Describing how she brought her late friend’s belongings back to the UK, Kate said, “As I lifted the small suitcase at the airport for weighing and loading for the trip, the fragility of life struck me, and the visual of an actual suitcase, full of a very big life was overwhelmingly sad”. Reading her words I felt a rush of emotion, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
For me Kate’s writing, clear and incisive as ever, brought back memories from 15 months ago when, in the final moments of Christmas Day I walked out of my mum’s nursing home room carrying a battered overnight bag containing all that was left of her possessions. All that was left of her.
I’d missed her passing by a handful of minutes. Hurrying along the corridor I was stopped by the night-time carer (a stranger, this was the festive season remember) who stepped out of her room and said, quite simply, “She’s gone.” Two words that knocked the stuffing out of me even though I’d been expecting them – even, dare I say it, wanting them – for well over two years.
She was a long time going my poor old mum. Ninety when she finally shuffled off this mortal coil, she hadn’t really been with us for a decade. Dementia stole her, almost indiscernibly at first and then with more force as it began to erode not just her brain but her body.
When I held her in my arms that Christmas night she was tiny; no more than a raggedy scarecrow of skin and bones, but still my mum. In fact, after all that the wretched combination of brain atrophy, vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease had done to her, she was, in many ways, more my mum in those weighted, precious moments of grief and loss than she had been for a very long time.
A miner’s daughter from Derbyshire, my mother was bright but largely uneducated. She was outspoken and big-hearted, with auburn hair and a penchant for flower arranging and expensive clothes that my siblings and I marvelled at. It was only when the true poverty of her upbringing began to emerge as dementia stripped away her pride that we realised that our mum’s appreciation for the finer things in life must have come from her early years in service to the Duke of Newcastle under Lyne.
What a journey she travelled. From the mining village of Cresswell to the leafy lanes of Surrey where, while working in Clandon for the Earl of Lincoln, she happened to meet a young Guildford lad not long back from the war.
She and dad went on to have three children of which I was the last – an accident or, if I was in good favour, an afterthought. Their driving principle was to equip us, in the form of education, with a passport for getting on in life. In this they succeeded. We all went to university and bettered our lot. We have all travelled some distance, if not quite as far as mum.
Which brings me back to the suitcase. Its contents didn’t reflect her life but how much it had dwindled: a handful of photographs and cards that had adorned her room and a CD player-cum-radio that provided the soundtrack of her final years. Confined to bed and nighties, she’d long since stopped wearing clothes, while her few personal bits and pieces, including all her jewellery, were already scattered among us children.
I knew, and kept reassuring myself, as I drove back to London in the bleak early hours of Boxing Day, that the pathetic little suitcase of objects didn’t reflect mum’s life at all. And it didn’t. Her four score years and ten had been fuller, happier and – until those last miserable years – luckier than most. Yet the holdall seemed nonetheless symbolic.
It reminded me of the overnight bag that I’d taken into hospital when I’d given birth 15 years earlier, to Emily. I knew, just like every other expectant mum, that when I made my journey home my world would have tilted on its axis and everything – from my relationship with my husband to the everyday creaks and gurgles inside our house (not to mention my own exhausted body) – would be different.
Driving through the deserted streets that Christmas night my head was full of similar disorienting thoughts. Mum had gone – really, finally, physically gone – and, at 52, I was an orphan. The order of things, as I’d always known them, had just been radically altered.
The imagery of roads travelled, of life’s pathways and crossroads, is rich and well mined. It works. But the suitcase – or backpack or bag – the accoutrement of every traveller, though visually potent is possibly misleading.
I tucked away my mum’s small case in a rarely used room of our house for a good two weeks before I could bear to open it again and sort through its contents. They smelt, not of mum – my mum, lover of Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps and Je Reviens by Worth – but of the nursing home. A mixture of soap and air freshener and something else I’d never been quite sure of and didn’t want to find out. In other words, the suitcase of belongings wasn’t mum at all.
Mum was the woman who used to tell me how she sat in the window of her bungalow, glowing with the unspoken secret of me growing inside her as she watched her neighbours walking their children to school, knowing that soon she too would have another baby.
She always called me her baby, even when she started living in her nursing home and I was well into my forties. Imagine the pathos – the life in a word – in that.
She was the one who loved Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, who favoured men’s watches and the colour green, who – in her younger, carefree days – danced around the kitchen with a tea cosy on her head. Half-Irish, she could talk the hind leg off a donkey. She wanted to learn but never quite had the concentration to finish the numerous and varied courses – Italian, German, literary criticism – upon which she was constantly embarking.
Mum – at her best – was gregarious, generous and warm. She could also be sharp and impatient and sometimes unfairly critical. Until dementia took hold she was never boring. Or staid. Or predictable.
Everyone’s life is a journey being made, a story in the process of being told. Behind every face, hidden in the lines, the twinkle of the eyes, the twitch of a cheek, the turn of a lip, lie the kilometres travelled, the ups and downs, the treacherous sands, the smoothly paved ways.
Now that over a year separates me from mum’s passing I like to look at the photographs propped on my desk. Of her at 18, with her arched eyebrows (Emily’s eyebrows), her peachy skin and her soft mouth; of her at about the same age as I am now, smiling at me with, somewhat disconcertingly, my grey-blue eyes. Two snapshots in time. Two moments in a long and fulfilled life that saw mum travel a heck of a way.
No. A suitcase could never contain my mum – any more than she could ever decide what to pack.