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