Ripping the wings off a butterfly

Spent the day listening to old David Bowie and Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and the Smiths, the Models, the Divinyls, Tears for Fears and Bryan Ferry. It’s a lovely sunny, quiet afternoon otherwise, I’m squirreling away in the rooms of my mother’s house going about the now regular, not altogether happy task of sorting through her things: this thing we keep, this thing we give away, and that gets thrown out. It’s a ruthless business requiring a ruthless attitude. Still, I stop more than I should, hesitating over old photos, or finding my mind cast back years to memories long forgotten, insignificant moments that now, here, doing this business and with the shaky knowledge that I’ll never see mum again, now loom large.

I don’t know if I can say it enough: I find it hard to believe that mum is gone. I know it, consciously, but it seems too bizarre to accept without question. Perhaps that makes this job harder. It feels intrusive, invasive, to be tipping her home upside down, to dismantle all of the things she put together over a lifetime. And why it feels so shocking when people fight over what remains. I’ll never forget this. I don’t doubt that there is a part of me that will be forever changed now.

In your eye

I’m back in the house, much of the meat plucked from the bone by the vultures that came before me. It’s quite a bleak outlook. The place is, I guess, about half empty now – much, though not all, of the furniture remains, but little else. Most of the prints are gone from the walls, the multitude of knick-knacks and decorator items mum had have been removed, all the lamps are missing, a coffee table, even some towels, mugs, and so on. What remains paints a pretty sorry tale. It hits home to you again, mum’s gone, and this, her home, will soon be no more.

I fired in my protest this morning, complaining of the way things have been handled, how we, my sister and I, have been disadvantaged, if not downright discriminated against. It’s too little avail except to my spleen, but that’s reason enough. What’s gone now won’t be seen again, not the lamp that mum promised me, or the little $20 brass Buddha I might have added to my collection, nor the Chinese banner I bought in Hong Kong years ago and gave to her one mother’s day.

I’ve been going through what’s left, their seconds if you like. There are a bunch of photo’s I’m trying to separate into meaningful piles. And a million recipe books and magazines. These evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. Many have been in use for nearly 40 years. They are scuffed, stained by meals long ago consumed in happier times. To sort through them is a poignant exercise. Most will end up in the rubbish now, but some I will take with me, less for the recipes inside them than for the memories they glow with. I guess I am sentimental after all.

Of the rest of the stuff remaining I will take little, if any. A friend is visiting to take a keepsake or two, and my sister threatens to load up on the pots outside. We are supposed to seek ‘permission’ to take anything, her children, but bugger that, or, as mum would say, in your eye.

The eulogy

For the record, for posterity, here’s the text of what I said about mum on Wednesday:

About 6-7 weeks ago mum and I got together one Saturday afternoon to plan out this day. We sat at her dining table and discussed different readings and poems, sorted through menus, and picked through old photos. It might sound morbid, but it was nice. Mum always was very particular about these sorts of things – she liked her parties – and somewhere in the midst of it all we managed a few laughs over forgotten photos and the moments they depicted. I remember how we looked at the different catering menus without getting too excited until simultaneously we happened across the menu we both spontaneously thought, yep, that’s the one! Between us we had agreed on the most expensive and extravagant option, and hang the expense. The important thing was to do it right, it always was. She smiled ruefully, though not sadly, sounds great she said, pity I’ll miss it.

Somehow I doubt mum is missing out on much. For all I know she’s got a full dance card of things she must do up in heaven, and she’s probably got new drapes already on order, but I’m pretty sure before she gets into any of that she’ll be a keen observer of today. Mum loved an occasion; she loved an audience and the opportunity to entertain and share time with her friends and family. She’d be delighted with the turn-out today – though perhaps a bit fearful that we haven’t catered for enough. Though she isn’t amongst us, she remains the star of the show.

Everyone has different attributes: we remember people for different things. I think for most people mum is remembered as both the stylish life of the party, and for her kindness and warmth of heart. Mum had style and pizzazz. She was social and glamorous, which she delighted in: she liked nice things, and believed in living well. Along the way she had umpteen adventures around the world, in Africa and Europe and Alaska and so on, and a multitude of stories to tell which I think everyone here would have heard at least once, or possibly several times, and, for some of us, hundreds. Timeless tales though, and a part of who she was.

Of course the essence of story-telling is to share. Mum needed people around her, she was the very epitome of a people person, didn’t matter who you were. She lived for her family and friends, but was equally adept at striking up conversations with shop assistants and passing strangers, all with the same smile. My mother was a sensitive, engaging women who had a genuine interest in others. I know most of you will have your own memories of her like that. Of the countless memories I have what I remember now is the time she spent with her grandchildren to make them feel special.

Clearly mum was much loved by many, and more than most I think. She was blessed to have so many friends who cared for her, and so many great relationships to enrich her life. She left the world a better place by her presence, and the proof is in the room here today.

Sad as this last 18 months has been it gave me the chance to become closer to my mum. Besides the medical appointments and so on we attended together, there were also shared meals at nice restaurants or at home where we would speak freely of what was happening with the characteristic honesty mum showed in her last months. If there is some positive from impending death it is that it concentrates the mind: you remember what is important.

Naturally this is a melancholy occasion for a son to stand-up at, but I know mum would want this to be a celebration of all she was, and the occasion for everyone to remember her in their own way. For me amid all the mad rush of the last few days trying to get this organised I had long forgotten memories return to me as if randomly. I remembered growing up as a kid that most nights we would have an exotic, or at least an interesting meal in an era of meat and three veg, and had a dessert every night of the week – something I took for granted back then but which my friends would marvel at. I remember how mum would sing as she was cooking or attending to some other household chore. If I can hold a rough a tune in the shower these days, and recall the words it’s because of her.

I remembered how at Easter for years on end we would have an Easter egg hunt for both kids and adults. It was great for all of us, but none more so than mum who took delight in witnessing our pleasure. She was a whole-hearted woman who took an almost child-like pleasure in the simplest of things: she got the most out of stuff, and that was magnified when it came to us. Every triumph of my life was greeted with jubilation by her, and perhaps a bottle of bubbles; and every setback was felt more earnestly by her than I would ever admit to myself. She wrapped our life, our dreams and hopes and fears, in hers.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. A void has opened up. Gone is the one person I know who would always willingly listen to every bit of my life, from my grizzles about work or romance, to what I might be cooking for dinner that night. She was always there, at the end of a phone line if not in person, someone who loved me without qualification, she was like gravity. She’s gone, and I don’t know what will become of those words now that before I would share with her.

I know mum is listening, and drinking in every moment of the day, with Fred by her side and most likely with a glass of good champagne or a G&T. Well, this is to attest that we love you mum, we’ll miss you with all our hearts, for every day that remains to us without you.

The day done

It’s a little more than 24 hours since I last wrote. It’s a beautiful sunny morning. I’m sitting in mum’s garden,which is  really a small paved space surrounded by native plants and lush greenery. It is both pleasant and genteel. Sitting here I can hear the kids play in the kinder over the back fence. I can imagine spending many a happy day sitting here listening to those happy sounds.

It’s been a big 24 hours. This time yesterday I felt almost becalmed. In a few hours my mum’s funeral was set to begin, but there I was, alone, my preparations done, waiting. I realised that the toughest part in doing all this alone was not the sheer scale of stuff needing to be done, but the solitary nature of it. I needed no help with anything, but it would have been nice to have someone to rub up against in those hours.

I say that knowing that an essential aspect of my nature is independence. And though it was a big job I think I wanted to do as much as I could by myself. Part of that is the control freak in me – I’d rather do something right myself than trust to someone else. The bigger part of it though is that I wanted to shoulder this myself as a modest tribute to mum. It was always so important to her that we do things right. I wanted to make sure of that for her.

Soon enough it livened up. I ironed my shirt and was pulling on my trousers when Kylie and family arrived. Soon after came others. Though by now I was busy I had to join someone to pick up the booze for the reception, which is when the first mini-disaster occurred. Stepping up into the SUV I suddenly felt my trousers tear. “Fuck,” I thought, and said aloud. And this my good Versace suit!

While the booze was being loaded I ran up and down the street looking for a patch to tide me over. No luck. Back at the house one of the girls put a few makeshift stitches in my pants. Then I headed off to the church.

There were people everywhere. It was still half an hour to the service but many had come early. I did my thing, conferring with funeral directors and ministers and meeting people and receiving their condolences. Up to then I had been so focused and controlled: now I felt that control slide.

As I expected I had many people come to me with tears in their eyes, kind words in their mouth. As they cried I felt the tears come. I said what I could, agreeing what a marvellous person my mother had been, thanking them for all their support, and for their presence. I managed, but felt the words catch in me again and again. I wondered how I would be standing up to deliver my eulogy.

The church filled, the service began. In no time I was called to the pulpit. I felt in a focused daze, if that is not contradictory. I stood and looked about me at the crowd there watching me, and I began to speak.

Earlier in the day I had told myself to look upon this as a challenge to overcome. Often that works with me because it goes directly to my pride, even my competitive spirit. Win this moment, be strong.

As it happens it worked. It was not easy – at times the words felt very raw – but I didn’t falter, and what I said felt true and right. I was doing this for mum.

I remained standing while Blaine made a speech too about his Nonny, and sat when the the other speakers took their turn. They were all very good.

The service was just about right except for one thing. Mum had entrusted the officiating to her next door neighbour, a retired clergyman. He’s a lovely guy if a bit aof a duffer, and tends to waffle. Unfortunately he waffled at length yesterday, and, sad to say, waffled on about arcane religious trivia rather than the subject of the service. Very little of any real meaning was said about her, and this despite the great lengths mum had gone to to make sure that she had every relevant detail. I was as pissed off as I could be in the circumstances, and felt like giving him the wind-up.

Afterwards we returned here. I don’t know how many came back – perhaps 80? Besides family and friends and mum’s Probus friends I was lucky to have my dad fly down from Sydney for the day, and have friends of mine come to support me. You’re so busy, and I guess a tad stressed with everything happening, and so it’s hard to properly catch up with them. It means a lot. I guess that’s what I meant earlier – nice to know that there is someone in my corner.

Anyway, I’m a bit woolly now because I did my best to unwind. I did my social duties for a while mingling and so on. Then I just chilled as the crowd thinned to the hard-core support group, including Cheeseboy, who was great – he’s such a sensitive guy, and a great supporter. And of course Donna, who has been wonderful throughout looking after me. When I sent out the news Saturday that mum had passed I got a text message from her an hour or so later telling that she was “on the doorstep waiting to give you a hug.” She’s been great.

Overall the day was good, or as good as it could be. This morning I got slowly out of bed, then began the job of cleaning. I’ve put things away, thrown the empties in the bin, washed plates and glasses. I have a cleaner here right now doing the rest.

That’s it. It’s done. After all that normal life is somewhere near. Of course it’s a different normal life from before – a life without mum. Today is the first of many without her. I’m fine, better than I thought I would be, but perhaps a bit numbed. There will be moments I’m sure, but I know the only way is up.

Last suppers

I went to dinner with mum last night, just the two of us. We went to an Italian restaurant in Kew, Centenove, far better than the average suburban restaurant. It was a civilised and pleasant evening.

It was good to get away from things. I think we both felt that. It was good to meet up somewhere in the middle and enjoy some of the great pleasures a civilised society can provide. The food all night was excellent (the veal cotoletta was the best I’ve ever had), the wine excellent, the service efficient and friendly, and the general atmosphere convivial, lively and warm. Towards the end of the night, mum ordered a Dom Benedictine on impulse, and I joined her with a PX. It was that kind of night.

For all that, nothing was avoided. Mum has been a little down lately. Last week she attended two funerals on one day. One had died at the ripe old age of 95, but the other prematurely of cancer not 6 months after diagnosis. Then a few days later, a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer at the same time as mum reported how he was now in palliative care after doing so well. Not surprisingly, mum felt pretty depressed by all of this.

She admitted last night that she was scared of dying. That’s natural too, and yet I felt on hearing it a kind of chill. Why wouldn’t you be afraid of dying? Except I had never thought of that aspect. Maybe it was because mum seemed so philosophical about the whole thing. There was the impression that she had come to terms with it, and in some ways, was ready for what was to come. I suppose it doesn’t matter how ready you are, it must seem terribly daunting as it comes near. She told a story of the 95-year-old, a strong woman by all accounts, who was observed shaking in hospital. “What’s wrong with you,” they asked? “Are you sick? Cold?”

“No,” she said, “I’m afraid of dying.”

It still seems mightily unreal to me. How can I be sitting opposite my mother, sipping on a fine sherry, enjoying a lovely evening knowing that soon she will be gone forever? How does it change from this to that?

We talked of arrangements, amongst other things. We are writing her eulogy together. She spoke of who she wants to speak at her funeral. We discussed things that still need to be done, made suggestions for this and that in a tone totally foreign to the subject.

Inevitably the conversation turned to memories. She spoke of her mother and father, then her aunt, who she was particularly close to, and her uncle, a lovely man I remember as an old-style Australian – tall, lean, a laconic nature, a wry sense of humour, and a kind, warm heart. He used to call her Ooks, she said. As she relayed her memories, I played in my mind my own memories of them, all dead now, but once as large as life and fondly part of my life. Do you think you’ll see them…up there? I asked at one stage. Yes, she said – mum is the only one of us who believes in God.

We spoke of more recent memories, of people and times and moments we all shared, so fresh, so real and vibrant, so now – and no longer. Once more, as I have times before this, I felt crushed by the sheer mass of these memories passed on and aghast to think that when mum goes, so too does my link to those people and that time. How can this be? How can this be?

It was a nice night. We met well and enjoyed the occasion. I was glad to have these moments with mum. We parted, having shared a lovely meal. But with each moment, the time comes nearer when mum becomes a memory too, and I just can’t understand that.