For a long time now I’ve found winter, and Christmas in particular, very difficult to get through. The cold and the gloom, the ascetic trees, the sparkling lights in shop windows and the saccharine cheeriness all remind me of terrible times. In certain locations and when the darkness has really set in, I feel transported back in such a way that the vividness of those feelings and images becomes unbearable. I will forever associate Christmas, and the months that precede and follow it, with the death of my mother.
The 20th of January was the twelfth anniversary of her death. I wasn’t able to visit her grave because I can’t drive, and she chose to be buried on a remote hillside in Stroud, which is impossible to access without a car. But I will make a pilgrimage of sorts to Wimbledon Park. I lived there until I was 11 years old and my childhood there was the only time in my life so far when I have been truly happy and content.
We moved to Tunbridge Wells in 1998 and, one year later, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had a hysterectomy, then chemotherapy, and many more treatments in the following two years. Natural cures, a change of diet, herbal remedies, healing- she even turned to religion, in a sense, towards the end. None of it worked. In November 2000 she told me and my younger sister and brother that she was going to die.
Christmas was strange that year. As my mother grew thinner and thinner, the fact that she was dying was not mentioned out loud. I went with my father to buy presents as if things were normal. Standing in The Body Shop, filled with people wrapped up in winter coats, I showed him some lavender bath essence.
‘Do you think mummy will like this?’ I said.
‘Oh, no,’ said my father, shaking his head. ‘You can’t get her that, Ellie. She can’t bear to look at her body any more.’
I looked down at the lavender bath essence. Then I shuffled through the crowded shop and put it back on the shelf. I was so ashamed for not knowing. There were lots of things I felt ashamed for not knowing. Outside, it began to rain.
My mother had long been insecure about the way she looked. She had been very thin and beautiful as a young woman, so after she’d had her three children she had a surgery to try to return her stomach back to the way it used to be. She was always changing the colour of her hair, and I’m not sure what colour it naturally was. When all her hair fell out from chemotherapy, she wore a wig. When it grew back, it grew back grey. I remember a teacher saying flippantly to me: ‘Well, if it means it’ll save her life, it doesn’t matter if her hair falls out!’ I didn’t think that was fair. I thought: no, it does matter if her hair falls out. I think it affected my mother profoundly, as it would me. And anyway- the chemotherapy didn’t save her life.
By Christmas Day, she looked like a skeleton. We had decorated the tree, wound the tinsel round the banisters and hung the lights, and she had sat on the sofa and complimented our efforts. She looked in terrible pain when she smiled. The cancer had started in her ovaries but, despite the medical interventions, it had spread throughout her body and eventually reached her lungs. In the last months she had to have an oxygen tank with her everywhere she went. When we went to look at the plot of land where she would be buried, we had to walk very slowly up the hill as my father wheeled the oxygen behind her and my mother struggled for air. Her clothes sagged on her body and the skin on her arms hung off her bones. On her face the skin pulled tight, and outlined the shape of her skull. When once I hugged my mother and was wrapped in the warmth of her soft folds, and felt so safe- now hugging her was terrifying. What if I snap her?, I thought, as my fingers touched the jutting vertebrae of her spine. What if she breaks?
I was distressed that she wouldn’t eat. I thought that her not eating was the reason she was losing weight. I would chop up tiny portions of the food we were eating at the dinner table and take it to her as she sat in her study, writing in her pink dressing gown. She would say thank you, and smile with effort. I couldn’t comprehend that the reason she was getting thinner was because she was dying.
It might seem an odd thing to get your head around: surely if someone has told you they are going to die, then you accept that as truth? Just as, if I told you that the moon is 239,000 miles from earth, you would say: ‘Yes, the moon is 239,000 miles from earth’. Or if I told you that whales evolved from land mammals that returned to the sea, you would say: ‘Yes, whales evolved from land mammals that returned to sea.’
But no- for a child it’s different. My mother was my whole life and my whole world. I was too young to have yet understood her as a person and as a woman. She was My Mother. She was the source of all my love, and all my warmth; she was my safety, she was the stillness and the constant. She was always there. Coming to terms with the fact that she was going to leave me forever was like coming to terms with the idea that the sun would never rise again. Impossible. I lived those last months with the immovable notion of doublethink. Two opposing thoughts, both equally true: ‘my mother is going to die’ and ‘my mother will never die’.
And then she did die.
I watched her take her last breaths at 7pm on a cold night in January. The whole day she had sat in her armchair with her eyes half-open, zonked out on a lethal dose of morphine that was, I learnt many years later, supposed to make the end less painful (though she frequently moaned in pain that day, and slid down in her chair, and was unable to speak and, because our father and the doctor hadn’t told us that she had been given that amount of morphine, I didn’t know what was happening). When my father reached over to turn off the hissing oxygen tank, the bottom fell out of the world. I was hysterical- briefly- and I told her dead body that I loved her, over and over again. Then I said nothing at all. My sister and I lay on the sofa in our living room and listened to our father calling people and hearing the words over and over again, ‘she’s gone.’
That night we all slept in my parents’ bedroom with the corpse of my mother downstairs, and the next morning my brother and sister and I watched through the bannisters as she was wheeled from the house on a stretcher, in a green body bag.
I think a lot of people misunderstand how people grieve- especially how children grieve. You don’t cry for days and then ‘pull yourself together’. You don’t feel sad for a bit but then, after a year or so, are pretty much OK. I didn’t truly start to grieve for her until I was 21 years old. I finished university and suddenly the great loss I’d experienced opened in front of me like a chasm I could no longer ignore. I was deeply depressed for several years. And I am still very much coming to terms with it all.
One of the main reasons for this was that I wasn’t given the chance to grieve. My mother died on a Saturday and on the Tuesday my father insisted we went back to school because, he said: ‘If you don’t go back now you’ll never want to go back’. Unfortunately, my school had no idea what to do with me. On that first day, they sat me in a room on my own with the company of a dusty TV and piles of books for the English GCSE. After a few hours I decided to go to my maths lesson, because I felt guilty for missing school. (And I’ve always hated maths.) One of the girls turned round to me and mouthed ‘are you OK?’ and I smiled and mouthed back ‘yes’. The teacher- a substitute, well past retirement age- clearly hadn’t been told about my… ‘situation’.
After my mother’s funeral, (which I didn’t cry at because I couldn’t bear to in front of all those people) I went back to school for good. I had a total of three days off to mourn the loss of my mother, and it was the same for my sister who was 12 and my brother who was 10.
I grew up suddenly when my mother died. She taught me how to cook from when I was little, so I was able to make meals for the family. I felt deeply responsible for them. My father cried often in those first few months, but I felt that someone needed to be strong to hold it all together. (Now I feel this was somewhat unfair: my father had adults to talk to and comfort him, whereas I only had 14 year old girls. I remember once sitting with my school friends on a lunch break in which they spent the whole time complaining about how annoying it was to have to go shopping with their mothers. I guess they’d forgotten that mine had died just months before.) My sister and I took over all those ‘mum things’ people take for granted: sorting out Christmas presents, writing cards, entertaining guests. I felt very protective of my younger brother who, on top of all the anger and confusion that comes with being a teenage boy, was trying to come to terms with a terrible loss. I once flew into a rage when I found out that a teacher at school had berated him for not doing his homework and barked repeatedly at him: ‘why didn’t your mum help you?’ I was ready to march into the school myself and give the teacher a piece of my mind, but instead my father wrote an anaemic letter. Our schools were truly appalling with dealing with what is an incredibly rare occurrence in the lives of English children. They were better trained in matters of divorce, sex, bullying, eating disorders and drug use. Death, I suppose, is the final taboo.
I was also, at this time, going through puberty and trying to figure out how to be a woman and how to be an adult. My mother was, like me, very opinionated and fiery. She had strong principles and taught me about sex when I was five years old. She wanted me to meet a man who respected women, and instilled feminist ideas in me at an early age. She talked to me and my sister about periods, gave us books and sent us off to school from the age of nine with sanitary pads and a spare pair of knickers in a dinky little make up bag, just in case. I didn’t start my period until my 15th birthday, and remember how lonely and frightened I felt sitting in a silent white bathroom, that first shock of scarlet marbling the water in the toilet bowl.
My father has difficultly expressing his emotions, hugging, offering praise and so forth. The loss of my mother meant the loss of that assurance and that tactile, all-encompassing love. In its absence I grew to feel that I did not deserve it. I had no female figures in my life to offer me love and guidance. My mother had a very difficult childhood in Australia and New Zealand with a mentally ill mother and a father who was constantly moving the family in the middle of the night to run away from debt collectors. She became estranged from all of them except her second sister Shirley, who stayed in New Zealand. She never had children, and now her partner of 30 years has been diagnosed with lung cancer. My father was an only child and his mother died from a form of Alzheimer’s when he was in his early 20s. Because my parents had moved across the other side of the world to start a life in London in 1979, the only family member I have ever had in this country is my great aunt who lives in Gloucester. From these experiences I have realised how important it is for children to have female role models around them. A mother alone isn’t enough because if she dies when you’re young a deep and essential sense of love and safety is ripped away forever. All you’re left with (especially if you don’t believe in God, which I never have) is yourself, and the air around you, and the terrifying emptiness of the sky.
I long to believe in God. I think that the idea of knowing there is someone who loves you unconditionally and is looking after you must be incredibly comforting. For years after my mother died I was desperate to find a love to fill that great emptiness; to feel safe again. Unfortunately, being young and heterosexual, I had only young men to turn to for that kind of love. When I was 19, one such young man told me I needed to ‘get over’ my mother’s death as we sat together on a long car journey back from Cornwall. He had already fallen out of love with me and some part of me knew he was going to go. Two days later, he broke up with me on a park bench beside a children’s playground, and that was the first time my mother’s loss really hit me. He was disturbed at how upset I was, and made himself scarce. I couldn’t understand why I was so devastated, why my body went numb and I had terrible, dark thoughts. And yet I realised, later, that it was because someone was leaving me again. Someone was leaving me and they were never coming back, and there was nothing I could do to change that. This realisation and anxiety reached such a height that for a long time I couldn’t bear for someone to leave a room- in case they never came back. Over the years it became increasingly difficult to be close to people. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to get close to anyone then you minimise the pain that you feel and the damage that occurs when they inevitably leave. (Yes, it is a cliché. It is a cliché because it is true).
I wish I could say that my mother’s death has made me stronger. I wish I could say that there are positive things that have come from it. But there aren’t. It will define my life forever and take me many, many more years to truly come to terms with it. Eddie Izzard, who is now 50 years old, lost his mum to cancer when he was six. I was deeply moved when he spoke in a documentary made by his ex-girlfriend Sarah Townshend. He’s asked what drives him and he says this: “I keep thinking that if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back”. And then he bursts into tears.
I am proud that I have become like my mum in many ways: I write, like she did (she always wanted to be a novelist but died at 50, before she had the chance), I am opinionated and argumentative, I am insecure about my appearance, I love ideas and discussion, I am attracted to intelligence, I want to learn as much as I can, I want to read as much as I can, and travel, and I want children- more than anything. Yet I’ll face the same thing as she did: having children with no one to guide me or give me advice. I won’t have her there to help me. I’ll never be able to hand her my first child. But I want to be a good mother, and I want the father of my children to be as loving and caring as a mother is. Because I couldn’t bear for my children to be to left without me, and have the love they need and deserve torn away from them.
I feel that my writing is- and perhaps always will be- defined by two things: one is that great loss, the fear and emptiness that it left, the pain of having no mother and of being apart from God. The second is my childhood in Wimbledon where, in my made-up memories, it is always late summer and insects dance in the dusty yellow sunlight. And my mother is in that place, and she is smiling, and I am happy, and there is so much hope and possibility and magic.
That was a good start in life. Those days were real, and true, and of a different time. And those matchsticks still glow bright.
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