I have just finished reading Kevin Toolis’ book “ My Father’s Wake.”
His life as a child was not unlike mine, there was much to reflect on of my own childhood summer holidays in County Mayo, Eire in the late fifties, early sixties. We too were way out on The Wild Atlantic Way, on the blustery coast at Dooyork, Geesala. My grandparents raised four boys and five daughters. Out of them only one, uncle John, stayed behind to look after the farm.
Kevin’s book shows the emigration of so many from Eire. The villages left to literally fall down as a tribute to the people who once lived there. People migrated to America and England in his book, he did not talk about the ones who went to Canada or Australia, such as my uncle Michael and my parents.
His book resonated so strongly with me. The idea of a culture that welcomes death into their homes. Shows the young how not to be afraid of death and indeed, all ages. I had not had much to do with death until the last seven years when I lost my mother in law in 2012 and my own mother in 2014. Both were sudden deaths, with both living in Care Homes. Sue, my mother in law in the UK and my mum here in Newcastle, Australia.
On the morning of 29th July 2014 I was awoken by the Nurse Unit Manager with a request to call her ASAP. It was about 7am and I thought mum must have had a fall so was totally flabbergasted to be told bluntly that mum had gone that I even stupidly said “gone where?” M the NUM said she is dead Kate, and continued talking, I did not hear what she was saying as this awful sound came out of my mouth. I wailed. And wailed and wailed. I have never ever done it before or since. I realise now it was the shock, but it seemed to be something that just had to come out. The NUM started crying quietly, she loved mum’s spunk, her defiance of anything not fun. In her last year living despite Alzheimer’s she had embraced life so much. I was so proud of her, so, delighted whenever I saw her achieve the near impossible.
Immediately I started to say that it was wonderful, that mum would not be a vegetable, trying to convince myself of that to sustain me through that awful day. My son came with me to the home to see my mum. She looked so tiny. Her spirit was huge and obviously could not be contained within her body. I stroked her hand, sat with her and her first born grandson while so many of the staff who knew mum came to pay their respects. In its way it was a little like a wake, each person told us how sorry they were for our loss. Some cried and looked very distressed for us. They thought mum a lot of fun. Her death was totally unexpected. She could have had many happy years ahead of her, it was a shock for us all, or so a lot of us thought at the time. Now that the home has been sanctioned twice for not looking after their patients properly I am sure she should not have died like that. Alone. In her sleep. Flat on her back with one leg outstretched off the bed. The NUM had tucked it back in to make mum look presentable.
We were left alone for some time with mum to make our goodbyes, I gave her huge wet noisy kissses all over her face and told her she was the best mum in the whole world and that I loved her. So much. I stroked her and wanted to get on the bed and cuddle her but I held myself together. How I wish I had done that but things needed to be done there and I had to inform family. Especially my elderly father. My son and I caught three buses to tell dad. I stayed with him for two weeks neighbours came over and mum’s brothers. My brother came the next day and there was a mad rush for my aunt and uncle and my brother and dad to get to the funeral home to “view” mum before her cremation early the next day. There was to be no funeral and nobody to attend the cremation, all this I found out the day after mum died.
So unlike Sonny in the memoir, my mum passed quietly, with the people who were involved in her life in her last years around her. I was not able to bury her and felt a dreadful sense of bereavement, of lack of respect, lack of saying goodbye to my mum. Even after holding a small Service of Thanksgiving privately for her life I still woke from my sleep, crying, with her foremost in my thoughts.
Four years after she died my son and partner and I took her ashes and sprinkled them in Lake Macquarie. Or rather tossed them, it is very hard to get ashes out of the plastic containers. We watched as the lights reflected off the water at Croudace Bay, as her ashes streamed forth onto the lake. The lights caused her stream of ashes to sparkle. It was remarkable. My son who is a photographer took photos, as did my partner. I felt enormous grief but also relief, that her body was finally free, as her spirit had been when she was cremated. Mum had been in my food cupboard for four years, she had been a brilliant cook before she forgot how to do that so it was a good place for her to be. There she had been surrounded by my friends and dad visiting and lots of laughter. Perhaps she did have a Wake after all, after her ashes came home, to me.