It’s ten years ago today since my mum died.
She spent her last days in Pendleside hospice in Nelson, and it was very early in the new school year that I got a call to say that I should probably get over from Doncaster quickly as her condition had deteriorated.
Recently I came across a few small pieces of notepaper from a pad that sat by the telephone at mum and dad’s home to take messages. On the night that I travelled over, after seeing mum in the hospice in the afternoon, back in my childhood home, those scraps of paper were all I could find to write my last letter to my mum.
She couldn’t read it herself, so the next day I asked for some time alone with her so I could read it to her. In some ways it seemed a little over-formal, but I was grateful that I had the chance to think about what I wanted to say and to put it in order. What else was said by mum and me at that time will remain between us; suffice to say it was both rather less, and profoundly more, serious than these words now seem, and at the end she rallied for a good few more days before she finally died. I want to share as a tribute to my wonderful mum what I wrote those ten and a bit years ago, thinking they would probably be my last words to her, fearing that she may never hear them, but so grateful that I had the chance to say my goodbyes as best I could:
My dear, dear mum,
Judging by how you have been since I came over to Pendleside from Doncaster this afternoon, I don’t think you’ll get to read this. As I put pen to paper now, I don’t even know quite what I want to say, regardless of whether I can let you know, or whether I’m really just writing for myself.
I told you again today that I love you so much and I’m so thankful that you were still able to say the same to me. But then, we knew that anyway, didn’t we, and have done as long as that love was a possibility to be known?
In your case, that’s from the moment you realised I was being formed in your womb. For me, it is ever since I learned from you what love means.
It is something I began to learn from you before I was even aware of myself as something separate from you. I learned it in the nourishment and warmth you gave me at your breast. I learnt it in the security you gave me in your arms. I learned it in the confidence you gave me with every word of praise and encouragement, as I learnt at your hand to walk, to talk, to love stories and songs and games and giving. I learnt it from your giving – of yourself – in the sacrifices you made for me, many of which I could only know of later; most of which I will never know.
I thought I was fortunate enough, in having you as my mum, to have learnt all I needed to know about love. I was wrong of course. My own wife and family came along in due course, and, of course, in them I found ways of loving and being loved that were new to me but not to you. And I relish in the obvious pleasure it has given you to share in something of this extension of that one great love that first I found from you.
But now you are teaching me something yet more of the lore of love. As you lie dying, frailly, peacefully, confidently, you are showing me something I gave lip-service to, but could never truly grasp: that love does not grow weak and die with the body.
I instinctively shy away from pious sounding phrases that may cloak unpleasant truths or possibilities in a coat of woolly warmth that may protect us for a time. So, if I read in a sympathy card when you are gone: “death is not the end, but only the beginning”, I will understand why it was written, but I will not accept it. Death is the end. It is the end of the time we’ve had the privilege of spending in this world with you in it. It’s the end of the body that gave me my life, and then nurtured it and that even today in its weakness could hold mine in embrace that no one else will ever be able to give.
Death is the end, of all that, and much more. But mum, you are showing me that it is also a beginning. Auden in a poem that has become known by millions, wrote “I thought this love would last forever: I was wrong.” But as I looked into your eyes today and you looked into mine and squeezed my hand, and your thumb played across my fingers, I realised: “I thought your love died with you: I was wrong.” Oh, I knew anyway that I would remember your love, and that, in some vague way I would continue to carry it with me. But I had not grasped at all what I am now beginning to experience – that your love is something so indescribably powerful that, well, it’s not simply that death cannot halt it, death just has nothing to do with it. Death is a product of time, a part of creation. Love is a manifestation of eternity. And it’s only in eternity – not beyond, but beside time – that we shall see you as you are truly made to be.
But, mum, as I read this back, I wonder if I’m just falling myself into the pompous proclamations I curl a lip at.
What I’m learning from you in your dying is not really fit for words to describe anyway. So, until the end – and the beginning – comes, I will continue to love the broad smile that can still play across your lips, the freckles on the back of your bony hand, and the undecayed spirit that no cancer can conquer. And mum, I will go on loving you, and everything about you, as long as the thin sliver of time hides you from my earthly senses: until, together, we shall see Him as he is.
Your ever loving youngest son,