Dad’s final illness lasted about a year and in that time Mum did nothing but care for him. The final six weeks of his life were pretty grim. He knew – everyone knew – it was going to end soon, he was bedridden and he spent most of the time in Poole hospital rather than a local hospice (which we tried and failed to get him into). That meant a daily commute of twenty miles each way for mum which family helped with but if no one could then she drove herself. We none of us knew how much her knee hurt – she needed the joint replacing desperately – but she wasn’t telling anyone because her focus was elsewhere.
As had been her default position in life, so those last months distilled her personality to its most fundamental: keep calm and be the rock around which everyone else could dance and cry and weep and wail. She never cried, she never raised a voice, she remained placid and logical throughout. Watching her watching him as he faded was to see stoicism in its most poignant, most beautiful form. Nigh on 62 years of love and you know you’ll be the one remaining, the one making do and at no point did self pity enter her soul. She needed a lot of hugs, mind you. And tea. You can hide in tea.
I suppose I assumed, when he finally died in the early hours of 12th March 2005, that the effort would leave her drained and in need of a rest. But her attention was immediately on us, on making sure we coped. She wanted his memory to be of the fun-giving man and in her quiet but rigorous way no one was going to change that. And she didn’t want us to worry about her. She refused to be burden, victim or anything other than independent. I’m not sure I could manage such poise.
Me? I hid in paperwork. My head admired her resilience but my heart wanted to explode. But how could I be the burden, go to pieces if she didn’t? So I opened his bureau and delved into their paper lives. And I found that – while I knew mum kept everything and fought a battle with dad, who ostensibly wanted a clear out – when it came to their financial affairs he was as bad as her. There were bank statements going back thirty years, details of pension plans and P60s covering decades. Tax codes and premium bonds, shares from privatisations and ISAs and Tessas and deeds and receipts. Oh those bloody receipts. I could have made a papier mache life sized sculpture of the old sod from those scraps.
We needed to sort out a funeral. Two days after he died she gave me a shoe box. It contained all his poetry, all the poems he swore I would never see – ‘just mush, boy, soppy stuff’. She wanted me to use it for the funeral but more than that she wanted me to understand him a little better. Every year, for over twenty five years, he wrote her a poem on her birthday. We sort of knew he did something but these love poems were beautiful. Funny at times, rude too, but always echoing his love for her and hers for him.
And this was a test. The easy bit was to find someone to make them readable – a PA at work kindly typed them all up and I had them bound.
The difficult part was choosing which three would form part of his funeral service. I needed to reflect the man but not embarrass him. Even in death she wanted him to be comfortable with whatever it was we revealed. His human side, yes, but not too much. Not something that in life would have made him squirm if read aloud. She and I disagreed. His Paratrooper’s Prayer, written to his mother in 1945 when he was about to take his first ever jump – he was just about 18 – would be allowed but not one of his romantic poems to her, humour only.
Of course we did it her way and that was right. But it was sad too.
Getting someone buried is, frankly, a faff. We chose a woodland burial site where Dad could become compost. An oak tree – a very English oak tree – was to be planted on top and fed by years of investment in Wadsworth’s 6X and Ringwood Ales. At the same time she bought the neighbouring plot so she could be buried next to him. I tried to think that was efficient and, perhaps, rather sweet but it also seemed too sensible. I wanted to stop thinking about my parents’ mortality for a while.
While my mother had a running grumble with the local vicar – the pillars of village power were the church and the women’s institute where mum was a kind of horticultural Machiavelli – she knew dad had a sort of embarrassed Anglicanism as his faith. So we needed someone to mastermind the ceremony.
We found a suitable candidate who came to talk to us about dad. The sweet woman soon realised her role was merely as prompt to the Archaeologist and me. It was our show, something mum was very pleased to encourage.
There’s a lot of admin at these times. Organising the body, obtaining the death certificate, agreeing on the funeral arrangements, letting people know of dad’s death and the subsequent funeral date – you have to allow for a significant investment of time when you make contact with old friends, colleagues and family. I think it was during the trip to Bournemouth to register the death and obtain the death certificate that I noticed the first change in mum. While outwardly she remained polite – too polite for a woman whose sotto voce mutterings had embarrassed me for decades – I realised she hadn’t engaged in the detail of the conversation with the registrar.
It would be easy to assume this was a one off. Dealing explicitly with his death would inevitably bring on a suppressed sadness in any mortal. But mum was never ‘any mortal’. She didn’t give in to emotion. Never.
Yet she had definitely begun to withdraw, to do the minimum to let people think she was coping while in practice she shut down all extraneous functions.
And I was glad. Glad she was giving herself some of her time rather than worrying about others. Glad I could take over. Glad I could stop being quite so brave. Glad I could be the strong one for a bit. Ok we were about to bury someone I loved dearly but in celebrating a life we were also going to do what dad loved above all else: we were going to have one mother of a party. At least if I had my way.
PS On October 21st 2004, when dad and mum knew, pretty well this would be her last birthday they would celebrate together he wrote her the poem below. I’d have read it out at his funeral despite mum’s protestations save for the fact I never found it until after she died. I might be a pillar of the legal establishment but I was 50% from her gene pool and therefore not to be trusted completely.
Life is fleeting but love’s eternal
And we are proving it, you and I
For these are magical moments my love
And I try so hard not to cry.
Those secret smiles which only I share
Your laughter which means so much
Together bound with a golden thread
Your loving, gentle touch.
I just couldn’t let your birthday pass
Or let emotion overcome
So thanks my love for a wonderful life
Now, tomorrow, here we come!!