Last November I went to a memorial service for those whose relations or friends had died during the previous 12 months. It was organised by the funeral directors with whom my mother had arranged her prepaid funeral and who had efficiently, calmly and professionally helped us organise her obsequies in early December, 2018.
The invitation arrived a month before the event. I threw it in the recycling bin but later that day it nagged at me. I thought about how my mother’s funeral had passed in a blur of eulogy writing, hymn choices, catering options and coping with other mourners’ grief. I thought, perhaps this service will allow me to feel something other than a guilty sense of liberation. So I retrieved the invitation card and noted the date and time in my diary.
My mother was 89 when she died. Her lungs finally succumbed to the effects of two bouts of tuberculosis earlier in her life. As a teenager she spent the best part of three years in the Cashmere Sanatorium and the disease flared up again in her 30’s when she was a farmer’s wife and the mother of four energetic children.
By this time the miracle antibiotic Streptomycin was available and, after three months of isolation in Nelson Hospital, she came home “cured.” And apart from an impressively hacking cough and a tendency to suffer from chest infections she remained in good health for most of her life, producing our youngest brother, and fostering then adopting another child. But in her late 80’s the damage to her lungs resulted in problems with breathing, weight loss and general debility. She spent the last 9 months of her life in a rest home which proved to be a difficult adjustment for a woman whose mental faculties never failed.
It isn’t that I don’t miss my mother. In common with most bereaved children, I often catch myself thinking of things I must be sure to ask or tell her or how much she would enjoy a sunset, a great-grandchild’s cute sayings, the spring bulbs in Stoke’s Isel Park, an argument about racism or gender politics. Right up until the day she died, and despite a sometimes bitter and dispiriting struggle against her physical frailty, she continued to engage fully with life around her.
So I do miss her, but somehow I can’t grieve for her loss in the way I expected to. I have not shed any tears. I have no sentimental attachment to her possessions – I shocked myself at how readily I packed up bags of her treasured cotton shirts and bright merino jumpers for the Red Cross Op Shop. It seemed I could hardly wait to get her personal possessions off my hands. I have felt no urge to carry flowers to the plaque she shares with my father in the local RSA cemetery. And I am troubled by this. Is something missing in my emotional library? Am I really such a ‘hard’ and unfeeling person?
An assorted crowd gathered for the memorial service. There was a glossy service sheet and on the table near the entrance was a basket of cards cut in the shape of bells on which the bereaved were to write their loved one’s name and a message. These along with a sparkly Christmas bauble were hung on a tree at the start of the service.
A funeral home employee handed out small packets of tissues emblazoned with the legend, “Because we care”. There were carefully ecumenical, prayers, and a couple of ‘readings’ which were really homilies of sincerely delivered but essentially anodyne truisms about bereavement. And there were two hymns sung feelingly and powerfully by a male voice choir resplendent in bright blue blazers. The woman in front of me sniffled and leaned on her husband’s shoulder.
My mother’s last years, and especially the last months of institutional care, were tough. For many reasons, mainly to do with family dynamics, I took on the ‘bad cop’ role. I initiated my mother’s care arrangements and it was at me that she directed her frustration and grief at the loss of her independence. We had previously been close but I felt a distance growing between us. I found myself unwillingly and uncomfortably in the ‘parent’ role and I did not like it. Of course, I suppressed the resentment and anger I sometimes experienced, immersed in the ‘adulting’ required by my mother’s frailty, but deep down, I could not help feeling that, as a mother, she had abandoned me.
Sitting in the memorial service, I realised I was not going to experience the release of emotion I had hoped for. But what I did gain from my failure to feel the feelings I thought I should ‘feel’ was a deeper understanding that grief is complex and dynamic, something that I’d had only a theoretical grasp of beforehand.
“Everyone takes their own path through grief, and each of us walks it on our own,” one of the speakers at the service said. Several months later I am still walking that path and I cannot pretend, though it I wish it was otherwise, that it’s not a rocky one. Given the history of my relationship with my mother, the toppling piles of things unsaid and feelings unacknowledged, how could it be anything else?