The promise of spring stayed with us right up until Mum’s funeral. On the day itself I woke early. The faint dawn light hovered at the edges of the dark hotel curtains. My daughter slept soundly in the twin bed next to mine. I dressed and crept out on to the silent landing.
I walked to the river, where we had scattered Dad’s ashes. I cried as I told him Mum would soon be joining him. I said sorry – again – for the way things had turned out. Cold yellow light filtered through the bare branches. The water was black and uninviting.
I walked back along the river, looking out over the town’s playground where I, and then later my own children, had once played on the swings and climbing frames. I walked past the swimming pool where, in a former life, I had spent hot summer days and where my children had played tag and learned to swim underwater. I walked on, through the castle grounds, feeling the sun grow warmer, listening to the birds. I saw a lesser spotted woodpecker and two goldfinches. I walked up to the gatehouse and put my hand on the ancient sandstone wall. I felt the weight of ages past beneath my skin. I looked out across the castle lawn and thought of what the town had seen, from the Norman conquest and on, on through the more recent World Wars up until the much discussed present town ‘improvements’. I thought of my grandmother, her adult life spent here, watching the town change, watching shops come and go, the landscape around the town adapting and evolving as its status as a commuter-belt community altered the fabric of the place. She was my mother’s rock, breast-feeding her under the kitchen table while bombs were off-loaded by German planes heading back home, bringing her up on post-war rations, struggling to understand her as it became apparent that she was ‘different’, not wanting to leave her, not even when she herself was dying. She was my rock, too. I miss her still.
I walked back to the hotel and got ready for the day ahead.
How did it go? people asked me afterwards. Did it go well?
Yes, it went well. As well as a funeral can ever be said to go. People came from far and wide; from Mum’s distant and more recent past. The service went smoothly. The readings and hymns were just right. I held it together. I got through the words I had to say. It wasn’t the same as Dad’s, but then Mum was a very different person and our relationship with her was different too. We tried to tell the truth, my sister, my uncle and I. We spoke of Mum’s late diagnosis, of how Asperger’s was not something people had heard of or understood while Mum was growing up. People came up to us afterwards and thanked us for explaining. It was a good farewell, but it wasn’t a celebration in the way Dad’s funeral was. I struggled to feel the peace I had felt after Dad died. It eluded me.
We drank tea and ate sandwiches in the newly built wing of the local school, looking out over the cricket pitch. The sun set over the pristine green lawns. Mum would have liked that, I told myself. She loved cricket. Its rules and rituals appealed to her desire for order.
And then it was over and we were on the train back home to Wiltshire – to my adult home, over a hundred miles away from my Kentish roots. No childhood house to deal with this time. No parental possessions to make decisions about, other than the wedding ring that the undertaker handed to my sister before they drove the coffin away. Nothing left to do or say. Just the sense of an ending lingering in the air.
Two days later I was running along the riverbank near where I live. I was crying, feeling empty and lost. I just want to know that you’re at peace, Mum, I thought. I want to know that you are where you wanted to be. I had hardly finished forming the thought when two herons came flying low across the water towards me. In all my time running and swimming here, I have never see two herons together. One rose up and landed in the tree above me. The other landed right by me and looked me straight in the eye. My feeling of emptiness disappeared and was replaced at once by a calm so deep, so strong. And I knew. She is. She is at peace. And so is Dad.
Six days later the snow came. Thick and fast and deep. It cut us off from the neighbouring towns and villages. It snowed for hours and hours so that I couldn’t even go out into the garden. The quiet surrounding the house was profound. We lit fires and hunkered down. I did nothing for two days other than sleep, eat and read.
And then the snow went. As quickly as it had come. And I thought: what a gift, after the shock and the rushing around that comes with death, to be given permission to stop and to realise that I, too, can now go on and find peace.