Written on: 30. 8. 2011 in the category: news

Autumn and Death

And that was the summer; another season gone. The start of no other time of year is so infused with melancholy as the one now upon us. The leaves are beginning to turn to crispy brown paper in the autumn sun. Soon they will be gone, and the empire of the early dusk and the long night begins. There are consolations to be got from the roaring fire and the buttered scones and those cold clear winter days when you can see a fence from forty miles. But I know what each season means: another layer of one’s life lived, another chapter concluded, another landmark passed. And I also know how quickly the past ten or twenty years have passed. Those are the units we live by: and they are the merest gossamer standing between us and a return to the utter nothingness from which we emerged.

It was on days like these, twenty-one years ago, that I took my mother on the Shannon. The weather was kind, and the sun shone every day. One evening I cooked lamb-chops, and I gave her two. She was thrilled; a lady of modest habit, she had never before had two chops on her plate. And I felt guilty then that I had never before provided her with such an ordinary pleasure. During that trip, she seemed troubled; she had difficulty understanding simple things. I thought it was age. It wasn’t: it was a brain tumour that was diagnosed over the coming weeks, and would kill her as winter deepened.

Death, when it finally came, was a deliverance. But I was shocked by the terrible grief that followed and seemed to consume my entire life. I know in part what it was. Both my parents were now gone. Their six children now stood on the end of the branch. One by one, we too would go. I knew in all probability that of the six of us, one of us would go to five funerals, and one would go to none. Bereavement strikes so deep because it is not just separation but a foreshadowing. The knells are for everyman. The scythe scythes all.

Grief is a form of madness for which the only asylum is time. But it does not cure – merely acclimatises and habituates. I think about my parents every day of my life. I think about the love I didn’t show, and all the good deeds that went undone. And age does not change these things. For guilt is an anvil upon whose iron we shape so much of ourselves and our lives.

Yet I am oddly pleased about one thing that I did, that summer 21 years ago, the summer of Italia 90, and the last summer of my mother’s life. Pavarotti’s [itals] Nessun Dorma [unitals] was everywhere, and today I never hear those opening chords without thinking of my mother. I organised what turned out to be the very last great family party. The sun shone throughout the long July evening, and we sat beneath the apple and pear trees in her garden, and drank wine and ate a vast Chinese take-away meal of many courses. One of my nieces had a karaoke machine, and we sang songs well into the night, not knowing that this was also a virtual farewell to the family as a unit. We had one further reappointment, for my mother’s funeral; the following December, we buried her in an icefield of a cemetery that was as cold and hard and bitter as it had been many years before when we’d laid my father there, and I was a boy.

There was never to be a full family moment together again. Families do not usually stay cohesive once the maternal hub has gone. The centre holds the parts, like the axle on a merry-go-round. For my mother’s home was more than her home. It was the one place in common for her children. Nowhere else would quite do. And something strange happens when a mother dies: a core is gone from your life. You become a new and a lesser person. Dimensions are lacking. The obligations to think about that reassuring home-from-home, and to provide emotionally for someone else somewhere else, perished with her.

I have visited my mother’s house just once in recent years, via a Google earth satellite. Never again. The beautiful front garden in which she took such immense pride has been covered in tarmac and is now a car-port. In the back garden, the fruit trees beneath which we sang on that summer’s evening, only yesterday but oh so long ago, have all been felled. Her home has been rewritten as if she were never its author. The only human record that remains of it is in the minds of her children and grandchildren. We all of us are like time-capsules,  bearing our defining freight, which no-one else will ever know or see, into the total dark of deep space.

The dying of the summer has always filled mortal man with dread, because it foreshadows our own end. How many more autumns await each one of us? The months ebb, the bell tolls and the leaves fall.