Exactly one year ago today my mother-in-law died alone in a stark hospital room near our home, after fighting hard for three months against an unknown, unnamed enemy. Nobody could tell us exactly what disease she was suffering from, but whatever it was changed her from being a beautiful, active, energetic septuagenarian into a tiny, frail, feverish, dribbling version of herself.
My husband is slowly stepping out of his grief and guilt. He feels he should have done more, been more present, stayed with her on her final night. But how could he have known that she would never wake again? The doctors had given no warning, no time scale to her decline. He undoubtedly knew she was going to die but he just didn’t know when. It has taken him a year to accept his sorrow and allow good memories of his mum to replace the haunting images of her anguished face near the end of her life.
The text below is the one I posted here on that day. It was hurriedly written at my office when everyone else had gone home and I was left alone to remember. Since then her death has pushed me to write other pieces, some sad, others angry. Grief and anger are extraordinary purveyors of words. They seem to fall even faster from my fingertips when my eyes are brimming with tears or my blood boiling with rage. I had never been in such proximity to death before and the experience was deeply disturbing.
I wrote about her illness in this post and the effect of her death here and here. The night of her belated burial ceremony was described at the beginning of July this year and a fictionalised version of that moment won fifth place in a writing contest organised by Dan Alatorre on his site. I have submitted pieces to magazines on this theme and contributed to a website on how to deal with your spouse’s loss of a parent. A first draft for a flash fiction contest has also just been penned on this subject. Obviously I have been hugely affected by this sad time in our lives and writing has helped the emotions rise to the surface and be expelled with some sense of relief and serenity.
I hope you enjoy reading this text for the first or the second time.
If I hadn’t known better I would have sworn you were simply asleep. Your eyes were peacefully closed, your mouth resting and at ease and your cheek was warm under my hand. I was sure I could see the almost imperceptible movement of your chest rising and falling.
But then the tell-tale signs started to filter through. The shutters were completely shut, the lights dimmed, the sheets folded carefully over your tiny shoulders and there was total silence in your room. A strange, haunting silence that had never been there before. A silence which meant that your rasping, grating breathing of the past few weeks had been quietened forever. Our kisses couldn’t wake you and even your son’s unbearably desperate cry of ‘Mum, Mum!’ did nothing to make your eyes flutter or hands reach out to him as they had done before. You were there but you were gone.
When I think back I realise you were nothing like the clichés of the invasive, prying, jealous mother-in-law. You were discreet, kind, always available. You never told me what to do or when to do it. You had utter faith in my capacity as the wife of your son and mother of your grand-daughters. You respected me, my ideas, my wishes, my way of doing things. Never judgemental, never harsh. We had not one single argument in almost thirty years.
As I was leaving your room this morning I caught sight of the photo I had brought to you only a few days before. It was poking out of the horribly unceremonious plastic bag which contained your personal belongings. An extraordinary photo of the ten of us during the wonderful week we all spent together to celebrate your birthday. You looked so happy, so beautiful, so proud to be surrounded by your husband, your sons, their wives and your grandchildren – the family you had created whom you loved so much, and who loved you. We all looked so happy that day.
Tonight I can only say through my tears goodbye and thank you Sleeping Beauty. You will be missed more than you could ever imagine.
Ceci est un deuxième adieu.
Forget-me-not photo courtesy of Santabanta.com