We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.

Anton Chekhov


So the 17th of January has come around again. It’s the day when I think the most about my beautiful mother and her short but fruitful life. It’s the day when she was born and the day when 21 years later she was married. It’s the day when I wish more than ever that I could talk to her, even if just for a couple of hours.

I never know how this day is going to take me. Sometimes I feel like celebrating Mum’s life rather than mourning her death. When I spoke to my sister Pinky on this day last year she said that she had a strong image in her mind of Mum sitting on a swing, smiling, with a glass of champagne in her hand. It’s a good image and I’m trying to focus on it today. But I have to admit that I’m struggling a little.

When I was younger my main emotion about Mum’s death was self-pity. Why did I have to lose one of the few people I truly needed? Then as I got older my sympathy started to shift. It was my mother I felt sorry for. She was so young! She had so much left to do and see. I can hardly bear to think about her suffering and her sorrow.

And today, a day when the Tupperware skies aren’t helping to lift my dark mood, my sympathies extend to a whole lot of other people too. My Dad… God, how does a man in his early forties say goodbye to the love of his life, knowing that he then has to raise their six kids without her? Mum’s siblings… I really can’t bear to think about how it must have been for them. Mum’s friends… What a terrible shock it must have been to lose the friendship of someone they loved so much.

I guess it was the sorrow rather than the celebration that I was feeling when I wrote this poem in 1993, ten years after Mum’s death on the same day that the Ash Wednesday fires devastated much of Victoria and South Australia.

Ash Wednesday

Ashes to foreheads, dust thrown on coffins,
You watched through the novelty of your death, Mama,
As fires raged in the east
And in the west six children screamed for your return.

Beyond suffering, finally distant from compassion,
You calmly observed the smearing of ashes
Upon the unseeing eyes of your children,
Watching with your unworldly vision
As their sight was irremediably distorted.

The ashes of palms or of people,
An inconsequential difference to you,
Your suggestion of Lent’s sacrifice persuasive.
But past beliefs were belied –
Not every Easter brings resurrection.

She’s happy now, away from her suffering.
You nodded your approval of Dad’s tearful wise words.
Immaterial, you were everywhere,
A part of you in everything, every thought,
Forever a reminder that you’d never return.

Three days later, liberated from life,
You saw us dressed in Sunday’s finest,
Pushing tears out through Valium,
Singing joyous hymns you’d requested,
As the town turned out to spectate.

We told ourselves ten years would pass,
Though none of us believed it,
While you, in your distant place beyond time,
Never doubted for a second.

And still you sit and watch,
and smile as we remember.

I’d intended to write a lot today. I wanted to write all about how great and funny my Mum was. How my sister Lientje and I recently went to see the place in the Netherlands where she grew up. How sorry I am that the adult sadness and madness and bereavement that followed my Mum’s death meant that we lost not just Mum but also those who were closest to her. I wanted to say that I feel the need to experience as much of the world as I possibly can, seeing it not just for myself but also through the eyes of my mother, who didn’t live for long enough to see even a tenth of what she’d have liked to. I wanted to reassure my friends who have lost their mothers in the intervening 31 years that although the pain of that loss never goes away, you do get more used to living with it; I’m afraid, however, that today is proof for me that the pain is still sometimes pretty acute.

So I’m going to write about her again on another day, on a day when I can do justice to her beauty and grace and positivity. But for the moment I’m going to leave the proof of that in her own hands by sharing a letter that she wrote to my eldest sister in 1981. Mum had been sick for some years by the time she wrote this and she would die two years later. But if anyone can see any proof of sorrow or self-pity in this then they must be better at reading between the lines than I am.

I could learn something from the light, self-deprecating humour and endless positivity shown here by my mother when she was 39 years old. And tomorrow I will.

But for now all I can say is, “I miss you, Mum. Over to you.”

Letter dated 13 April 1981

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