My mother died a month ago today. It was a bright, sharp January Friday. A day which hinted that spring might be closer than you think. The sun was golden. If you stood in a patch of its light and tilted your head back you could feel its warmth. Mum used to like doing that. She would close her eyes and smile and stretch like a cat. Luxuriating. Basking.
I had decided to do a bit of that myself. I had no classes that day and I had delivered all my chapters for that week. I was on top of things for the first time in months. In fact, I had been feeling on top of the world all week. I had said goodbye to the woman who had been helping me through grieving Dad’s death two and half years ago. I don’t think I need to see you any more, I had said. I told her I felt lighter, freer than I had for years. I was confident that Mum was safe in the home my sister and I had found for her. I knew we had done our best for her. I was going to visit her soon and was actually looking forward to the visit instead of dreading it. The last time I had seen her I had taken my children and she had smiled and had even hugged me. I had kissed her and told her I loved her and she had thanked me for visiting. It had been a very different encounter from previous ones.
I really was happy, I realised that morning. I was no longer striving, worrying away at things I couldn’t solve. I looked out at the sun, streaming through the bare branches of the beech tree outside my study window and decided to give myself permission to take the day off.
I went to meet a friend. A stonemason. He was giving himself the day off too. I am supposed to be carving noses, he told me. I am supposed to be writing about cuckoos, I replied. We laughed as we crunched over the frosty grass towards the lake where we had been swimming through the winter. It’s the first day for a while that it’s actually felt inviting, he said, as we approached the chilly water. The sun seemed to lift a little in the sky as he said that as though smiling on us, and in that moment a flash of sapphire caught my eye.
We hadn’t seen one for months. We stopped and held our breath, whispering wonder at the small bright jewel as he skimmed the surface, laser-sharp, and landed on the far bank.
We changed and ran to the water before we could stop to think how cold it would be. Plunged in. Squealed. Whooped. Swam ten metres, then hauled ourselves out, panting and jumping about like excitable Labradors.
After coffee, gulped down as hot as we could bear to chase the bone-chill away, we said our goodbyes and agreed that had been a beautiful morning. A golden moment. One of the best.
Back home the landline was ringing. I fumbled with my key, ran to the phone. It was my sister. We hadn’t had a proper chat for weeks. Christmas, illnesses, a busy start to the term – we hadn’t had time. We spent a good three quarters of an hour catching up. She was happy. She felt lighter and better than she had in ages. Same here! I told her. We made plans to see each other. We wished each other a good weekend. I was beaming as I went upstairs to run a scalding bath.
I lowered myself, gasping, into the steamy water just as my mobile rang. I never bring it to the bathroom with me, but that day I had. I leaned forward and saw my sister’s face and name on the screen. Something made me reach to answer immediately without pause.
I’m afraid I’ve got some rather shocking news.
Her voice is unsteady. An electric pulse jolts through me. I know what she is going to say – and at the same time I don’t.
It’s Mum. She’s died.
No. I can’t. It’s not. What? I don’t. What?
Just like that. Gone. Fallen awkwardly on to the end of her bed. Probably a heart attack.
The words are far away. I am out of the bath, curled under a towel on the bathmat. Rocking. Crying. No. It’s not. No. NO.
But I’ve had such a beautiful day.
I know. So have I.
Later that evening, after phone calls had been made, grandchildren told, hugs given and received, my sister called again.
I think we let her go. I think somehow she knew – that we were happy at last. That we felt free. She has freed us.
Yes. She has. She has freed us and she herself has found freedom. She turned her face to the sun one last time, just as the kingfisher zipped across the water. She stretched and she smiled. And was gone.