It was March 25th when I heard my great aunty calling to me over the fence. I was playing with my neighbour. I was eleven, she was almost seventeen. Our game involved loads of giggling and bad makeup. The stuff an eleven year old dreams of. She was applying the final touches of blue mascara to my eyelashes when I heard my name. I’d been staying with my great aunt during my mother’s recent extended illness. My aunt called that my father had arrived – a surprise random visit I wasn’t expecting. He visited a couple of times a week, in between work and visiting my mother in hospital. I downed tools and ran through the yard and leapt over the fence, a small wriggle of fear lurching about in my stomach. My father detested make up on any woman, let alone his eleven year old daughter.
I ran up the front porch steps, to where my aunt was waiting for me, the screen door yawning open. My father was no where in sight. The house was chilly and my eyes took a while to adjust to the light as I stepped into the hallway and heard the screen door slam behind me. My aunt led me into the front room. The good room. The special room that was only ever used for important occasions. I remember her face as she looked down at me, her brow creased and her mouth pressed to a thin line. My worm of fear instinctively grew as she ushered me into the room and then closed the door behind me.
As the door clicked shut, I turned and saw my father sitting in a chair. He pushed a smile onto his face and silently waved me over to sit on his lap. He was wearing a pale green and white checked shirt. I can still see it clearly to this day. I have never forgotten that shirt. He slapped his knee and pulled me close, and so I wriggled onto his lap. This was a new thing. We didn’t normally do laps. Silence hung between us, crammed with the moment that would change the rest of my life, and would morph and warp the person I was. It took him several attempts to get going. A bit like a mower flooded from too much choke. I could see he was choking on something. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry.
I felt the warm rush of adrenaline as he opened his mouth and finally got the words to come out. The sensation began in my knees and crept upward to form great sloshing waves in the pit of my gut where fear and denial churned for many long months to come. A sense of something bad saw me wrap my arms tightly around his neck as he said the words. Through his sobs he said, “Mummy died today.”
He pulled me close and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t tell whether he held me too tight or whether I was too scared to take another breath. If I froze in the moment perhaps it might all go away. I remember grief and confusion balled tightly inside me, like it were jagged on an edge that it couldn’t get past. Eventually something shifted and I heard myself scream. Long and hideous screams of a frightened child. My mother was dead. I have never felt so terrified in all my life.
I folded in his arms, my tears falling freely and landing as blue black blobs on his shirt as the mascara washed from my eyes. He held me, and rocked me until my tears finally dried and my cries reduced to shuddery gasps. It’s a memory that still pains me after so many years. But that’s one bad memory amid a million that tilt the scales of happiness in my favour. And to preserve those memories, I will spend more time capturing them on paper – and may share some in here, as memory lingers and beckons to be set down in ink. It’s Mother’s day – a great day to start chasing memories in order to pin them to paper.
Somewhere, her spirit runs. I see her love of things just about everywhere; in gardens, in kitchens, in creatures great and small. And there is still sadness but no longer loss. I am coming to realise how badly our culture responds to death. How we spend so much time revering the dead that we forget to honour the living. And regardless of all our spent grief, the show must go on. And on it goes…
If you have a mother. Hug her. While you still can.