“The idea of being forgotten is terrifying.” So writes Susan Orlean in ‘The Library Book.’ And I think this is probably true for most people.
But, as a bereaved person, the idea of forgetting is, for me, equally confronting. During the stress of experiencing my mother’s active dying and then death, my memory started playing tricks on me. I was uncharacteristically good at remembering dates during this ‘adventure’: diagnosis 1 April 2019 but she told me on the 12 April 2019, death occurred 19 May 2019, funeral 23 May 2019… but I am less successful at remembering times. I know she died in the evening of 19 May 2019 while I sat beside her watching a superhero movie, but I forget at what time exactly.
The experience of camping out in her palliative care ward felt so vivid, and my senses so heightened, that there are certain things about that place that I thought, when I experienced them, that I would never forget, but which faded from sharply defined episodes to faded jumbles with surprising rapidity after I had left there.
Years ago, we saw Sleepless in Seattle – a film she loved – for the first time in each other’s company. I am absolutely clear about that. But I forget whether or not we saw it in the cinema or on telly, and whether or not any other friend or family member was there with us. In that film there is a scene where a small boy tells his father that he is starting to forget what his dead mother looked like. I have read that this is the case for other bereaved people too.
I don’t want to forget her. I don’t want to forget the things I loved about her: her mad violent laughter, her childlike and often comical expressions, her power with words, her urgency of emotion. She wasn’t an easy woman, with difficult qualities rubbing up against the joyous. So it feels important to hold onto a memory of that beguiling side of her now that I do know that there were things I genuinely loved about her, now that the relief of the absence of her unjust demands and sometimes cruel game-playing has cleared space for me to figure out what I actually feel about her.
It’s equally important, too, not to forget the bad stuff: the tantrums, the whiplash volatility that was so disorientating to experience, the constant grabbing for attention and endorsement that was so exhausting. Now that my family and I have time to draw breath and actually reflect, we need to gauge exactly what that woman took from us and what she gave, and what the imbalance between those things was, and how it has shaped us. To do this – to reclaim our sense of self – takes accuracy of perception so that we can carefully weigh all this up. To find this accuracy, while being hit by waves of grief-elicited emotion like sadness, relief, anger, requires a good memory.
Then there’s an accepting of the things about my mother that live outside the realm of memory because they were the things I never knew about her. What did the core of her look like, I often wondered, for her to behave in the way she did? Was it a heaving broiling mess of emotional lava? Or was the frantic psychological shape-shifting and spell-casting a front, protecting a core that was empty? I always knew she could never tell us because she didn’t allow herself to know. Whatever she sensed was in there was something she was too terrified to look at.
For the last three days of her life, lying deadly still (there’s no other way of putting it) in the palliative care ward, Mum didn’t wake up. We called it sleeping, but, such was the level of unresponsiveness, I suppose it was a coma. During that time I kept vigil, over my own reactions as much as her unmoving form, and offered a few last pathetic tendernesses: I spoke to her uncomprehending head, told her she could go, that we would be alright, blah blah blah, all the stuff you’re supposed to say. I recited a favourite poem, and described a beautiful late-autumn dawn, the cockatoos and trees outside her window. She loved words, plants and birds. I shoved little chips of ice into her slack mouth until it gaped and then stayed open and couldn’t retain them anymore.
And I touched her hair, like a parent brushing the hair of a child. Mum had often had a tendency of behaving like a toddler, forcing myself and my sister, often and reluctantly, into quelling her fears and nudging her out of her outbursts like older siblings or parents. My earliest memories are of doing this.
Because this responsible behaviour was compelled, and not reciprocated, it made me reluctant to freely offer as much tenderness when I might have, as much as I tried to remain good friends with her. I was loyal, said the right things, and hid the right secrets. But there was no room for voluntary gentleness in the middle of Mum’s psychically violent world; the best I could manage was determined good will.
But in her last sleep, when she no longer had the power to try and control the doing of it, I touched her hair. I don’t know why. It was out of instinct. Her hair was naturally wavy, and a lovely grey. Given the buoyancy and naturalness of that wave, and the thickness of each individual strand, I expected her hair to be stiff and harsh in texture. But it felt gloriously soft, silky, almost baby-like. If I had not given into that instinct, I would never have known.
Will I forget that?