The stuff of grief

The weather’s on the turn.  I’ve seen the first of the pink blossoms out
in the neighbouring streets.  My mother’s
body is decomposing in the ground near to where we had buried my father but my
life goes on. 
On the day of my mother’s funeral I
looked into the deep hole in the ground where her body was soon to rest to look
for signs of my father. As if the gravediggers would allow for that, but some
part of me hoped to see signs, bones perhaps, some testament to my father’s
existence where we last put him over thirty years ago.   I saw none.  
These two, my parents, united in marriage in 1942, their bodies together again in the earth, despite all their trials while living.  
This morning I needed to use a long
stick to dislodge the newspaper from out underneath our car.  The indignity of it all, me in my dressing
gown on all fours poking underneath the car as far as my arm could reach to
roll out the newspaper that the deliverers insist on chucking in over the
fence.  But that’s small indignity compared
to illness and death.
Still my mother is not far away and
images of her during her last few weeks pop into my mind unbidden.  When I find myself clearing sleep from the
corner of my eye I see my mother’s pointy finger nail on her index finger as
she tried to brush aside the conjunctivitis gunk that had built up in her eyes
as she lay dying. 
Is this the stuff of grief? 
Somehow I do not imagine myself
grieving for my mother anymore.  One of
my brothers sent an email and called it something along the lines of ‘Closing
the file on our mother’. 
Closing the file.  As if it were so easy.  But grief is at the other end.  When we grieve we cannot let go. 
I sense a too-easy ability to let
go.  My mother comes in and out of my
thoughts, but she is not there at the surface most of the time. 
I run into a friend for the first
time since my mother’s death and she asks me meaningfully with a special tone
in her voice, ‘How are you?’ and for a minute I go to say ‘I’m fine,’ but then
I recognise the intent of her question and I have to modify my tone.  I go back to the week of my mother’s death
and talk about how hard it was then, but for now it seems I’ve entered a
protective bubble that tells me I have too much to go on with to grieve for too
It was different when my mother was
around and I sensed my deep obligation to her, especially in her last few
years, unlike it had been from my early twenties through to more recently.  Now I am free of her, and yet it jars. 
For the past two Sundays, the day
on which I visited my mother regularly during these past few years I factor in
a visit to her, only to remember I will not go to her any more. 
I will make one last trip next week
to my mother’s old room in the retirement village to help my sister and whichever
other of our siblings might show up, to move out the last of our mother’s belongings. 
And thereafter, my sister, one of
the executors, will distribute my mother’s few possessions to which ever of the
siblings most expresses a need or desire.  
We will divide up my mother’s belongings as
best we can, much as we did when I was little, when on Sunday nights we shared a rectangular block of Neapolitan ice-cream for dessert.  Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla in three tight layers.  My older sister took a knife and divided the block into ten, if we were
all at home. My father, a diabetic in those days, missed out. 
I’ve ordered Helen Garner’s latest
book, This House of Grief, about the
Farquarson murder.  This is the story of
a father who has been found guilty of murdering his three sons by driving them
in his car into a dam.  According to
court and news reports, Farquharson claimed he had suffered a coughing fit and
had lost consciousness at the wheel. He managed to get himself free from the
car, but his sons were trapped inside and drowned.  The event took place on Father’s Day during a
custody visit.  There is evidence from
witnesses that Farquarson had said he wanted to pay back his wife, and that he
knew she would remember every Father’s Day for the rest of her life.  This is yet another story that ranks among
the particularly spectacular examples of revenge enacted.  After two trials, including an appeal, the
jury held that Farquharson was responsible for the death of his three
Helen Garner’s a brilliant writer I reckon but she
turns people into characters   Should
there be a ‘but’.  Isn’t this what
writers do?  Isn’t this what I do when I
write about my mother as though she is now only so much decomposing matter in the
ground and for the rest she is a memory, a fiction, a fantasy, a person who
once lived but is now no more.
My mother, and those three little
boys drowned in the dam, like ghosts they hover over us.  The skies are filled with their invisible
I cannot figure out the maths but I
imagine there are many more ghosts in the sky above than living people on the
As for me, still alive, I have a day to meet;
a daughter who complains jut now that some unknown person – not me – has bought
‘caged’ eggs.  We do not eat caged eggs
here.  We abhor the cruelty shown to hens
kept in cages. 
‘The cat food stinks, too’, my
daughter says.  The food I serve the cats
first thing in the morning a mixture of dry and wet from a can – pilchards and
something else – offends her sensibilities. 
How can she eat breakfast with that smell up her nose?    
And I skulk off to write.
Life is back to normal 

3 thoughts on “The stuff of grief”

  1. So sorry that you have this grieving business to contend with. Hopefully grief will fade away quickly for you.

    My death will involve no funeral at all. I have signed up to donate my body to a medical school in Hull. My wife is also signed up for this. My brother David who died a few weeks ago, younger than me, did the same. No grief at his death; more relief actually. He had suffered for six months from terminal cancer.
    Our life is but a split second period of time in the greater scheme of things.

  2. My mother was a character. Not a right character. But she had character. She was a person of character. To you all she’ll ever be is a character, a work of fiction, the application of your imagination on the words I write. I finished my article on Murnane’s latest work of fiction. One of the things I highlighted was a passage where he tries once again to explain to us why books that are so plainly autobiographical can never be anything bar fiction. Basically, we weren’t there—we have to imagine what it was like—and even those people who were there have to rely on failing memories. Everything is, to a greater or lesser extent, fictionalised so all that’s left of my mother now is the version of her in my head and in the heads of my siblings, her grandchildren and anyone else who encountered her in the real world or in texts like this.

    I was brought up to have a high regard for truth but the truth is an ideal. We survive on impressions, fuzzy truths. On my mother’s deathbed—death-couch if we’re being accurate—she told me things I’d never heard before about a farm and a Mister… Smith I think it was who was kind to her. I don’t recall any of that ever being mentioned before. How much more was there? Most of what I knew about her life as a child and during the War got boiled down to a handful of anecdotes. Even the woman I grew up with was a fiction. She played the part of ‘Mum’. And that was the only side of her I really knew. Or was interested in knowing.

    When it came to divvying up her belongings Mum hadn’t left us with much to do. Her wardrobe was virtually empty. She must’ve known but how could she? She had cancer, yes, but that would’ve taken years to finish her off. The pneumonia came suddenly and unexpectedly. As far as we were concerned. And yet there wasn’t much in her wardrobe bar a dress to be laid out in. Bit by bit she’d lugged all her belongings and left them with her beloved charity shops. The only big job we had was dividing up the photos. If more than one of us wanted a copy I scribbled the initials on the back and made copies. That was an odd experience because most of our relatives we’d either never met or only met the once but we’d grown up with these pictures and you don’t throw photographs out. That’s a big no-no. I still have a photo in my wallet of a complete stranger I found lying on the street on Crow Road.

    Grief is a very personal thing. In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion wrote: “Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.” I’ve never felt that I did either right. I was sad when my parents died and relieved when my mum died—for both selfish and sensible reasons (a death from cancer would not have been pleasant for anyone concerned)—but I never felt like I grieved or mourned. I know what my parents believed and neither regarded death as the big bad. They’d won. They’d stayed faithful unto death. As Paul put it: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” If they were wrong the odds are they’ll never know but at least they died expecting something better and as I wrote:

          The Nature of Beliefs

          The thing about beliefs is
          they don't need to be true.
          That's not their job.

          They're there because
          so many things aren't true.
          Nature abhors a vacuum.

          19 December 1996

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