On Saturday I caught up with mum for a few hours to go through all her funeral stuff. I checked through the documentation she had been given by the funeral parlour. We discussed the catering for the post-funeral wake and agreed the most expensive option sounded the best. We reviewed poems and readings for the ceremony, and wondered who should read what. Finally we went through a box of photos to select 50 for the funeral slideshow, the story of her life.
Most of this is very pragmatic. So accustomed are we now that it is second nature to detach ourselves from the personal realities of the situation. At one point we were talking about the coffin and about arrangements afterwards and the language we were using was insufficient to the task given the variance between present and future tenses. To resolve it mum started referring to ‘the body’ in the future tense – her body as it turns out, but in our language now an object stripped of meaning. It probably seems surreal to anyone reading it now, perhaps even cold. For a moment then I reflected on the strangeness myself before ploughing on: this is the way it is, and has to be.
There was one moment when I found a tear in my eye. I was going through some of the possible poems to read and came across the famous Auden poem, Funeral Blues, as used in Four Weddings and a Funeral:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
It’s a beautiful, highly emotional poem. As I did with each of the options I read it aloud to mum, feeling the words on my tongue and the weight of them somewhere inside me. The tears came, enough to moisten my eyes and no more, in appreciation at the perfect expression of absolute grief. How true it seemed. How deep and sorrowful. A place where nothing can grow, no light can shine, where no life as we know it can go on. Both beautiful art and sympathetic to our souls.
We went through the photos then, which took more than an hour. In ways it was fun. There were many memories there, and much recalled that was forgotten. Sometimes I would stop to recall an occasion a picture depicted: someone’s birthday, one Christmas, a party somewhere. I was surprised to see myself and to realise how much I’ve changed. How everything has changed really. That’s the point of the slideshow really, to highlight the journey from where it started, to the great times and places along the way to here, where it ends. It’s meant as a celebration, but the sheer inevitably of it – portrayed in 50 slides – makes it melancholy I think.
I was telling someone of my day with mum and tears came to her eyes as she listened. I understand, but it’s important to know that outside of those moments there is little sadness. It’s sometimes hard to consider what has happened, and what will happen; but it’s true also that those gears have been engaged for so long that the novelty, the surprise and shock, has passed. Not just for me, or us, but for mum also. What’s hardest now is not the fact that she will die – that will happen – but that she may suffer. She is ready to go, which in ways makes it easier, that more immediate also.
There is more to do, and no knowing how long we have – more than what mum believes I think. We see the doctor on Wednesday, visit with the minister a couple of days after, and we do what must be done otherwise.