My old mum died at three o’clock on Sunday morning.
I had dozed off. I heard the nurse come in to the room and turn on the light; it seemed she had sneaked off when I wasn’t looking.
She was 92, God bless her, so I’m not going to write about tragedy. I don’t even want to write about Death. I want to write about Life.
Life is a prankster and we are the butt of its every joke.
My old dad, for instance. A really good bloke. He had only two faults, by general consensus; one, he always deferred to my Mum, all his life, often to his own detriment.
The second thing; he never spoke up. He was always the quiet one in the corner, smiling and amiable but saying nothing.
No one ever got to know him.
So what did Life do right at the end? Following a small stroke he lost his ability to swallow. This meant a tracheostomy and for the last four months of his life he couldn’t talk at all when he needed to the most.
But Life also, mercifully, gave him two choices; to die – or to keep hanging on, for my mum’s sake, and spend the little time remaining in a wheelchair being fed through a tube. To our astonishment he chose at the last to look after his own wishes first and checked out.
Lesson learned? Or am I reading too much into it?
You decide: if you were to imagine the lessons that Life might perhaps have wanted my old Mum to learn, one was this – to let bygones be bygones. One of her favorite sayings: ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget.’ She had the habit, as some of us do, of holding grudges. But in the end she did forget – she had no choice. Alzheimer’s.
Another irony: for 55 years Mum and Dad kept themselves to themselves and rarely socialized with anyone outside the family. But after Dad died, Mum was forced to get out and meet new people. In the six years since he died she made more friends than in the previous 86. I lost count of the number of people who have come up to me in the last 24 hours and said: ‘I’ll so miss your dear Mum. What a character!’
And she was a character. Funny, lively, colorful – a strong personality. But it took my Dad’s death to bring that part of her out into the world.
If there was one last thing Life may have wanted to show her, it was this: that people are beautiful, no matter the color of their skin or their racial background. She struggled with this concept in her lifetime. That whole generation did.
But at the last, as she was dying, the beautiful nurses who took care of her, who stroked her face, who kissed her forehead, who washed her and turned her while she was in a coma – they were from all races and all continents. Yet they all treated her like she was their own mother. They didn’t care that she was … well, different to them.
At the end, it was as if Life was saying; look, you didn’t pass all your subjects, so I’ll give you a crash course now in the ones you missed so you can catch up.
My Mum and Dad were good people, no question. But they had lessons to learn from Life as we all do. As I consider those life lessons still in front of me, I do hope I can learn a few more before I finally come to meet the Joker and the Thief.
But Life is not just a prankster; he is also an artist of exquisite vision. It can be an ugly world, sure; but even in death, there is beauty. The nurses who cared for my mother in her final days reflected to me people’s endless capacity for selfless love.
It seems to me that it is in this, and only in this, that we at last find life’s true meaning and resonance.
RIP Doris Bowles. 2 May, 1920 – 12 August, 2012. With great love, and God speed.
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