We Are Wiser Than the Angels: In Memory of Mary Stone 16/11/1930 - 20/04/2013
It’s been over a year since our Mum died. She passed away at 6pm on the evening of the 20th of April 2013.
I say “our Mum” rather than “my Mum” for a number of reasons. Firstly that she wasn’t only my Mum. She was my sister, Julia’s Mum, she was my sister, Helen’s, Mum, and she was my brother, Robert’s Mum too. She was all of our Mums.
“Mums”, plural, because she was a different person to each of us.
She was also “our Mum” because that’s what we say in Birmingham. We always use the first person plural to describe those we love. So it’s “our Dad”, “our kid”, “our house” and “our family”. It’s a very inclusive way of speaking since it offers the listener a share in our intimacy. We are including the listener in the relationship. She’s not just my Mum, she’s our Mum; that means she’s your Mum too.
But there is another reason why she is “our Mum”, and that’s because Mums themselves are universal. Everyone has a Mum. Every mammal has a Mum. Indeed, that’s where the word comes from. Mam, Mum, Mom, Ma, Mama, Mammary, Mammal. It’s from the organ that gives us sustenance at our birth and that maintains us through those early months and years. Our focus is fixed to exactly the length between breast and eye for the first several weeks, so our sustenance is spiritual as well as physical. We drink from our Mother’s eyes as well as from her breast. We drink from her heart.
Our first word is usually “Mum” and it is generally our last too.
Thus Mums are everywhere. They are the universal experience of all creatures upon this earth, the first and the last. She is the being who maintains us in our solitude, when we float in blissful meditation in the womb, unaware of anything but ourselves. She is the heartbeat that surrounds us and which we take as our own. When she moves, we move. We’ve been moved by her ever since.
I don’t normally do euphemisms but I like the expression “passed away”. It exactly describes how our Mum left this planet. She sort of floated off, like a boat on a rising tide being dislodged from the shore, while I made frantic phone calls to the emergency services and Dad held her hand. Her breathing just got shallower and shallower until it ended in a sigh. I was frantically and absurdly trying to keep her alive by feeding her vitamin enriched milkshake in the hope that the swallowing mechanism would drag her back from the brink. She would drink briefly and then stop, resuming her ever more distant breathing. In the end a little curl of chocolate-coloured liquid dribbled from the corner of her mouth. She stopped drinking and she stopped breathing. That’s when I knew she was gone.
The emergency services were magnificent. They were there within minutes of me ringing, while the person on the other end of the phone kept me talking. We heard the wailing of the siren as the ambulance pulled up outside and I rushed to open the door. It was a woman with cropped hair followed by a bloke. They were dragging some equipment with them. Or maybe the equipment came later, I’m not sure. I remember the woman more clearly than I remember the man. She was both tender and efficient at the same time. She was muscular and wiry. She spoke to me and our Dad with care and attention, while applying whatever measures she needed to revive Mum. But it was too late. She was already gone by then. She had already passed away.
After that Julia turned up, with my brother-in-law, Matthew. They had been rushing in from the airport where Julia had not long since arrived from Tenerife. She’d missed the moment by a matter of minutes. Matthew rang Helen, who arrived shortly after, while I rang my brother in America. When I told Rob he let out a piercing cry. It was an involuntary shriek of pain, as if he’d just been stabbed in the heart. Which he had, I suppose. That was the moment when all my pain was unleashed too, when I heard my younger brother’s wail of grief at the end of the phone and I knew that I wasn’t strong enough protect him any longer. After that I broke down and was sobbing too.
All I can say about this time is that it was real. It was real in the sense that nothing mediated the grief for us. It was raw and human. At certain points in the evening the police were there, the emergency services were there, the undertakers were there, various hospital personnel were there. Many people passed through our hall. They entered the house, moving into the space in a steady stream making demands upon our time, but they didn’t intrude. Not in the slightest. It was like they were flowing around us, around the rock of our mutual grief. We were like a single entity united in our grief. Nothing could touch us.
Later we got out the whisky and with Mum in the hospital bed where she’d spent her last days, in the dining room, under the lampshade, we sat around and reminisced. We drank toasts and chatted, laughed and cried, while she lay there in our midst like a statue or a painting, still and serene. That seemed like the right thing to do, to spend time with her in these last moments, to celebrate her passing, to toast her journey, to wish her Godspeed on her way.
At the end of the evening we said our personal goodbyes, each of us individually going into the room to be alone with her before the body was taken away.
As to what I said to her, you’ll never know. This is between me and her.
It is at this point where I think I part company from the rest of my family. In the weeks and months that followed I realised that my reaction to her passing was different to theirs. Yes I grieved at first, because grieving is natural and proper and we cannot do anything else. The body cries with grief as surely as it cries with pain. It’s like an involuntary reaction, an autonomic response, from deep within the nervous system. But grief itself is a cleansing thing. It washes through our system like a burst of clear water from an underground spring. It comes from the heart and reminds us that we are human.
It is grief that washes the sadness away. With me the sadness didn’t last.
I was consulting the tarot cards a lot in these first few weeks. There was something consoling in the simplicity of the images. The cards were translating my own raw, human feelings into a universal folk-tale, a picture book story I could tell to my wounded heart.
I got the Queen of Pentacles, which depicts a woman sitting in a garden full of flowers, framed by trees, holding a golden coin. I understood it straight away. That was our Mum. Nurturing. Down to earth. Practical. She loved her garden. She loved the simple pleasures: her family, her children and grandchildren. She knew everyone’s birthdays. She paid attention to everyone. She loved the finer things in life and had refined tastes. She only ever bought the best.
After that I got the Tower, also known as the House of God. This shows a tall tower struck by lighting, so that its cap or crown is broken off and its two residents, a man and a woman, are thrown, tumbling, to earth. I thought: that’s our family in it’s current crisis. The lightning was the tragedy that had happened to us, the broken tower our current grief.
I got the Fool, which shows a jester figure stepping blithely off a cliff, with a dog yapping at his heels. I thought: that’s our Mum’s soul on its journey, stepping off the cliff of life, ignoring all our attempts to dog her escape.
I got the six of swords, which shows a raft with a man on the stern punting away from us, with a woman passenger, cloak covering her lowered head and shoulders, with six swords surrounding her. I thought, that’s the ferryman guiding Mum over the River Styx, the river that divides death from life. The child that accompanies her is her immortal soul, due to be born in another body.
The pictures spoke to me in a direct and simple way. They gave me consolation in my grief. In an odd way, I began to think of Mum’s death as beautiful. She was being released. It was like a prison-break. She was escaping from the pain.
One day my Dad asked me if I missed her, and I was annoyed. I said, “What do you think?”
But then I thought about it. Did I miss her, really? There were mixed feelings there. Yes I missed the healthy person she used to be, the shrewd, determined, alternatively clever and occasionally naïve person who used to make me wince and then laugh.
But that’s not the person she was in the end.
In the end she was badly crippled, bed-bound and desperately unhappy. She was fitted with a colostomy bag which she loathed. Mum was very prim on one level, with a heightened sense of decorum. She would never have got used to having a bag full of shit dangling around her waist.
Did I miss that person? Of course not. She made her decision and moved on. It was a good decision. I was glad she was free of the humiliation and the anguish of her last few months in the grip of that terrible illness. She had left the mangled wreck of her body behind and moved on to other things.
It’s not the dead who suffer, it’s the living. When we mourn, we are mourning for ourselves.
What was it we were holding onto exactly? We were holding on to her pain.
Me, I think that life is a mystery and I'm impatient with people who think they have all the answers: the terminally religious and the terminally materialistic alike.
Is there life after death? Yes, of course there is. Life goes on whether we’re around to witness it or not.
The birds will still sing, the trees will still blossom, the sun will still shine, the earth will still turn, and there will still be joy in the world as long as there are living creatures around to enjoy it.
Our first duty to the dead is to go on being alive. Our next is to find joy and consolation despite the loss.
I have one last thing to say.
I had this revelation a few years ago after another friend of mine died. It was one of those strange and wonderful thoughts that appeared to come out of nowhere.
I was thinking about death, just as I am doing today.
I decided that it is our mortality which defines our love. It is the certainty of loss that gives our relationships their special meaning. If there are immortal beings in the universe, I thought, then they would know less than we do; they would be less wise, because they would never know the loss of someone they cared about.
Thus we are wiser than the angels because we know the sorrow of loss.
That’s when that wonderful thought came to me. It kind of floated in on the breeze and settled in my heart. Maybe we are angels, I thought, made mortal in order to learn the secrets of love.
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