Last Monday, my sister rang me at work.
“Mum’s in hospital. They think she’ll be going home by the end of the week so you should think about popping up to see her soon after.”
We both knew what she meant.
“Are you sure I shouldn’t come up now?”
We discussed it for a minute or two and agreed that it would be potentially upsetting if I materialised in Mum’s hospital room like a harbinger of imminently expected death. I vaguely made plans to show up early in the New Year, possibly with the family in tow. My sister went back to our mother’s bedside. She’s been her carer for some years. I’ve been semi-detached from the family for as long as I can remember. Religion, life-style choices, freedom of speech – it’s complicated. My sister and I get on, my father and I were reconciled before he died but I’ve never really liked my mother for a long time. In return, she’s gradually erased me from the family history as her memory erodes, needing more and more prompting to bring me into focus.
Did I mention I was adopted?
The next day, my sister rang again.
“You might want to think about coming up tomorrow.”
I dropped everything, dashed up to Euston and got a train North. My sister lives in an industrial northern town dominated by Unilever’s chemical works and ringed by new-build estates. She lives on one with her husband and, until now, our mother.
We sat by her bed together for a couple of hours. She was asleep. My sister was convinced she knew I’d come. I wasn’t. Every now and then, my sister would get up and wipe the stringy white strands of dried fluid that had gathered on my mother’s mouth and under her tongue. The nurses came in and turned her once. Their kindness was an almost physical presence. My sister’s kindness felt more like ownership.
We only ever seem to have meaningful conversations at the bedside of dying parents.
“I only ever really got to know the real mum in the last few years, you know. Dad was a bully.”
I knew that.
“I never saw that. I know she was much more intelligent than he was.”
“But no-one was allowed to have a different opinion from him. That was was always your problem. But that’s just how it was. You did what you had to do for yourself.”
My sister’s fond of that line. I got up and left home. She didn’t. Eventually, she acquired a kind of ownership of our parents.
I got the train back down. The next morning, my sister rang and told me that mum had died overnight. We’d joked at her bedside about the closing window for a funeral before Christmas but the family Catholic Mafia closed ranks and made calls and the service happened yesterday, on the 23rd.
The service took place in slow motion. We followed the hearse out to the grave (her husband’s, opened up to to accommodate her) and the deacon went through the last rituals. Like everyone else, I dropped a clod of the sandy northern soil on the coffin. I noticed the railway sleepers lining the grave all the way down to hold the space open.
After the requiem, there was a “hot pot” lunch. I’d been dreading it.
Then something surprising happened. Half a dozen relatives – aunts, cousins, an uncle – I hadn’t spoken to in thirty to forty years approached me one after another. They wanted to talk. They wanted to know what I’d been doing. So I told them and asked what they’d been up to. It was astonishing – they’d been through entire careers, tragedies, raised families, lived lives of which I’d seen or heard nothing.
No-one mentioned my mother. Everyone seemed relieved and happy for me in an odd sort of way, and happy to see me. And I found I was happy to see them. I gave and received contact details and found I was genuinely intending to see people.
My sister dropped me at the station, having determinedly raced to get me to a particular train. Typically, it turned out to be the slow one so, as soon as she’d driven off, I wandered briefly into the town’s “Cultural Quarter” and found a vegan coffee shop covered in bright new age paintings and with didgeridoos hung on the walls. There was vegan chocolate cheese cake (surprising tasty) and alpaca hand warmers for sale. I had a coffee and heard about the owners’ plans for their new business (“We had our first vegan footballer in here yesterday! We should be able to get that in the papers.”) then caught the non-stop train south.
I woke up this morning feeling lighter and happier than I had in ages. Somehow, somewhere, the Wheel had turned, decisively.