A week like no other.Written by John Macpherson
I’ve just had a memorable week.
My mum died, and we buried her.
That’s the short version.
The long version?
Well, permit me the indulgence to weave a tale that encompasses laughter, tears, xenophobia, illness, memory and brilliant crystalline light. I’ve decided to do this because a few days ago I stood with my arms around my son as we committed his granny to the soil, and I was sad. And, momentarily, angry. An anger I knew my brother and sister, and many of my relatives had shared in equal measure and was given focus for me, strangely, by the events of my mother’s funeral.
I’ve written several times about my mum and her fight with dementia, from the point she was removed from her small apartment where she lived independently, to another more unsettling observation of ‘loss’ when I realised that her dementia had stolen memories from us all in a way that I’d never imagined possible.
Mum died at the weekend, aged 92, peacefully slipping away with family around her, in her Care Home in Fort William. My brother had arrived from Norway, my sister from Ayrshire. All of us together.
However……in the gap between her death and the funeral….as arrangements were made, relatives contacted, wreaths chosen…my son William began feeling unwell. And as I made the final arrangements for the funeral on Thursday, and his 9th birthday party on Wednesday, William went downhill. First wobbliness, then tiredness, finally aches and nausea, closely followed by full-on vomiting. Unfortunately my partner had an important meeting in London and had already left as this drama unfolded.
I started to feel unwell too. And within a matter of hours had joined William in his misery. He lay sprawled on one side of the room heaving into a basin, I was horizontal on the other side aching all over. That night as he went to the toilet before bed I heard a yelp, and dashing in I found William retching into the toilet, and mumbling “Thats eight times today, eight times. Thats the most times I’ve ever been sick in the one day daddy, the most…that’s a record for me…eight times…” and with a sense of some magnificent achievement wobbled off to bed and passed out immediately. We both had hallucinations that night, and woke feeling even worse the next morning.
I spoke to my partner on the phone, and broke the bad news to William. The Birthday Party Most Likely Will Not Happen: some of his classmates who were coming to his party were also off sick, so we’d decided to postpone the event until everybody had recovered. He’s a stoic wee soul, and took it reasonably well, disappointed and tearful but philosophical about the circumstances. The replacement part for the only-two-months-out-of-warranty and now uncontrollable oven popped through the letterbox. Did I say the oven had failed? No? Well the oven had failed and I’d ordered the part to fix it. But as I opened it I realised they’d sent the wrong part. I sighed with frustration. Melanie was going to bake a cake for William’s party on her return on Tuesday evening, so that even if the party was cancelled he would still have the birthday cake.
When she came home Melanie tried her best, but the uncontrollable oven lived down to my expectations, and the cake got burned. Ah well I said, things can only get better. A few moments later overcome with a wave of nausea and wobbliness I leaned over the toilet to rest my head on the window cill and the house cordless phone fell out of my shirt pocket and went straight down the toilet. It was terminal, despite blow-drying and various other water-removal tricks it would not work. Bah.
Birthday day dawned. William opened a few of his presents in bed. Now we’re all feeling dodgy, mummy too, having started to feel a little peaky late the previous night. William had ceased vomiting though, but I had deteriorated and had to force myself to get up and write my mum’s eulogy, shaking uncontrollably, and freezing cold despite the tropical day outside. Late in the afternoon I realised I should make the effort to iron our funeral clothes as we were departing on the 60 mile drive to the funeral first thing in the morning. Board out, iron on. First the shirt…iron goes pffftt-fizzz-pffft-POP! And dies. Terminal. No iron. Creased clothes. Yikes. Luckily I was able to quickly obtain a new one. At least we’d have crease-free clothes if nothing else! It was another night of rollocking hallucinations for me, William slept soundly, well on the road to recovery it seemed.
Thursday was a glorious day for a funeral. The light astonishing, crystal-clear air and warm sunshine. The mountains around town were still snow-patched and glistening. The church in Fort William full of old friends, relatives and more recent ‘acquaintances’ of mum’s, but of them I’ll explain more later. By now I was dizzy, nauseous and losing my voice rapidly. This was shaping up to be a rather challenging afternoon.
My eulogy was long, I’d timed it so the minister would know how to structure his service, it was 15 minutes of non-stop story-telling. It was intended to be in turn funny, surprising and sad. The congregation laughed, then sighed, then laughed again even harder, then wept.
You see, my mum was a force of nature. Literally. Her generosity was boundless. As children we’d often awaken to find a family of strangers having breakfast in the living room – tourists who’d arrived late at the hotel mum worked in, only to find no beds available. So mum had taken them home! One morning there were three Germans from Stuttgart, another day an American couple and two children, once or twice Italians, and Spaniards, South Africans, Australians, Israelis….no matter where you came from, nor the colour of your skin mum would give up her bed, sleep on a floor and feed you when you awoke refreshed next day.
Mum’s generosity of spirit was accompanied by a hatred of intolerance in any form. A quality best summed up in the story of the Moolvi family, our neighbours. Mr & Mrs Moolvi emigrated from Pakistan and arrived in Fort William, moving into a flat across the back square from our flat, with their five children. People of colour were a novelty in the Highlands back then in the mid 1960’s, and it would be fair to say there was at least a degree of suspicion about them, and sadly in a few instances some hostility.
And it was this ‘hostility’ which mum overheard in the laundry house as a few of our more bigoted neighbours made highly pejorative remarks about coloured people in earshot of Mrs Moolvi as she did her washing chores. My mum was outraged and went ballistic. An angry Glaswegian is a terrifying spectacle, mum literally erupted. She sent the gossips packing, their faces red and their tails between their legs, roundly scolded for their unkindness. And to make her point even more forcefully….despite Mrs Moolvi having no English, and mum no Urdu, mum waved her arms around, TALKED VERY LOUDLY, smiled a lot and managed to invite the whole family of Moolvis over to have Christmas Dinner with us and laid on a sumptuous spread of highland delights! We had a grand time and all of us became firm friends. In fact we were sucked into a sort-of Pakistani mafia that extended to Glasgow and provided us with years of joy and insight. We children learned a lot about tolerance and the dangers of narrow-mindedness from my mum.
As I looked across the sea of faces in the church when I told this story, amongst many others, I could see tears welling in the eyes of several of a large number of young women and one young man, spread out across several pews in various groups. These were mum’s carers in the Care Home that had been her home for the last 9 years. A large proportion of them are Polish, some are from Latvia and the Czech Republic. All were heartbroken, sharing our grief at the loss of my mum. Their friend.
As my brother remarked quietly to me at the graveside, his voice loaded with irony, and in reference to our conversation of the previous evening about the shameful creeping xenophobia at the heart of British life: “Who do these Eastern Europeans think they are, coming over here, caring diligently for our families, doing wonderful things for them, then coming to our funerals, crowding round our graves, all tears and sorrow.”
We both knew they had indeed tended my mother diligently. And they have our eternal gratitude for that. They had laughed with her, fed her, bathed her, caressed her when she was distraught and ensured she knew she was not alone in whatever grief-filled place she occasionally tumbled. More than once I’d overheard them gently sing her little Polish songs to ease her into sleep, warm voices just for her.
And more practically, as mum’s speech deteriorated due to dementia, and communication became more difficult, the ability of those surrounding her to understand what she ‘stammerburbled’ became critical to aspects of her welfare. Does mastering a second language, as many of the Eastern Europeans have had to, enhance their ability to discern meaning from apparently incoherent speech? I have no idea, but they managed to. And as a consequence mum rarely went without her needs being met. And crucially when robbed of ‘normal’ speech, what a gift to have in one’s last few years of life simply to be listened to and be understood, to be able to be yourself.
Later at the graveside they stood with us tearful and sad, while William, now fully recovered and in a joyful counterpoint to our collective stillness and solemnity, scampered around revelling in his ability to run endlessly, but stopping when it was necessary to be part of the interment, reverentially dropping a small dandelion picked from the surrounding grass onto his granny’s coffin. Krystof, one of mum’s carers for many years, accepted my invitation to share my cord, to represent his many colleagues and to stand with us as part of our family, as my brother, sister, cousins together shared the burden of lowering my mum into her grave.
All of us indivisibly bound to the small woman in the box beneath us by far more than the simple tasseled cords we each clutched as a final mark of respect as we committed her to the soil beside my dad.
A woman who had welcomed people into her generous arms for the whole of her life, now reaping the love she had sown.
Edit 28th May: thanks to the overwhelming generosity of friends and family the grand sum of £650 was raised which has been used to buy mum’s Care Home, Invernevis House, a set of garden furniture for the elderly and infirm residents. I picked it up yesterday and delivered it to Fort William, where care home staff will be assembling it as I type!
There are wrought-iron benches that will withstand the weather, for use outdoors, with tables and folding chairs, and two sun umbrellas. For indoors use there is a hardwood bench and a lovely big wall clock. £100 has been kept aside to buy plants for the garden to ensure there is colour and texture in the grounds around the furniture. The balance of the donations, another £100, has been put aside to provide a special event for the residents at Christmas, mum’s favourite time of the year.
Thank you all for your generosity. Your donations will ensure the residents of Invernevis House will be able to more easily enjoy moments in the garden when the sun shines, using the garden furniture, a fitting and overwhelmingly practical memorial to my mum.