of a pet than a mother on the Internet. Yet the loss of your mother is widely recognised as probably the most profound of our lives. It’s taken me a lifetime to acknowledge that it is a strength, not a weakness to be able to share what is most important rather than hiding behind the superficial. If just one reader gets something out of this article it will not have been written in vain.
See also: https://www.itsalawyerslife.com/grief-bereavement-and-the-bar-part-2/