My mother, Joan, died unexpectedly on the morning of the 14th November 2013. My parents had decided to move to a flat in supported accommodation where they could have help with the care my father now needs. Having decided that this was the best course of action, my mother tackled the move with her customary determination, organisation and flair. It would have been such a good place for both of them. They had been there ten days, all the boxes unpacked, pictures still stacked against the walls waiting to be put up, when my mum came into the room where the carer was getting ready to give my dad breakfast. "Can you get some help?" she said. "I think I am having a heart attack."
She died in the air ambulance on her way to hospital.
The last three weeks have been full of arrangements for her funeral and arrangements to put in place the care my dad will need if he is to stay where he is, which is very much what he wants to do. He is facing his own loss with impressive courage and determination. So now I just want to sing my mother.
Deep red hair, blue eyes, fabulous cheek bones. My mother was beautiful. I have spent my life having people say "Don't you look like your mother!" We didn't really look that much alike but you can't object to being told you look like someone who is beautiful. I have a look of her, that is all, something similar about the mouth, and we sound the same.
She was also brave. My own father died when I was three and she returned to her home town, a young widow, only twenty four with two young children. Was it coping with that devastating loss that gave her an inner strength which belied her slight stature? I don't know. Maybe it was always there. She came from a long line of strong women. It was easy to be distracted by her smile, her ready laugh, her love of a good time, a tea shop, a glass of wine, a long laughing day in the kitchen making fabulous food for family and friends. You would see her generosity, her hospitality, her tolerance and her readiness to forgive small slips and perhaps you might think that this was a soft and gentle woman. You would be wrong. She had a deep, deep well of kindness and a trust in humanity that brought out the best in people but she was as strong as tensile steel. It was a formidable combination.
When I was a child I used to look at other people's mothers at the school gate and know that everyone must want to have mine. She was younger and prettier than other people's mothers but more than that, she was nicer. She hated to hear parents shouting at children or ignoring them. She didn't snap or criticise. She had a way of making you feel loved and cared for even when she was showing you a better way of doing something. As I grew older I knew she trusted me, trusted my judgement, liked me as well as loved me and believed in me. She rarely advised, and then only if asked and never seemed to mind if you ignored her advice in the end. She never criticised. And yet she had high standards, for herself and for her children. Kindness was paramount and respect for other people, good manners, generosity, putting yourself in other people's shoes. Whining and moaning were not allowed, although the occasional bout of raging was ok. She was very clear about the importance of doing things with a good grace. If you really don't want to do something, then don't do it, but accept all the consequences of that in terms of loss of approval or of guilt. If you decide to do the difficult thing, then do it with a good grace. Don't moan, don't whine, don't fret or worry away at whether the decision was right after you have committed yourself. Decide, do it, smile, move on.
When she remarried she and my dad together built for my brother, my sister and me such a cheerful, adventurous life. Mum loved change and challenge and she encouraged all her children to have a go at things. While she was physically cautious, she was intellectually and emotionally fearless. Try it. Have a go. Why not? Of course you can.
Combining that adventurousness with a total steady, reliable love for us all was a great combination. She was a hard worker who loved having fun, someone who could make a pound go a long way, conjuring amazing meals from almost nothing but who could also be suddenly, gloriously extravagant in producing celebrations for family and friends. She was both Mary and Martha: the person who had the great time at the party and then got up quietly in the morning so that all was calm and cleared up when you came through the door the next day.
As my father became ill she never wavered, never complained, only very rarely shared her worries. She was there, cheerful and smiling as always, helping him unobtrusively and gracefully in his increasing dependence, making him laugh. About eighteen months ago, we were talking about how they were managing his increasing ill health. "I wake up every morning" she said "and I wonder what we can do that will give Graham and me a good day. And then I do it." And that was her most amazing quality, an ability to live in the moment and to make the moment shine.
I have no idea how we will manage without her. I can barely believe she has gone. I know what she would want me to do and what she would say "What can you do today to make it a good day?" So I will try and, eventually, I am sure, maybe not today, I will do it. I learnt at her knee.