“I’ve got a problem with my leg,” my mum said, during one of our regular phone conversations. My mother rarely had issues with anything physical, and if she did she certainly didn’t share them in a hurry.
“What do you mean?” I said, and when she told me she was beginning to find it more difficult to walk I could hardly believe it. She was a young 73, into yoga and dancing, and just two weeks beforehand had been in the gym doing weights and using the running machine on a spa day I’d bought her for Xmas; and we’d laughed at how she was keeping up with all these handsome muscly men twice the size of her.
And although now I tried to convince myself that she’d just pulled something, it was at this point that everything changed. I didn’t know how or why, but I had a strange nagging doubt in my mind that never went away. When she’d had cancer ten years earlier I had been sunny and optimistic, had known she would live, and although this time it didn’t even occur to me that it would turn out to be cancer again (secondary this time, and brutal: our conversation was at the end of February, she died on the 3rd July) her news felt ominous, like the sun had gone behind a cloud forever.
I won’t bore or depress you with the details, but there were some points when my mother was dying that were strangely happy for me. I was busy: working for an Irish company and commuting every two or three weeks to Dublin in a job I enjoyed, looking after my son, who was seven at the time, walking the dog, rushing down to Hampshire to see my mum, writing a novel at night. I barely slept, looking back. I felt so close to my mother, realizing at last I was so lucky to have had her in my life, and despite the arguments we had as a family (should she go to a hospice or come home? Neither, said my poor dad, she’s ill, she needs to be in a hospital, where she’ll get better…) my mum put his needs before hers – he was the one being left behind, she said. And so against the backdrop of trauma we mostly came together as a family, and after the funeral (agony, fun, drunken, in that order) life marched on.
I had bereavement counseling, but it didn’t help. I didn’t feel sad enough. So when the lovely man came round each week I felt like I was putting it on. The first Christmas passed and was peaceful, lovely. I felt so guilty making the gravy and not having to bicker with my mum or ignore her instructions, saying I knew perfectly well how to make gravy, thank you very much. I gave up my work contract around that time, and somehow I never went back to work again.
The next summer our washing machine broke. My husband ordered a new one at 5:30 the same evening. The next morning at 7:15 the delivery men woke me up (how’s that for service, I hear you say). I was bleary-eyed, without my glasses; it happened to be the anniversary of my mother’s funeral. I watched them take the (working) tumble drier away instead of the (broken) washing machine. When I realized my/their error ten minutes later, I rang my husband in a panic; he told me not to worry, that he’d ring them and ask them to bring it back. Again, long story short, this high-tech company who could process and deliver an order in just over 12 hours, who offered hourly delivery slots due to their “constant contact” with their drivers, apparently couldn’t contact my driver at all, all day, even though I live in London, and so when I rang them for the umpteenth time the next afternoon they said it was too late, my tumble drier had been destroyed. But hey, never mind, they said, they could offer me a discount off a new one, and when I asked how much they said 5%.
What transpired was a David and Goliath battle that I refused to give up on. As I had freely taken responsibility, said I’d watched them take my tumble drier away, they insisted it was completely my fault. The manager spent hours and hours on the phone to me arguing the toss over £20, as if baiting me were a game, and I became obsessed with getting back my “stolen” tumble drier, as I had once called it in exasperation. One of my best friends finally confronted me, saying it wasn’t the tumble drier I was mourning, and offered to go to the doctor’s with me. Eventually I wrote a letter (I’m good at letters) quoting Citizen’s Rights, Internet Code of Conduct etc, and, thank God, went on holiday and refused to take their daily calls (honestly), and funnily enough when I got home they gave me a new one.
Another year rumbled on. In July 2012 I had a new problem – not a loss but an unwelcome gain this time. We had moths, everywhere. I became like a woman possessed (again), and was even spotted on the street in a full chemical suit and mask (my friend had misplaced my child, in my defense). My husband was working pretty much constantly at the Olympics, and it became my whole-hearted mission to rid myself of these ghastly creatures who were eating my 100% wool carpets. (I failed.)
The third Christmas after my mother’s death was when I finally properly missed her. My grief crystallized into the most tremendous row with my father, over the turkey, of course, that afterwards made me sob my heart out (yes, you really can) for my mother. That was it, something had to be done.
I had been waiting around for years trying to get a literary agent, but had still got nowhere. On January 3rd 2013 I decided to publish One Step Too Far myself, and I threw the energy of my grief into that now, launching in April of the same year, breezing through the third anniversary of my mother’s death in July in a publishing whirlwind, reaching Number One on Amazon in September. Within weeks of that the book had been sold to 15 publishers, covering virtually every country in the world. All my dreams had come true.
And that was when I really did fall apart (the moths and the tumble drier had been a mere prelude to the madness of my despair). This summer was the worst of my life, made yet more dismal by everyone expecting me to be happy, by my pretending to be happy, when I wasn’t locked away crying. But when you’ve written a book for a mother you adored and then you sell it and lose all (perceived) control it felt like a death all over again.
So what to do? I went back to a grief counselor. She helped me see my rage and grief about moths and tumble driers and books for what it was – misplaced anger about the dreadful death of my mother. Something shifted inside me this summer, four years later, and I am through to the other side. Only those of you who have lost a parent or a child or a partner will know what I mean – everyone else thinks they do but, trust me, you don’t, and sometimes you don’t reach that other side for years and years, when something else happens to finally make you confront your loss. So now I am proud to talk about my mother and my grief for her, without seeing it as something I shouldn’t feel, that I should have got over by now, and if I have helped even one person through the bewilderment of their bereavement then I am glad I have written this piece.
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