real life

What I learned about my mother after she died





I became a motherless daughter a year ago. At 49 years old that may sound overly melodramatic but it is a very sad and strange feeling. Of course, I can’t imagine losing a mother as a child or teenager but when someone has been in your life for your whole life their absence leaves a gaping hole, regardless of the relationship.

I got a phone call just after 5am. It was my Dad’s voice telling me mum had died – very suddenly and unexpectedly. No warning, no chance of resuscitation. She hadn’t even been sick.  It was all over in a matter of minutes.

My memory of that first few hours will never leave me. The phone call to my sister while piling clothes on, the normally 60 minute drive to Mum and Dad’s place which took 45 minutes that day.  Driving fast while sobbing and talking on the phone to my brother. Arriving to see my suddenly frail and shrunken looking father, tears streaming down his face, hugging me like he never wanted to let go.  Not wanting to let him go either.  Ambulance officers advising that because she had died at home the police would need to come and an autopsy performed. Asking to see her and having them stop me from pulling the blanket up over her hands because she couldn’t be touched before the police photographer came. Feeling stupid for thinking she might still feel the cold.    Having to formally identify her body for the police to save my father from that task.  Watching my mother leave her home for the last time in a black body bag.  No amount of NCIS or Law and Order could prepare anyone for that and for a long time it was an enduring image.

That first ten days my dad, who was ten years older than my mother, was never alone as the family gathered to support him. Intense grief was ever present. It consumed me some days and I recall wondering if there were a finite number of tears the tear ducts could produce.  I remember thinking how on earth people who lose a child cope with their grief if this is what it felt like to lose your mother as an adult.  And I discovered a new grief-  grief for a mother I didn’t really know well at all.

My mother was not an overtly affectionate mother and could be described at times, politely, as highly critical and judgmental.  I worked full time, have three kids and getting to see mum and dad was often difficult.  And just when I had that thought ‘I must call mum’ she would ring me and point out that I hadn’t called in a while or the length of time it had been since she had seen the grandchildren. So I was a bit surprised oddly by the all consuming grief I felt and by how much I missed her, her voice and her presence in my life.  I am not romanticizing my relationship with her – it was, at times difficult and frustrating. But I would have, and often did, do anything for her, and dad. They both sacrificed a lot to give us all a good education, and all three of their children have successful careers. She objected if we helped them out financially, or bought extravagant gifts. But the one thing she could never do was show warmth. When greeting her she always proffered her cheek, never hugged back if I hugged her and seemed emotionally very remote. So visiting was something I came to look upon as a chore rather than a pleasure. And I regret that, knowing what I know now.

One thing dad wanted my sister and me to do was to clear out all mums personal belongings. He didn’t want to open a cupboard and see her clothes there. So it took a few days with the help of a friend to do it – decide what to give to charity, what to throw away ( even poor people don’t deserve used underwear or stained clothes ) and what to give to friends.

There were clothes and shoes in every cupboard  – some I remembered seeing when i was a teenager. Once we were done dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of suitcases under the spare bed. And this is where the mother I never knew was hiding.

In those suitcases were kept every card and letter her children and  grandchildren had ever sent her. Newspaper clippings. Cards and letters from her own mother and father. From friends. Anniversary cards (some with racy messages) exchanged between my parents.  I read every one of them over a few days. Inside a very small cheap Xmas card written to my mother by my grandmother in my mother’s neat cursive writing were the words ‘mum’s last card to me’. My grandmother had  died a few months after that Christmas. Things I had written as  a child – poems and cards- were there. I found the card that was with the flowers I sent her and dad when I finished uni thanking them for their support.

It became very obvious that my mother felt great and deep affection for us all and was incredibly proud of us all. She was just incapable of saying it or showing it. And I think I now know why.

I officially have two siblings – An older brother and an older sister. But I found out I had another older sister who died at birth – my parents’ first child who was born and died in terrible circumstances which today would result in law suits and newspaper articles but which in 1954 was best put behind one. My sister Ann drowned in her mother’s blood. It doesn’t really matter now how it happened but mum never saw or touched her beautiful red headed baby. My dad was not there at the time.  She was sedated for some days and the baby taken away. My dad tells me he saw Ann and she was perfect. But dead. Their first baby.  My father was the parish priest in a small country town, so I suspect that the general view would have been that it was ‘God’s will’ – how hard to support the vocation of the man you love while questioning why God would do this to you, feeling rage and grief for so long and being unable to express it.

I have found out that Ann has a grave but the local shire council records her as the stillborn daughter of my father. My mother’s relationship to that baby is not even officially recorded. It is as if she never existed.

In the year since mum died dad has spoken of their loss and grief a lot – something my mother could never do. He told me that she would shut herself away each anniversary and cry but never speak of it and he felt helpless for so many years. The birth of three healthy children after that did not diminish her feelings and we know now that parents of stillborn babies still think of those babies as part of their family.

I can’t imagine having that experience and never talking about it. Never wanting to express it, holding it in. No wonder she suffered migraine headaches!  And no wonder she was anxious and  reluctant  about showing affection. Fear of loving something and losing it would make you like that I think.

I think of friends who have had miscarriages or still births and the support that is available to them today.  How different might my mother’s life (and indeed my father’s) have been had she felt able to express her grief publicly?  I wish I had known.  I wish I had been able to help her.

I am going to take my dad on a road trip one day to that little country town – after I have found someone who can beautify Ann’s grave.  We can go and acknowledge that perfect baby  who never lived,  and my mother’s loss.