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Reading to honour my mother

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Essay | 15 minute read
Lucy Popescu found she couldn't read her way out of grief for her mother. But she read, anyway...

I have often thought how sad it is that we never get to meet and know our parents when they are children. Although I was a difficult teenager and our relationship was sometimes fraught, my mother doubled up as a sister and a best friend. During her final days I was given glimpses of her childlike self; wilful, stubborn, wayward. Suddenly, the affection we had enjoyed before my adolescence returned. But I was the protector. The one who comforted her, fed her. She would comment: “Lucy is feeding her chick.” Her childlike ease with me was strangely restorative. I bathed her and washed her hair. She had never liked being naked in front of her children but now she had no choice. I remember her embarrassment when I discovered she had false teeth. Years later, I came across Simone de Beauvoir’s slim volume, A Very Easy Death, about the loss of her mother. She describes a similar experience, when her mother lay dying, of “renewing the dialogue that had been broken off during my adolescence… the early tenderness that I had thought dead for ever came to life again, since it had become possible for it to slip into simple words and actions.”

In hospital, Mother was eighty years old, going on ten. She could never get comfortable. We conducted a strange dance around her bed lasting for hours. She would sit up, lie down, get up, walk to the visitor’s chair, sit down, get up, move back to the bed, lie down, sit up, get up, move to the chair. And so it went on. An endless repetition of small, painful movements. Macabrely, I came to think of it as the dance of death. I could not imagine what she was thinking. Was she trying to come to terms with her illness, at the same time as dealing with her memory loss, confusion and lack of coordination? She repeated to me over and over again “I am no good, no good, no good!” Sometimes she changed her lament to “I am broken.” Occasionally she looked at me, unrecognising. “Heal me! I want to be cured,” she demanded. Another time, she sat up abruptly. “Right. I’ve had enough of this place, can we please pay up and go.” But then she collapsed back onto her pillow, perhaps realising that this strange request was futile. We were not in a hotel. She expressed the defiance of Dylan Thomas’s poem: she did not go gentle into that good night, she raged against the dying of the light.

She fought for life until the morphine took her away.

As I try to sleep in my childhood bed, twenty miles from the hospital, I imagine her restless, crying out for help in the night. This is what the nurses tell me happens when I am not there. I spend days with her, talking nonsense.

Simone de Beauvoir, whose mother died in 1963 (AFP/Getty Images)

De Beauvoir’s mother died of cancer in 1963 and she describes a similar battle with pain: “A race had begun between death and torture. I asked myself how one manages to go on living when someone you love has called out to you ‘Have pity on me’ in vain.” Decades later and nothing has changed regarding the management of the patient’s pain and the agony of the helpless relative. Decades apart, our mothers suffered equally. She writes, “I rang and rang, panic stricken: how the interminable seconds dragged out! I held Maman’s hand, I stroked her forehead, I talked. ‘They will give you an injection. It won’t hurt any more. Just one minute more. Only one minute.’ All tense, on the edge of shrieking, she moaned, ‘it burns, it’s awful; I can’t stand it, I can’t bear it any longer.’” My mother implored the same, I tried to give similar assurances.

My mother never came to terms with the fact that she had terminal cancer. Perhaps there was not enough time. After she was finally diagnosed, she had two visits from a Macmillan nurse. Did she give up the fight then? I don’t know what was said. The nurse found me sobbing in a hospital corridor. I told her that I didn’t think my mother had accepted the fact she was dying and that she didn’t know I was there half the time. She looked at me and her expression softened. “Oh she knows,” was all she said, “She understands more than you think.” The thought struck me then that our mother’s apparent lack of awareness was her way of sparing us pain, protecting her children. Then she had a stroke and left us. She hid from us all in the far recesses of her mind.

One night driving home from the hospital I’m on a short stretch of dual carriageway. Suddenly I can’t work out whether I am driving on the correct side of the road or not. Headlights appear to be shining straight into my eyes and I’m convinced that I am on the other side of the barrier and that any moment I’m going to cause a crash. I panic. My boyfriend reassures me that my driving, never good, is OK.

Before our mother entered the hospice, she still had some fight in her. But as the painkillers kicked in, she started sleeping for long periods. She stopped opening her eyes. She began to refuse food and water. Then she stopped waking up. I wasn’t with her when she died. My brother rang me at twenty past midnight. I put the phone down. I howled: “She’s dead.” I went blank. Had I just spoken to my brother? Was she really gone? I couldn’t quite believe the dreaded news, when it finally arrived. I didn’t trust myself. I asked my boyfriend to call him back and my poor brother had to repeat the time and manner of her death. Then I pulled myself together, picked up the phone and made the calls to the rest of the family.

When she was first diagnosed, through the agonising few weeks when I saw her collapse and weaken, until her death, I was desperate to read about mortality and bereavement to better understand what she was going through and to derive some comfort. Our mother, a writer herself, firmly believed that when one faces a difficult situation, one reads or writes about it.

During the day, everything feels hyper real. I want to sleep to numb the pain but oblivion does not come. I dream that her cancer is a misdiagnosis. I dream that she is cured. I dream that she is sitting at the end of my bed in her green mac. I dream that she is alive and well. I wake up.

Writers instinctively understand the need for words to help process grief. After he learned of her death, the Nigerian novelist and playwright, Biya Bandele, sent me the following:

In Yoruba we have a chant about bereavement which goes like this:

Slowly the muddy pool becomes a river,
Slowly my mother’s illness becomes her death.
When wood breaks, it can be mended
But ivory breaks for ever.
An egg falls to reveal a messy secret.
My mother went and carried her secret along.
She has gone far –
We look for her in vain.
But when you see the kob antelope on the way to the farm,
When you see the kob antelope on the way to the river –
Leave your arrows in the quiver,
And let the dead depart in peace.

Vansessa Redgrave, performs Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ in 2009 (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

At the time, I could find little about a daughter dealing with her mother’s death. I could not begin to process my mental anguish so grabbed at any straws that came my way.  I devoured Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her beloved husband and her wise words resonated with me: “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.” She wrote about how the bereaved are susceptible to ear infections because of unshed tears. Yes, I thought, I have been suffering a lot of ear ache recently. Yes, this must be the reason. What a relief to know it’s a natural part of the grieving process.

Nina Bawden’s Dear Austen, the ‘letter’ she wrote to her husband, Austen Kirk, who died in the Potter’s Bar train crash, also helped. I read Christopher Rush’s To Travel Hopefully: Journal of a Death not Foretold, as soon as it was published, exactly a month after my mother’s death. His despair over the death of his young wife of breast cancer, his courageous trip through the mountains of France accompanied by a donkey, his eventual healing, proved strangely uplifting. But these books were about the loss of partners. Surely, my heart injury was something different.

Grief comes in waves. Days pass and sometimes I feel almost normal again. And then the pain returns, crushing me. The horror is the hardest to dispel. The trauma of having watched my strong, brave mother shrivel and die in agonising circumstances.

For a while, I madly shopped. Every time I sat at my computer I had to buy something. Eventually someone pointed out that this was transference. Transferring the pain. Instead of sitting down and talking about my sorrow, I dodged it. Far easier to shop. I became fat. Comfort eating, I developed a passion for rhubarb crumble – one of Mother’s favourite puddings. I started to invite people around again. When I look back, I realise this was just an excuse to make her rhubarb crumble.

I needed to exercise. Yoga was suddenly hard. The breathing was therapeutic but, as inconsequential thoughts disappeared, memories of my mother surfaced. Memories of her last days. Then my eyes welled up. And it was embarrassing to have tears rolling down my cheeks in a class of fifteen strangers. Two months after she died, at the end of a session, I drew one knee up and… nothing! The knee was locked in that position. I sat there, feeling stupid, desperately massaging my leg. Everyone stood, rolled up their mats and left. I couldn’t move and started to cry silently. Finally, the yoga teacher noticed my distress and came over. An ambulance was called and I was carted off, with some difficulty, into a service lift and onto the street. Driving to A & E, I remembered the two previous times I had travelled by ambulance.

The first was when I was twelve. I had broken my leg in the middle of a field. Jumping off my pony during a gymkhana, the stirrup had cracked against my tibia and snapped it clean in two. My mother lay in the mud and the rain with me while we waited two hours for the ambulance. I was smothered in coats. Someone tried to make a splint by tying my legs together with a tail bandage. When the ambulance crew arrived, they had to unravel it slowly and carefully – each turn of the bandage excruciatingly painful. I remember Mother trying to make me feel better. How she kept saying that at last I was travelling in an ambulance. Reminding me that I had always wanted to ride in an ambulance. Hadn’t I? Had I?

The second memory was more recent. I remembered travelling with her to the hospice one week before she died. She was strapped into a chair. I was sitting behind her. It was cold inside the ambulance. Outside, it was snowing. We watched the snow bat against the window. I put my beret on her head to keep her warm. She hardly seemed to notice. Strange for someone who had always felt the cold. But she looked so sweet, almost girlish, as she turned to smile at me. It felt like a moment of recognition, but part of me realised that this was unlikely. That time had passed. She continued to gaze out of the window. I stroked my mother’s shoulders and her head, rearranged the beret. What was she thinking? Was there any part of her left? It was snowing. It kept snowing.

A few hours later, when we were settling into the hospice, they strapped our mother into a wheelchair. She kept tilting it alarmingly as she manoeuvred herself, her feet planted on the floor, her hands gripping the arms of the chair, poised for flight. I wanted to cut her loose, to let her fly, but I knew that she could no longer stand, she needed to be held. Finally the nurse secured a belt around her. A few minutes later she looked at the nurse and me, accusingly. She whispered “why have you tied me up?” Those were the last coherent words she spoke to me and probably the last sentence she managed to string together.

These were the thoughts I had in the ambulance after my yoga class. I arrived at the hospital confined to a stretcher, but my knee slowly released and I managed to walk out of A&E two hours later. I returned for tests and X-rays but they could find nothing wrong. Someone told me it was my state of mind manifesting itself in my body. My emotions had caused me to physically seize up.

Soon after our mother died I stopped smoking. Something that had given me so much pleasure now felt ridiculous. I decided, in earnest, to try for a baby. But the clock was ticking. Our mother had died just before my 40th birthday. In spring, Father announced that he was having a biopsy for prostate cancer. He would need looking after. I realised that I was not functioning correctly. I couldn’t sleep at night, I had constant stabbing pains in my lower abdomen. I was the heaviest I had ever been. And worst of all, for someone who wanted desperately to conceive, I had no sexual desire.

Sheila Heti’s narrator in ‘Motherhood’ is debating whether to get pregnant (Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In her latest novel Motherhood, Sheila Heti’s narrator is in her late thirties and debating whether or not to try and get pregnant. She recognises that this is her last chance. She is a successful writer and wonders whether her books are a substitute for giving birth. Then she observes: “Maybe motherhood means honoring one’s mother. Many people do that by becoming mothers. They do it by having children. They do it by imitating what their mother has done. By imitating and honouring what their mother has done this makes them a mother.” I’m the youngest of four. My mother gave birth to me when she was forty. She died three months before my fortieth birthday. I decided I wanted to have children after she had died. I was the same age as my mother when she had me. Was I trying to honour her?

I did not conceive. A decade of death followed and grief was a regular visitor. I remember reading Andres Neumann’s novel Talking to Ourselves in 2014. I could tell that this was an author who had experienced death at first hand. He brilliantly illustrates literature’s ability to help us confront and understand mortality.” Elena’s husband is dying and she remarks: “I wonder whether, perhaps without realising it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye.”

Do you have to experience death to write about it convincingly and does a reader’s appreciation of a book change with their own personal experience? My appreciation of John Banville’s The Sea changed dramatically after my mother’s death – suddenly, huge swathes resonated with me. Before, I’d found the book rather dull, slow-paced and Max’s behaviour incomprehensible. But now was the right time and the novel caught my eye. My second reading was deeply comforting and made me realise how much our understanding of a subject can change through personal experience. I now recognise the book for the masterpiece it is.

In ‘The Loss of Depth’, his conclusion to Levels of Life, Julian Barnes dissects the grief he felt after the death of his much-loved wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008, observing that the world “divides into those who have endured grief and those who haven’t.” It is true. Many friends found it hard to relate to me after the death of my mother, while I could bond with acquaintances in a matter of minutes once we discovered that we shared a similar sadness. Reading Barnes some years after the death of my mother, I am consoled by his observation: “Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be accumulation of love over the years, then why not of death?” He’s right. Grief never goes away but it can recede, over time, because we learn to deal with our heartache better.

As chair of the judging panel of the Authors Club Best First Novel Award it struck me that this year’s recurring theme was bereavement. S.V. Berlin’s The Favourite is about two siblings dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s abrupt and unexpected death. Rick Gekoski’s Darke is about a man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl explores a woman’s attempts to process the recent death of her  mother and find closure after the disappearance of her sister thirty years earlier. Tor Udall’s A Thousand Paper Birds poignantly describes a young man trying to rebuild his life after his wife’s unexpected death. They handle their subjects with sensitivity and flair and I admired their different takes on grief.

In her 1926 essay “On Being Ill” Virginia Woolf asked why “illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Illness and death are not yet popular subjects, but they have increasingly become the focus of fiction. It’s ironic that now I have a choice of books to read on illness, mortality and bereavement, I don’t need them anymore, not like a drowning woman at any rate. I have finally gained some distance. I no longer read from a burning desire to assuage my grief. I read because I love books.