Memory: Loss, by Naomi Duffree

My mother is eighty-eight.  Daytime television and a weekly trip to the hairdresser sums up her week. Confused phone calls. She is not the same person I knew twenty years ago; nor the same person who helped me through my first loss of her dear friend, Bobby, my godmother. And I’m acutely aware she won’t be there to comfort me when she is taken from me.

Dear Aunty Bobby,

                        I was so excited about coming home to Abbots Langley for my exeat weekend. A whole weekend in my own bed, home-cooked food and Saturday night watching The Generation Game on the television with my family; sitting round eating sausage and apple casserole (which was my favourite), catching up with everyone while I had been away at school.  It was also the boat race weekend and we always watched that. Daddy was such a big sports fan of most events – and this was no exception. Fiona sat in the back on that journey home. Every time we were in the car we argued as to whose turn it was in the front – but because she had a friend with her they got to share the back seat. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I got in the passenger seat.

            “Do you think Aunty Bobby will be out watching the race today?” There was a pause as Daddy stopped fiddling with his seat belt. “With her living in Putney she might go and watch from the bridge, mightn’t she?” I finished off, putting my belt on and smiling eagerly up at Daddy whom I hadn’t seen for weeks.

            He took hold of my hand. The silence in the car was already resting heavily on my chest. He held my hand gently at first and then began rubbing it with his thumb while he spoke to me.

            “I’m afraid I’ve got some very sad news about Aunty Bobby. She has died.”

I don’t remember what I said next, if anything. The tears splashed down on to my blue school coat. Killing yourself. People did that? Why?

You weren’t old, or physically ill – you weren’t supposed to die yet. You were funny, made me laugh, took me to the panto and theatre in London in the holidays. You weren’t supposed to be dead. Daddy explained briefly that he had wanted to wait until I got home so that he and Mummy could tell me together. I had asked about you as soon as I got in the car, and that plan was now out the window.

I’ve no idea how long he held my hand; just rubbing, gently comforting me with that rhythmic movement, over and over my fingers and thumb.

I don’t remember the journey home – except that it was long. And I do look back now and feel for Gail, Fiona’s friend. How awkward that must have been. I also now feel for Mummy. She must have been sorry she couldn’t break the news to me together, at home. Being a mother myself now, I know this is such a difficult occurrence and you just want to make it as comforting as possible for your children. You’re about to shatter their illusions of this safe world – you wouldn’t want them knowing half the story stuck in a car with unanswered questions for a good three hours. But we did get home in one piece, and I did find out that suicide is a complicated, tragic way out.

I asked many questions and Mummy patiently explained. You had been so happy when you married Ted, a man with a great sense of humour. He brought you happiness, which was stolen away on your first wedding anniversary when he died from cancer. A move to the countryside was planned, but the house sale fell through. Everything plotting against you. You decided to take a bottle of pills and finish your life. Being such a good friend, you rang Mummy and rambled incoherently on the phone to her about how I would be fine, and her nephew would be fine, and… Mummy kept you talking while Daddy went next door to ring for an ambulance. That time they were in time. The hospital discharged you. You might have been pocket-sized but your determination knew no bounds.

After Mummy and Daddy had been to the crematorium I was so angry with the fact that you weren’t allowed a full funeral. Suicide, although no longer seen as a crime, was treated in a negative way and Mummy’s description of the crematorium had been very bleak. She never wanted me to experience being somewhere like that.

I remember thinking for years that suicide would be how I would die. Maybe because it was the first death that had affected me, I was never sure. I do remember reading an article where someone’s father had died in his sleep after lunch one day – and they feared for years that this would be how they would die. It made me feel less daft about how I had felt. I recognised what they were saying even though I had given up on the theory years beforehand.

Mummy was an old friend from your days as a nurse and she had chosen you as a perfect godmother. You always made me laugh and were supportive of my love of drama. The next Sarah Bernhardt you called me – before I even knew who she was (she sounded very grand). Remember when we went to see a theatrical version of Winnie the Pooh in London? It was so special: the lights, the colourful costumes and those loveable characters. You gave me money for the opera glasses. How huge Tigger looked, even before he’d eaten all the honey.

One January when I was nine, we all went to the Wimbledon theatre to see Cinderella. Jimmy Tarbuck invited me on stage to sing part of ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’. I couldn’t sing then and I can’t sing now. It must have been excruciating. But I had a new coffee-and-crème coloured long dress on so what did it matter? I was given a Freddo chocolate bar from Jimmy and when we got back to your flat in Putney we put it in the fridge to rescue it from my hot little hand. When we came to leave later that evening we left it there and you promised to look after it until I saw you again.

            Do you remember when I had the measles and was stuck in bed? You came up to say goodnight and I asked for a tune. So you sang to me, ‘You are my sunshine’. After you finished I explained that I had wanted a ‘Tune’ lozenge. Your warm chuckle was the best soother. That incident was a running family joke for years. I could see why you had been such a successful nurse – your bedside manner was excellent. Quirky – but excellent.

I missed you so much when I was growing up. We would have laughed about many things. It was a tragedy that for someone with this amazing sense of humour you had such a sadness exploding inside you.

I hope you know what I have been up to in the years since you have been gone. Whether you have approved or not – I’d like to think you have been laughing along with me, because I’d like to think you are happy now. X

Letters are important to me. I attribute it to being at boarding school. The whole mood for the day would pivot on whether the pigeonhole B was lined with letters. While it was, there was hope that the day would be a good one. We would stand around in a huge semi-circle, flat brown shoes on the end of grey socks, tapping anxiously, while the fussy secretary sorted through the piles of post into the dark brown wooden boxes. We had to write letters home twice a week – they were vetted for spelling mistakes, although I expect it was for signs of ‘unhappiness’ or ‘monstrous lies’ winging their way through the Dorset lanes out into the big wide world. I loved letter writing so it didn’t bother me – and would usually write more than twice a week anyway.

My mother purchased an iPad a few years ago. She has learnt how to send emails; it has become a lifeline for her and she is always checking ‘this thing’ to see who has written to her. She gets frustrated when the technology doesn’t go her way – as we all do. Many an email is signed off with “I’m sending this now before I throw this contraption in the bin!” It is great that she has this form of communication now when other ways, such as her hearing and sight, are slowly failing her.

Walking has become difficult and painful, not that I see her enough since moving down to London. She won’t come down to this “dreadful city,” which is “far too busy”. And besides she couldn’t sit in the car “for all that time”. The annoying thing is she can sit and watch Deal or No Deal back to back for longer than it would take to nip down here – but some people you can’t argue with. She is occasionally showing glimpses of the mother-in-law that we weren’t allowed to let her turn into. “Tell me if I ever get like your Grandmother.” I made that mistake once; she didn’t ring me for days.

I guess a great deal changed when she lost her husband, my father. She was fairly reliant on him; they had what might have been termed traditional roles.

And I guess when I lost my father she was the one who needed looking after.

Dear Daddy,

            This is a weird one. You are still so present, yet you suffered a heart attack 24 years ago. Fiona rang me. I had to confirm with her that you hadn’t survived.

            I suddenly am looking down at myself and your granddaughter, not yet one, standing clinging onto my leg by the phone starting to laugh because she thinks that’s what I am doing. Then uncertain at watching her rock crumble, she starts to cry too. I am wracked with grief; my chest is emitting sounds I’m not familiar with. It brings Grace, my neighbour, to the door who takes Poppy off to hers, away from this distressing scene while I do all the things I have to do to sort out this situation. I sit on the stairs and sob. The shock hits my body as if I’d been slammed against the wall. I start to think about Mummy, alone in London at Bart’s hospital, not knowing anybody. Fiona was on her way to collect her, but it would be a few hours. I had to speak to her. I found the number from the operator and I rang explaining the situation. I felt so helpless though. Mummy talked about how after offering you a Murray mint on the train as it pulled out of King’s Cross, you slumped forward and she just knew. A heart attack. That’s a nurse’s training for you. Passengers had tried to revive you but she knew you were dead. They had to wait for the next station and then the ambulance took you away. Two passengers accompanied her. I remember she wrote to them weeks later, thanking these two strangers for their kindness. (See Mummy, London isn’t all that bad.) She was in shock and talking about how she wouldn’t cope without you. We knew she would though – because she had to.

            The next month was extraordinary. Our thoughts were with Mummy who couldn’t think straight. I was due to move house the week you died, thankfully as it turned out nearer to Melton Mowbray. How cruel that you had only retired there two years previously. Everyone rang to ask how she was coping. You’d been married over 30 years. I can’t remember an angry exchange between you. I did on occasions want to shout. “Hello – can anyone hear me? – I’ve lost my father?” I had Poppy to look after though, as well as Mummy, so I just kept busy and saved those moments for myself.

            I miss you. I’ve finished my degree in Creative Writing, in London, which I inherited a love of through you. The discussions we would have had. I would be sending you my published articles and waiting for your critique. Mummy reads them from her iPad and says how pleased you’d be with them. “I don’t always understand them, but I think you are very clever.” Good old mother’s love. I’m not clever, I just enjoy writing – and I’ve got you to thank for that.

            I would smile so broadly on reading your letters at school. They were pages long and full of funny anecdotes; the best one being when you set off on a Saturday to walk up to the village at Abbots Langley. You went into the shed where Mummy was planting some pots up and kissed her goodbye, telling her you’d be back soon. Out of habit you then walked out of the shed, fixing the padlock so that no one could get in. Or out. I chuckled when I read it. I bet Mummy did too – eventually.

            You received so many junk mail letters after you died. I used to reply on your behalf. Severn Trent wrote thanking you for saving water over the drought. ‘You’ wrote back saying it had been easy – what with you being dead for the last two years.  You also promised to pass on a little trick you’d learnt, about turning water into wine. The director wrote back thanking me for seeing the funny side and for taking it so well.

            To be honest, how else was I supposed to take it? It was a computer error – they hadn’t meant to offend. Mummy used to ask me to reply to them all, so at least it was stopping her getting upset with these reminders, as if she needed any, that you weren’t around anymore.

            Your absence made me think differently about my own life. Selfish and childish though it may seem I thought, “I’m half way to being an orphan.” I don’t think it matters how old you are when you lose a parent – it hurls you back to being a child again; the vulnerability and denial seep in. Standing in a shop angry that people are arguing over their change; accidently breaking precious ornaments and questioning what is actually precious. What is important? The other change, after the anger died down, was that I realised death is part of life. If you can’t accept it then that’s the future pretty much screwed. Death changes your everyday. Life goes on but differently. It didn’t matter that I was married with my own family, Christmas would never be the same. Watching Monty Python would never be the same; giving your granddaughters Just William books to read was not going to be the same as if I’d been able to say, “Grandpa once suggested I read these – here, see what you think.” They wouldn’t have listened to me. But they would have hung on your every word.

            Mummy tells us that all the time. “Wouldn’t Michael have been so proud of all his grandchildren?” And yes, you would. I sometimes wonder, though, if you’d lived to be eighty-eight, whether you’d understand all they are up to. The world has moved so quickly in twenty-four years. You had a word processor, which was a novelty, and only a few channels on your television.

I hope you are smiling down on us all. I always tell Mummy you are looking out for her. And I’m always thinking of you. X

My mother gets impatient with the television. The digital ones need patience. I guess when you’ve been active for the greater part of your life and then things take longer to do, such as putting your tights on and searching for a book of stamps you’d just bought, patience flies out the window.

“It has a mind of its own,” she tells me over the phone. We chat regularly. I miss her. I miss having the mother that understood what was going on in my life. Don’t misunderstand me, she comprehends most things, but that’s because I filter out thoughts that will worry her or which she won’t fully appreciate.

Sometimes I can’t help myself and I just have to share with her, because deep down I pretend she’ll get it. I still have a strong bond and I want her involved with my life. Yet I know she has been battered by old age and can’t always understand this strange new world she finds herself in.

I was speaking to her the other day about someone I wanted to interview; a Paralympian who had been in the 7/7 tube bombings. Before I’d finished my explanation she interrupted, “Oh, she’s going to walk around Britain or something… I’m sure I read that somewhere.”

“Who?” I asked, “The lady from the Paralympics?”

“No! Not her!”

“Ah, maybe you mean the one who tackled the marathon?”

“Yes, it was her. Yes, come to think of it, it was the marathon lady. Anyway, what’s the point of these interviews?”

I began to explain as I’ve explained before, just wishing the explanation would come to an end quickly as I knew she didn’t she fully grasp the reason.

The keyboard blurs.

This is what I have lost: the warts-and-all communication with my darling mother. And I’m sure I’m not the only child to have this going on. My own children will be doing it with me one day… if they’re not already. And I’ll have forgotten what it was like with Granny, and I’ll be telling them, “If I ever get like Granny…” And then I will.

And I’ll be bloody proud too.

Memory is strange.

I remember having races along the carpet with our fingers one night when we were lying on the floor by the fire. Mummy was really quick. I must have been about twenty and we were having one of those moments probably fuelled by a gin and tonic. We laughed uncontrollably. Daddy had to turn the television up. And all the practical things: constant clean clothes, warm fresh sweet baking smells, I’ve even forgiven her for constantly waking us up with the Hoover droning on downstairs so she could get the housework out of the way and make time for us. It was far more than we deserved. She would always put us first and do without so we didn’t have to. We didn’t even think about it at the time. It comes into sharp recognition now when her memory is playing tricks and taking away the mother I had from my childhood.

Losing you, Mummy, is something normal that comes with old age. And maybe as happened when Aunty Bobby and Daddy died, it’s something I have to accept so that life can go on. But differently.

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