‘What shall we do about Mum?’
This is a question we have asked each other so many times over the past months, years even, since her slide into mental illness. What shall we do about her health? Her safety? Her wellbeing? What shall we do about her while Dad is in hospital?
Now we are worried about what we do about her now he is dead. And the most pressing issue right now is: what shall we do about her during the funeral?
It has never occurred to me not to include her in the funeral, but when I ask my sister how we are going to manage her while we also give the eulogy, look after our own families and Dad’s friends and orchestrate the whole day, my brother-in-law gently steps in and says, ‘You don’t.’
I am conflicted. On the one hand the relief of someone giving me permission not to include Mum is huge. On the other the sense of betrayal is even more overwhelming. How can I not allow my mother to go to her husband’s funeral? How can I even entertain the idea?
I call the hospital where Mum is still under section and ask the opinion of the mental health nurses. They think a large funeral will be too much of an ordeal for Mum in her current state but they also think that she needs to ‘say goodbye’; to ‘have closure’.
In the end, the wonderful funeral parlour we were advised to use suggests that we have a private ceremony for Mum in their chapel, four days before the funeral itself. So the decision is taken out of my hands. I am not to feel guilty. This is the best course of action: everyone agrees.
So this is how, on 14th August 2015, I find myself driving back to Kent to meet my sister and her husband in the tiny chapel that backs on to the the car park of the pub where we used to meet with our school friends on Christmas Eve. The ceiling is low, the room packed with people. Mum is heavily sedated. She looks tiny: frail and frightened, as though she has no idea why she is here. Her eyes stare into the distance behind thick glasses – not her usual contact lenses. She has had her hair blow-dried and someone has clearly removed her facial hair as well. She is wearing a simple black linen dress. She is the only person sitting down. There are two nurses with her and our family friend, Brian, is here along with someone from the funeral parlour, my sister and her husband. In an alcove is Dad, inside his bamboo coffin. I had never expected to get this close to it. It is awful, knowing that he is lying inside, and that I cannot see him or touch him. But if I feel this, how must Mum feel? Can she feel anything at all through the fug of Diazepam and goodness knows what else?
The already small room is made to feel smaller with all the people it now contains. Brian says a few words and also a prayer. I am not listening. I am watching Mum, holding my breath to see what she will do. Will she cry? Will she say anything? Will she ask if this is the funeral proper?
Brian is asking if we want to say something ourselves. Mum says, ‘No.’ So that is that. She she wants to go. She will not even lay a bouquet of flowers on the coffin. My sister and I do it, my stomach clenching with unsayable words, inexpressable thoughts. I want to scream and howl, but I can’t. I need to get out of here, for this to be over. It is awful. There is nothing beautiful about this, nothing remotely appropriate. A woman is saying goodbye to the love of her life, her husband for forty-nine years. It should not be like this. I wish I had not come. I wish I did not have to see my mother so ravaged by illness, so distanced by drugs, so diminished. I wish she could show grief, even if it were loud and ugly and terrifying to watch. I wish she could stand by our side at Dad’s funeral. I wish I did not feel this guilt; this sense of having let her and Dad down.
We watch Mum leave in the taxi with the two mental health nurses. We wave and call ‘Goodbye’. She does not look at us as the car pulls away.