goodbye: 3/3 (a mother and a son)
The past; the present; a sense of something in front of us. Days like this feel, or felt, like several time frames combined and a sense of being in each one at once. Remembering, feeling, anticipating: it all becomes – became – the same. It’s all part of travelling to and from a point, to record a few more moments: to splinter time and memory once more….
Mum dips her head and points a finger to somewhere over my left shoulder and tells me, ‘That’s where your dad’s mum and dad are buried.’ She sees my surprise and so adds, ‘Behind that hedge’, and her head dips again, and her arm lifts like the trunk of an elephant – a movement that travels from her shoulder, along that limb and to an index finger which extends like an optical instrument. I turn around and see the hedge. Behind it: several acres of burial ground, green grass and grey-green stones. I’m a little ashamed not to have known this. ‘What were their names?’ I ask. ‘Pardon, Matthew?’ she replies. ‘Dad’s mum and dad: what were their names?’ Her head jerks up only briefly; enough to engage eye contact for a second. ‘Reginald. He had the same name as your dad. And… Oh, what was it…?’
I see Dave, in the distance behind her, on the other side of the crematorium garden, his head bowed down, reading the cards on the floral tributes. ‘Florence. That was your dad’s mum’s name: Florence. Reginald and Florence Inwood.’ And then, ‘Your dad’s ashes are there, too.’ as she dabs a piece of balled-up tissue at the underside of her nose. ‘Dad’s… really? I had no idea.’ She lifts her head to address me more affirmatively. ‘Yes. Half of them were interred with the grave. The other half were scattered across the remembrance garden, over there.’ And this time her left arm extends, as though reaching for something above and behind, and, again, a finger stretches out to signpost, as three other fingers clasp the white tissue against her palm. I start to wander towards the hedge and read the names on a dozen or so grave stones. I turn back to see Mum searching inside her handbag, carrying out a check on the things within. I see a car come down the main avenue towards the front of the crematorium. Mum closes her handbag. ‘Do you know where, exactly?’ I ask. ‘Behind that hedge, Matthew,’ and this time she points towards a slightly different place, and her gaze follows, and mine follows hers, and I see the hedge again and also the hundreds and hundreds of stones and the trees behind and the endless sheet of grey sky above and I realise: I realise that there is no hope of finding my father’s name.
And time and memory splinter.
A woman approaches with her hands outstretched, ready to receive Mum’s. ‘I remember you, Diane.’ She is half-smiling and half-crying and Mum is doing the same. It is a moving manifestation of the fullness of life; of feeling and meaning overlapping; a collision of heart and head. For a moment, there is too much to take in, to feel – the hands requesting hands, the most compassionate of smiles, the watering eyes – and I have to suppress an overwhelming urge to cry. My body shudders as I deprive it of that release, refuse it the need to let something of such magnitude escape and I blow into my hands and rub them together to accept the readymade alibi that the chilly autumn air provides. Mum’s head is bowed, like a child – like my daughter might shyly receive an embrace from an aunt or uncle; but her eyes remain fixed on the eyes of this woman. I still don’t recognise her and I can’t hear enough of her conversation with Mum to gain any greater an insight. She turns to my brother and remarks that he was just a baby when she last saw him. Dave kisses her cheek and looks like he knows her. And then she turns to me. ‘Matthew,’ offers Mum, by way of an introduction, and I shake her hand and smile and say hello. I’m more grateful than she could possibly know for the kindness she has just shown my mother. She goes over to greet more people and I glide a soft hand over Mum’s back and she acknowledges the touch with another smile. Spots of sadness, confusion and happiness: like the gentle drops that rain down every time I see her.
And, again, time and memory splinter.
Inside, we find a pew. We lip-synch’ our way through three or four hymns, we whisper along to prayers. We sit and we stand and we sit and we stand, except Mum, who stays seated throughout. Dave is torn between standing or staying seated with her. Halfway through the service, Mum starts to empty loose change from her purse into her lap. Dave tries to discourage her, concerned that she might already have lost interest in the service, but Mum’s focus is far more concentrated than ours and on hearing the reverend’s appeal for charity, she had merely begun to ready a donation for the collection box. On the way out, Mum puts the coins into the box. She shakes the hand of the reverend and there’s a flicker of the mother I remember from when I was a child: the one who did mother; who was responsible; who was gregarious. She thanks him and then devotes herself once more to her walking frame, and gravity bonds her to her task as it does the coins hitting the inside of the box and people shuffle through the exit behind and around her.
We travel a mile or two across the city to the bar of a hotel. We are the last ones in. Dave helps Mum to a seat at a table close to the refreshments and brings her a coffee and a couple of sandwiches on a white plate. I talk to her older brother, now her only brother, and occasionally look across at her as I do. Their faces and their mannerisms are similar, the face and mannerisms that I still recall of their father. They are both smiling as they talk to and acknowledge the looks of those around them; they seem content. I wonder how focussed on thinking about others those other people here today are. Is the widow able to consider the hole left in the feelings of the woman who has lost her twin brother? Has the bond between the bereaved older brother and his one remaining sibling become more or less strong? Will the nephew and niece who have lost a father begin to drift even further from their aunt? And everything brings me back to Mum and her loss, which was not a greater loss, but was a loss which further depleted what little she had.
And time and memory become fragmented and displaced and confused. And time and memory and here and now and then and that tear at my heart. And the goodbye we’re here to administer feels like it has been hijacked by something else altogether. And it’s as though my eyes are tightly closed but have never been more wide open.
We are back home, in her maisonette, in the room where she sits and she eats and she sometimes sleeps: back to the place which is her everyday and her every day. She sits in the chair, in the centre of the room, with the gas fire to her right, the telephone to her left, the television in front of her and her walking frame just behind her: defined by the parameters of her daily life. The remote control sits on her lap and the TV blares loudly, but she has no interest in watching it. I’m sitting almost opposite her, along from the TV and I watch her reach down and around the side of the chair and lift a carrier bag onto her lap and begin to rummage through it. She pulls out a magazine and flips through the pages restlessly. She sets it underneath the bag and sinks a full arm inside once again, like a child with a Christmas stocking. The day catches up on me; my eyes are heavy. It’s now almost twelve hours since I woke to an orange sky. I want only to fall asleep and I remember how we would sometimes do that together all those years ago: she in her chair in front of the TV and me in mine; often Pete in his, too. And she is there, again, simultaneously locked in the moment and memory; an impression from one time printed over the living of another. I give in and I sleep.
The day is nearly over. I walk towards the station, with a light rain rousing me more and more from the tiredness I felt earlier. The street lighting makes the droplets start to shimmer on my jacket. A light flashes amber on the crossing ahead of me, and I accelerate to get across the road, but then check my run almost immediately, realising I won’t make it. I come to a stop at the kerb and kick the toe-end of my shoe at the post next to me – a grammatical full stop, something to signal and cauterise just one of the day’s small failures. The hem at the bottom of my right trouser leg has come undone once more. An inch or so of fabric spreads across the front of my shoe. I cross the road, the fabric flaps and the rain falls. I take out my phone and send a message to my brother to let him know that I’ll be with him shortly. I send one to my wife and want to let her know how much I love her, but I simply tell her I’m on my way to meet my brother once again and that I hope all is OK at home. My wife will be alongside one of my daughters, in bed, reading to them; next to them; holding them. My brother will be in his home, busy, or perhaps done with being busy for the day. My mother will be in her chair; the remembrance card on her lap or within reach; her brother in her thoughts, and maybe her son too. In her thoughts, but no longer in her company. And I am in none of those places, yet live in them all. There with each of them, but not with any of them, splintered into so many things and scattered across the lives of so few, their thoughts and their memories – a thousand fragments and never ever quite feeling it’s enough.