Dear old Mum is fading. At the very respectable age of eighty-eight, her hitherto teeming waters of life have now slowed to a trickle.
Life, for the most part, consists of pouring herself out of bed into a reclining chair in ‘the snug’, where she eats and sleeps and then pouring herself back into bed for another long and wakeful night.
Mum has decided that she wants to die peacefully at home and we are doing our best to see that it is so.
One might have thought that such a request would be fairly easy to accommodate, nestled here in the fluffy green pillows of the South Devon countryside, overlooking the ever-changing sea.
But a few other octogenarians got there first and the availability of end-of-life care, we discovered, is virtually non-existent.
Being a farmer’s daughter, a wartime evacuee, a nurse and the owner and Matron of her own residential care home, she is both stoic and familiar with the topic of death.
A taboo subject in most households until needs must, for us it is discussed in the manner of one asking for the butter to be passed at the breakfast table.
It was on this very subject, (death, that is- not passing the marmalade) that we sat down to discuss the finer details of mum’s funeral.
She knew that she wanted to be buried in her local church, next to her friend and former resident, Freda, who passed at the Biblical age of one hundred and five.
Beyond that we hadn’t discussed it until now, so convinced were we that she would outlive us all.
She had prompted me by nearly expiring in front of my eyes and calling for the last rites to be read, only to make a miraculous recovery just two hours later by leaping up the stairs like a startled gazelle.
Mum decided that she didn’t want a fancy funeral and would like the cheapest one going. Given the choice of a Bronze, Silver or Gold package, she immediately opted to be wrapped in a sack and tossed in.
She nodded off mid conversation, as she is wont to do, so I waited patiently for her to recover.
Sleeping on it, even for a matter of minutes, seemed to have settled things. She didn’t, after all, want a cardboard coffin in case she fell out in church and startled the congregation but the cheapest wooden one should prove more than adequate.
She was only disappointed the funeral company didn’t offer the ‘Brass’ option for the thriftiest customers.
I booked it over the phone in front of her and she was pleased to obtain a further cost reduction by virtue of a discount card she produced from her purse. Her eyes glinted with determined satisfaction at this outcome.
We then moved onto the topic of the service itself and her personal choice of readings and hymns.
Whilst Mum moved, snail-like to the loo, I took a brief break and wandered into the conservatory.
It was hot and bright with a light sea breeze blowing through. The swallows swooped in and out of the garage where their young waited to be fed.
One stretched out a wing as he rested on the telephone wire.
“You can sit in the conservatory if you like.” I said, coming back in to meet her as she returned to her chair.
“Sit in the cemetery?” she replied. “It would be nice and shady there – not so hot.
Not like the conservatory.”
“I think your hearing aid is playing up again” I said. “It’s beautiful! I see the bourgainvillia is out.”
“Oh! you got a bargain out? where?,” she said with quizzical interest.
I smiled, trying to be patient. It’s not easy when you’ve been up at five a.m. helping her out of bed. Worth it just for the sunrise from her bedroom window though. (Main picture)
“I could give you a piggyback,” said I.
“I always used to give Dennis a piggyback- little Denny- he was always hot. Didn’t like the hot weather.”
Mum doesn’t want a eulogy but simply asks those present to understand that she is a Christian: one secure in her faith and in the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Her chosen reading explains that he is, ‘the light that shineth in the darkness.’
Who likes the dark? I say.
We paused to contemplate together what such a life might look like.
“I hope I shall go on learning,” she said, rather sweetly I thought, with the kind of humility that isn’t fashionable these days.
She wore then a rather melancholy look whilst appearing to give a critical self-assessment of her life’s work, as she looked down at her warm winter socks: her feet are always so cold.
“ I had hoped that somehow I would be better than I am by now,” she offered with an air of repentance. “I’m disappointed that I’m not a better person,”
I was sobered by this admission and after a moment of thought replied,“Well if you didn’t think so, I suppose you’d be proud or deluded. And neither one of those would do you much good.”
At that moment the phone rang and I jumped to answer it.
It was either the Doctor or someone in a call centre in India enquiring for the second time that day whether Mum wanted them to make a claim on her behalf for past misselling of Payment Protection Insurance. I was eager to catch either one.
I found that it was neither. It was the adult social care team, who had helped perform her morning and evening ablutions for the last weeks, due to the unavailability of other help. The lady on the end of the phone said she wanted to speak to Mum to thank her as she had been a very special person to care for and was liked by all the different carers who attended her. “A lovely lady,” she pronounced.
“You see, Mum. You can’t have been that far wide of the mark. Anyway, heaven and earth aren’t nearly as far apart as we imagine.
Some people are so blinded by selfish pride or self-congratulation, or worse, self-righteousness, that they descend into a sort of hell on earth. They simply refuse to move even a little bit closer to heaven or to accept responsibility for the full life they were made for.”
I recalled a quote from Clive Staples Lewis on the subject:
“If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
The man clearly knew his stuff.
The truth is she has been a wonderful mum. Flawed like all of us, but caring and loving and too humble for her own good.
I shall miss her when she’s gone.
In case you’re wondering, her chosen reading is the one I quoted above from John 1:
The Word Became Flesh
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.