My mum died ten years ago. It was the quietest of deaths – a pulse stopping at the end of years of exile in a dark, silent place so far removed from the places of laughter that she had shared with us across her long life. Death itself is neither dignified nor noble. These are judgements made by those who witness the passing. There is simply a moment that follows a moment before but is unfollowed.
However, when the nurse called me over and I stood at the head of my mother’s bed and watched as the pulse beat still and then after a few seconds simply didn’t beat any more, although I have no faith, I had a sense of all confinement, all limitation falling away and even as I wept for everything that had been, I felt a peace which, to paraphrase Philippians 4:4 – 7, ‘transcends all understanding’. And I guess it did ‘garrison and stand guard’ over my heart in the days and weeks following. There was nothing of God in that release and protection: it was a function entirely of an overwhelming sense of the absolute rightness of that moment when the passage from life into death is managed.
I wrote this poem during the time of her long exile.
Each morning they organise your bones
into the wheelchair, stack you leaning
out of kilter. Thus I find you, wall-eyed,
feather pulse and mouth ajar. This is
a stillness you are learning as silence
silts up your blood. I name you: ‘Mum’.
I call, quietly at first, as if this were
only sleep and you might resent the passage
interrupted. But your shade is walking
a broken road on the far side of dreams.
I keep my coat on, lean in the doorway,
breathing in the alkalines and salts
that are your presence in this world.
Beyond, through narrow windows, rain
drifts like smoke. The trees shift
their high shoulders, hefting their leaves
like heroes. I can see the lift and fall
of their evergreen breath, the slow,
dispassionate pulse. Such senseless beauty,
propping up the sky as if there were no
tides turning or falling stars, no ashes to dust,
no time at all. You speak – a half-word,
cracked in the middle. Syllables drift
like fumes. Somewhere in that steam
of meaning, the filaments of memory:
the horn’s tip of a lover’s moon,
a song’s dust, the eye’s tail catching,
not quite catching, doorway phantoms,
window ghosts. Grief crosses my mind:
its hydrogen release – from local pain
to lachrymae rerum, all in one long
skidding step. It would be a simple thing
to self-heal, here against the lintel,
watching not the rise and fall of your
fish-breath, your insect pulse, but
the immortal trees beyond. Too easy;
but death looked in and turned away,
indifferent, and now it’s down to me,
the blood-bearer, to wish away your life
for you. The house ticks and hums.
A voice calls out, thin and querulous;
another coughs. I turn down your light.
There, against the window, dusk outside,
day by night you are becoming your shadow
cast against the shifting of the trees.
Sound file: Still Life
My mother was religious, a believer, a true believer. I kinda felt for my mother because I don’t think anyone really appreciated how solid her faith was and how much she endured. Olde time Christians got thrown to lions and it was all over and I’m not saying that wasn’t tough but at least it was over quickly. My mother’s faith was tested for over forty-odd years and mostly by the last person one would’ve expected it to be, her husband, one of the most respected members of our congregation but he wasn’t the only hypocrite; there were others. I was one of them. I knew I was one and it bothered me that I was one and I hoped I might grow out of it, like my dislike for Brussels sprouts. But I never did and a few years before her death I quit trying and formally disassociated myself from the religion I was brought up in. I could’ve lapsed but it seemed important to me that I draw a line. That was hard for my mum. But stoically she soldiered on.
I was there when she died. She was ill, she had cancer, but it wasn’t the cancer that killed her and I was glad about that because it would’ve been a protracted and unpleasant death. Instead she got, we learned after the fact, pneumonia and it was all over in under a week. Had she let me phone the doctor I’m sure she could’ve been saved but my mother had suffered under doctors and avoided them like the plague. So we waited too long and by the time the ambulance came it was too late. Neither of my siblings blamed me and we all knew it was for the best. That’s the thing about death and religion I’ve never really understood. I was at a funeral once and, typical poet that I am, was soaking up the atmosphere when I honed in on one particular women who was practically in hysterics sobbing and I wondered why because her friend would now either have the all the answers or have been released from questioning. Why wasn’t she happy for her?
I think I was in the room the moment my mother died. I like to think I was although it doesn’t matter one way or another. I saw her take a deep breath, exhale, open her eyes, smile and then nothing. And it’s the smile I’ve never quite been able to shake. The romantic in me would like it to mean that at the very instant of death she got to see the truth and it was everything she’d hoped for. Others have reported similar final moments. There’s a thread here you might find interesting. I don’t really care. I’m happy it wasn’t a painful death but that’s it. And if everything my mother believed turns out to be true then that’d be nice and she deserved it.
My mother made do almost every day of her life.
There wasn’t that much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.
She’d put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.
And all of my life so far I’ve tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.
I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.
Friday, 18 July 2003
What a good poem. I wrote poetry when my father died, years ago now. A lot of it was rubbish but some of it has stayed with me. I think perhaps one can reach depths in such such poetry that are hard to achieve without experiencing the depths bereavement and the wonder of death plunge us into.
Thanks, Dom, glad it worked for you. I have a fair number of followers but very few visitors and your visits are much appreciated.
The pain of which the poem speaks anticipates death. When Mum died in 2008 no poem came from it, Maybe I’d mourned her in advance, although there are times when I wonder whether I mourned either of them. My father died fairly swiftly and time and emotional energy was spent in looking after my mother. And then when she died it was after so long a period of dislocation from the world that the relief at her passing implied in the poem masked grief. Maybe I owe her a poem…
That’s a painful narrative, Jim. When both parents have gone, whatever our status, we’re orphaned. My mother was religious. Not as committedly as yours, but her parents were Baptists, converted at the turn of the century and she retained something of their simplicity of belief, for all her achieved middle class sophistication. And in everything she believed turned out to be true then I’m happy for her too!
That’s a very neat poem. It serves up its extended metaphor with quite a punch.
I think of all the poems of yours that I have read this one went deepest for me. The photographs of your Mum at her flowering and at her end reinforce that emotion. Maybe the weight of one’s own years makes this inevitable story more poignant but it did make me cry.
I’m so pleased that you responded to the poem. Your appreciation is always much valued. And, yes, our current stage of the voyage will make us the more sensitive to something that touches on it. But you and I have been recording that passage for a long time now and we’re still sound in mind and active enough to take the wry view. May this be the case for we two for a long time yet!
It’s such a good poem, Dick, and says something to all of us who’ve witnessed that moment with our own, though I think every death is both the same and different Thanks too to Jim for his comment above..
Thanks so much, Beth. It does feel a little isolated here – a great deal more so than in the days when blogs roamed the earth anyway – so a word of evaluation is very welcome. And, yes, Jim’s account was a welcome augmentation of the general theme.