My mum died, extremely suddenly and unexpectedly, on the 23rd of June 2023. Although I don’t really write here anymore, it feels weird not to record this here, after 16 years of this blog.
We thought she was pretty much immortal, like many of the women in our family. She smoked like a steam train. She was deaf as fuck and blared Law and Order episodes loud enough to wake the dead. She had COPD and a serious Nescafe addiction. She used swearing as punctuation, like many West Belfast Mas (including myself). She had lived through difficult years with an alcoholic husband, to an emotional renaissance in her later life and as a grandparent. She had a freezer with ice pops for the kids and stashes of chocolate for them. She kept all the cards from them and us (not so much me, having never been a real card-sending person, to my now shame and distress) in a tin box by her bed. She is the woman who phoned me while I was waiting for a bus to a job interview and asked me to hack Ulster Bank for her to take her off the loan blacklist, because I could write basic HTML and in her mind that meant I was an elite hacker. Who had my baby sister in the backseat of a car while I passed her lit cigarettes through the rolled down window. Whose cigarettes I used to nick as a teenager and smoke out my bedroom window. Whose bed I used to lie on with her watching Prisoner Cell Block H. Whom we have spent almost every Christmas of our lives with. Who was the soft touch granny and our kids played joyfully and noisily in her front garden while she smiled on in her dressing gown with a cigarette and a cup of coffee she’d drink half of. I didn’t want to bring Jack up there when he was tiny because of the smoke. I regret that now. Who cares about some fucking smoke?
In the end, it was a stupid accident that took her life – though it took it mercifully peacefully and obliviously. People would say it was a good way to go. And they have, often. She was talking to my brother on the phone. Two of my sisters and I went to the house and she was in her chair, dressing gown and slippers (as always) and she looked like she had fallen asleep. And that was hard. We were able to hug her and hold her hand, but there was silence. Our other sister was at her home in England and we video called her so she could be present for our mum’s last rites.
Everyone says it’s good way to go. And it was – for her. But for us, it has been awful. It came out of nowhere. My sister had her kids in the car as they were going up for a visit anyway. We didn’t get to say goodbye. Didn’t get to say any of those things you say to someone you love before they die. I love you. I will miss you. Thank you. We didn’t get to say a word, and nor did her grandchildren who love her fiercely. They are in shock and confusion too; clinging and trying to understand in the ways that children understand these things, as we try to help them understand while not understanding ourselves. As harrowing as it was watching our dad die, we were at least able to talk to him and prepare ourselves for what was happening. This time, there was no warning. We weren’t prepared. It doesn’t feel real.
Because her death was unexpected and unexplained, there had to be a postmortem. It’s funny how rootless you suddenly feel when the Order of Things is so disrupted. We are Catholic, culturally anyway. Though mummy was a believer even though 4/5 of her children are atheists. We know how things go, how they have always gone, how we have done it with the others we’ve loved who have gone before her; our dad, our grandparents. On this day we do this. The next day we do that. And we couldn’t do this, or that. And so we didn’t know what to do. We bought her new clothes. A sneaky pair of slippers (her last). And waited until she could come home to us again. Sad and frightening and lovely and comforting and heartbreaking all at the same time.
People are so kind. A lot of people loved her. She had wonderful, wonderful neighbours who looked out for her and helped her. Her siblings and family and us kept a vigil for 3 days. The house was full to bursting at points. An array of sandwiches, a pot of stew and even a temporary gazebo for my sister’s garden, where people could go out and sit, and smoke endlessly and try to understand. Her funeral was lovely, as they go. The flowers picked by my big sister, and the singer too. We all chose the coffin. All these strange things you have to do and things you have to say when someone you love dies. “That one would be too fancy, she wouldn’t like that one”. Two big flower arrangements saying MUMMY (for she is always mummy) and GRANNY. And the best ever order of service photo which captured so much of who she was – a fucking brilliant Spiderman. That hand action!
If I sound detached, it’s because I am. I feel like I am watching myself and the world at the moment. I have cried 4 times – when we were with her in the house immediately after she died, at her funeral when guiding her coffin into the car and in the house when we had to say our last goodbyes. Mostly, I had panic attacks. I felt and still feel like my heart is failing. Since the day of her funeral I have felt absolutely frozen. There is so much to do. Now we are orphans. There is the house to clear and return to the council. There has been no mental space to mediate on what the fuck has happened. My overriding feelings right now are of wanting to love and protect my siblings and my family. Of sadness that Jack isn’t going to spend his childhood being doted on by her and that Oisin has lost her. My own heart feels in an iron maiden. Many nights awake until 4am with a constant scream in my head, how did you die, how did you not know you were dying? I haven’t written about it here but I have been really unwell for months in a relapse and mostly off work. Medicated up to the eyeballs. Gratefully so, there is the arsenal there to throw at the 4am horrors and sleep to drug myself into. I’m glad. But I wonder if it is freezing me.
In all the admin afterwards we are in the rear view mirror of our childhoods. The places and spaces we will have no cause to visit anymore. The shopping centre with the library, our library. Driving past our old house and school and the church where she and my dad were married and we were all christened, communed, confirmed.
If I have any overwhelming feelings right now, it is sadness for her. She struggled with her mental health and her physical health had been gradually worsening. But she didn’t want to die. She was only 66. She had her kids and her grandkids, her fegs and her slippers. I feel so sad for her that she didn’t want to die but she did. It’s not fair.
I don’t really know how to end this bit of writing. I keep thinking, “When this is over, I will know what I’m feeling and I will know what to do”. But there is no over, this is it now, forever. She is gone and we can’t bear it.
We love you, we’ll miss you, thank you – night night.