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.

It seems to me that Life is not always kind; but in a dispassionate way it is fair, if you believe, as I do, that we’re not put on this earth to be happy or unhappy – just learn lessons.

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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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Colin,

    Deepest condolences from our family to yours. Your mum seems like she was a treasure 🙂

  2. I’m so sorry, Colin. Your mom sounds like quite a woman. And whether she learned all of her lessons or not, I expect she learned enough.. What she needed to anyway.

    It’s funny, isn’t it? How the people we love wait until we’re sleeping, or out of the room for a minute. I know too many people who have done that same thing and, from what I understand, it’s pretty normal. Like something in their brains, even when they’re in a coma…and even when they might not remember who we are…doesn’t want the people who love them to have to be there for that final moment.

    I’ll be keeping you in my thoughts. Even though you seem to be mostly at peace with it, it still hurts. I’m glad I checked my email tonight. Usually I spend August keeping my mind so busy I can’t think, and I’ve been avoiding most social network stuff for the past week or two. It will be 9 years since I lost my dad on the 30th, and I’ve never really been at peace with it. Sixty-two was just way too young.

    Hugs to you.

    • I agree, Kristy – she learned enough for this go round. I’m sorry you lost your dad so young – as you say, 62 is just way to early to check out. You must miss him.

      • Oh I do. Every day since he died. But I think missing your loved ones is a tribute to them, in a way. It says they were here, they were loved, and they gave us so many good memories that we’ll always wish there had been time for more. It took me about two years before I could get to the place where life felt normal again, and where I could look back on those memories and smile. I’m glad that you have so many wonderful memories to look back at…for both of your parents. All any of us can hope for it to be remembered like that. 🙂

  3. Marion says:

    You hit the nail on the head when you speak of that selfless love that we are here to learn and to give. it is that lovely Greek word ‘agape’ which I share so often with people at weddings. it is the only love that matters in this world – lovely though all the others are, and you could well be right that we are here to learn and to share. But for me (as I mentioned elsewhere to you Colin) the most difficult part of losing my second parent was the realisation that I was an ‘oprhan’ and an ‘adult’ and that is a real moment of growing up. does anyone else feel the same, I wonder?

  4. Colin, Your Mum is on her way to better things, but hugs to you as you deal with her passing. For it’s own reasons, 12th August is a pivotal day in my yearly calendar too. It’s hard to know the perfect way to live life, but parents often show us that you just have to choose one and hope for the best. At least ones children have something to observe and learn from. It’s what the circle of life is all about.

    Blessings to your family.

  5. I am so sorry for your loss, Colin. That picture of your Mum smiling speaks of a gentle loving soul.

    • She was gentle and loving some of the time Prudence – but she was also feisty as all get out. She had three bouts of cancer and survived them all and got through the Blitz without a scrape – really Hitler never stood a chance with Londoners like that!

  6. susielindau says:

    What a beautiful tribute Colin! Your parents would be proud. I love the reference to the Joker and the Thief. Sounds like a great title for a memoir…..

  7. Elise Andrews says:

    Thank you so much

  8. Very touching tribute to your mother! Condolences on her death.

  9. This is a very touching post, Colin. And such a wonderful tribute. My condolences on your loss and my thoughts are with you and your family.

    • Thanks Jennifer. I just wanted to pay tribute, as you said. She only retired from table tennis eighteen months ago – age 91 – when she broke her wrist going for a wide shot – an amazing woman.

  10. Fabio Bueno says:

    I’m very sorry for your loss, Colin. And I’m very grateful that you chose to write this touching, memorable post. May we all keep learning lessons. Thanks for writing this.

  11. Gorgeous and poignant. Lovely tribute to your momma; lovely tribute to life.

    No matter how many years we tuck under our belts with the people we love, it’s still hard to say it was enough, that we had enough. Keeping you close in my thoughts and prayers. Big hugs, Myn

  12. So sorry for your loss, Colin. It is harder on those left behind, but it seems that you’re finding the beauty and meaning in her life…and life in general…and I commend you for that. That’s a good philosophy, I think, that we are hear to learn lessons. Never stop learning. I like that. Peace.

    • Thanks Shannon – yes I think there was a pattern to her life. But she’ll be happy now in Fiddler’s Green. (She reckoned she wasn’t good enough to go to heaven but Fiddler’s Green was halfway, and she would know more people there.)

  13. Debra Kristi says:

    Deeply touching. I don’t believe anyone could have said it better. Your words, plucked straight from the heart. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. It sounds like she had a rich and fulfilling life. She’s in good hands now.

  14. Karen McFarland says:

    It seems like it was only just a few weeks ago that you wrote that beautiful post about your mum Colin and it’s been three months. Where does the time go? Please accept my sincere sorrow for your loss. Mums have a special place in our hearts, especially with their boys. I’m sure she’ll be missed something awful. She sounded like a wonderful person. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for touching tribute. You’ll be in our thoughts. 🙂

    • Thanks Karen. Though we’ll miss her, I’m glad she has moved on, no fun not being able to remember anything or play table tennis. But thanks – I wanted to pay her a decent tribute and I hope it came out all right.

  15. lynettemburrows says:

    Colin, what a beautiful tribute to your mum and dad. Your words, your love came pouring out. Even when loss is a blessing, it is still loss. Hugs and warmest thoughts and prayers for you and your family.

  16. My condolences on your loss Colin. I totally agree with the idea that we’re here to learn. Your understanding of your parents is wonderful.

  17. I’m so sorry for your loss, Colin. No matter their age or condition when they leave us, we miss them because they were such a huge part of our life. Your words are beautiful as are the photos of your mom. These photos and our memories are a great treasure. Take care of yourself.

    • I love that one in the hat – it’s Melbourne Cup Day last year (November 2). She did so love dressing up. Going through her stuff yesterday my brother and I found one of her about 20yo posing in a bathing costume. Oh my.

  18. Colin, Your tribute to your parents is simply lovely. Thank you for sharing this with us today. Surely, they’d be very pleased. My prayers and best wishes are with you.

  19. I’m sorry for your loss, my friend. Earlier this year we lost my wife’s mother to Alzheimer’s after many years of battle. I wish you the best.

    • Thanks Glenn. Losing the memory is no fun, is it – it’s painful for the family as well as the one it afflicts. Sorry for your loss, also. I admit I felt relief when my mum passed after only a short time suffering with it.

  20. Your mom sounds like she was quite a character. I know you will miss her. Sending out positive thoughts and God speed on her next journey. Take care, Colin.

  21. patodearosen says:

    We all want to be loved for our strengths/despite our faults, and you gave your mother that gift, Colin.

    “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.”

    I hope we all get that crash course–and the accompanying Cliff’s Notes.

    Take care of yourself.

  22. Colin, that was beautiful. I lost my father this spring to a long illness, and my mother is gamely hanging on through a rough transition. I wrote a lot about it, but nothing I could put on my blog. I’m glad you did. Thanks.

    • Thanks Jennifer. It must be very hard for your mother – mine never got over losing Her Joe. But she did battle gamely on, as I wrote here, and there seemed to be a lesson in it for her, hard as it was for her, and for us watching on.

  23. Catie Rhodes says:

    Colin, your words touched me. I typed up a big, long response, and it got eaten. I figure stuff that that is the universe’s way of telling me I was saying too much. So I’ll just send out my condolences and hugs.

  24. Kim Rendfeld says:

    So sorry for your loss, Colin. It sounds like she was in good hands in her final days.

  25. My chills have chills, Colin. I’m so sorry for your loss, and thrilled that you shared and gained so much from her. We can all learn a lot from you mum—and have, thanks to this post.

  26. My condolences, Colin. Death is part of life, but sometimes it’s hard to see that. This is a great tribute, and I’m sure somewhere your mum is proud of you.

    All the best

  27. So sorry, Colin. Life is a crazy ride, for sure. Thanks for sharing your lovely story of love and humanity. (And if this is a repeat comment, I’m sorry. Word Press is giving me fits again.)

  28. Marie Trout says:

    Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. To speak of life and death in language that honors and simply states what is – is a beautiful tribute. And the notion of unconditional love as what it is all about…. One of my teachers, Ray Moody, echoes the sentiment here in a talk about people who have died and been brought back to life:

  29. I’m sorry for your loss, Colin. Your mother sounds like a fascinating woman and this is a beautiful tribute to your parents. Take care.

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