Monday, 16 May 2016

The people we meet in heaven

This morning we were running late for school. It was a sunny day and the dog needed walking and so I decided to breakfast in the park. Such are the perks of the freelance writer. While I ate, I sat watching a little girl chatting with her grandmother over breakfast. The girl had plaits and sunglasses. She was interested in my dog who was sitting at her feet salivating. The grandmother and I shared pleasantries about the sunshine and the dog. My mum must have been like that, I thought. I remembered all of the days that she had looked after my own little girl while I was working, the way she was so focused on the child, the way grandmothers are, like there is nothing more important in the world. There is nothing more important in the world, I thought. Suddenly I couldn't help myself. 'My mum used to look after my children,' I said. And, then, before I knew what I was saying, I said, 'she died.' And the woman said something about time being precious and no-one knowing how long they had and she tried to wish me something positive, 'you have a nice dog,' she said. And I walked away crying, thinking about the precious time my mum had shared with my children and the influence she will have had even though her time with them was short.

It took me by surprise a little, this sudden grief for my mum this sunny morning. My grief for that loss has been eclipsed by this new grief for you. I had barely had time to process it before I was in shock, left reeling. Your loss was so brutal, so visceral, so unexpected.

I lost my mum in stages. I had time to prepare. And yet it was still unexpected when it came. She had bounced back so many times and was so determined to live that even I sometimes thought that perhaps she would go on forever. Perhaps we are never really prepared even when we know that death is inevitable, unavoidable, a fact of life. It's a fact of life that no-one wants to talk about, especially not my mum.

We never met each other's mums during our relationship. At our age mothers get jaded. They have welcomed too many partners. They raise their eyebrows when we mention a new one, wait to see if it's serious before they get too interested. It was serious as it happens. Very serious.

Although you never met, you were often in the same building, separated only by air and doors and staircases. The narrative of my mother's death runs in parallel to our love story. It's impossible for me to believe even now that you are both on the other side of a one-way door, that you followed her so quickly out of this world. But I know it's true. I went to both of your funerals and your ashes sit in two separate jars, waiting to be scattered, memorials to both of you still need to be planned. It would be comforting to think that you have met now but my magical thinking only takes me so far and not to a world where you are sitting together taking tea and chatting about the good old days.

Your mum had never drunk tea, she tells me. She had a phobia about it. It used to bewilder you. But she has started drinking chamomile tea now. She wanted to have her first cup of tea with you. It's another thing she will never do now. So she drinks tea with me and we talk about you and the air is thick with love and grief and loss. We know a thing or two about loss. We are not fine. We are not getting over it any time soon. We're ok with that.

When your story first collided with my mother's it was not a good moment. We had spent the night together for the first time and that morning, you had sent me a message saying that you thought we should just be friends after all. I was shocked. I was so sure that you liked me. I couldn't understand what had happened to make you change your mind. And then, just as I'd got the children to school, my mum phoned to tell me that she couldn't breathe and asked me if I could take her to hospital.

The next time, we were 'just friends' again. We had talked things through, slowed things down. I had told you that I couldn't handle you being unreliable, not just now, with all this going on. We'd been for a walk on a Tuesday night. I was in the middle of cooking curry. You were playing DJ on my laptop, when my mum phoned again to ask me to take her to hospital. I didn't want to leave you, was overwhelmed with emotion. I walked over to you and half-hugged you, half-kissed you, not sure what I was doing. We ate tea quickly and said goodnight.

The way you stood by me and supported me is one of so many reasons why I loved you. I had a new boyfriend when my dad suddenly started dying, twelve years ago. I'd been to see him in hospital. He was brain-damaged and confused me with his wife. He started trying to take my clothes off. I went to see that boyfriend on the way home. I needed a hug. He dumped me after that. He said I was giving off 'negative energy'. He didn't want that in his life. But you sucked up that negative energy and left me replenished with your love. You spent Tuesday nights sitting in your van or in hospital cafes while I waited to see consultants. I kept saying sorry. You kept reassuring me. You had a book. You were fine. You were always fine so long as you had a book and nothing was more important to you than me and the mum that needed me.
You almost met at my book launch. The chemotherapy seemed to be working and my mum was out of hospital and in good spirits. You were loitering in the background because the children were there. For such a big man you were surprisingly good at loitering unobtrusively. I wanted to introduce you but I was busy being an author and looking after the children and my mum was so proud and so happy to be out, chatting to my old school friends. The moment just never arose. The next time you were loitering was three weeks later at her funeral. In the same room again.

'I wish I'd met your mum now,' you said. 'She seems like she was really special.'
'What about your mum?' I said. 'Maybe I should meet her.'
'You will,' you said. 'Let's arrange it.'

Instead we arranged it ourselves, the week after you died, building new connections in our mutual grief - the ones who are left behind. I have lost a mother and lover. She has lost her eldest son. Nothing about it will ever be ok. But we reach out to each other across a sea of loss. 'I won't ask you how you are,' she says when she phones. 'We don't do that do we, you and me?' Instead we skip that bit and we sip our chamomile tea and we remember.

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