Mum was 91 when she died in June 2011. She’d been relatively well, but a fall put her in hospital, where she contracted pneumonia. She’d never completely recovered from the shock of Dad’s death, sixteen years earlier. That her life continued in his absence seemed to her to be perverse. So when it became clear that these were her final days, she looked forward to reunion. For her, there were no doubts. Her concern was then to tell each of us who gathered that she loved us, to talk to us about our wellbeing in the days to come. There was calm, generosity, grace. If a death can be beautiful, this one was.
So my grief was more for myself than for her. She did not want longer life. But there is no preparation for the loss of a loving mother. And it was more than that. Until then, I hadn’t realised that my view of my parents was still my child’s view of the single unit, Mum-and-Dad. As long as Mum was here, then so was Dad in some strange way. Then they were both gone. Completely.
And the cat died. She too was very old. Oddly, I cried for the cat in a way that I hadn’t allowed myself with either Mum or Dad. Then, permission granted, I found I was crying for Mum, and then for Dad. A relief. I’m not sure that it would have been possible, and seemed so natural, without the cat.
I continue to live in the house where my parents lived for about twenty years. At first, absence was a daily reality. I had to learn that an empty house is colder. The little observations and anecdotes I saved up during the day to make Mum smile now rattled around with nowhere to go. But then, intensely, my parents would be present. Everywhere, every day, memories are triggered, and all of their vitality is again part of my life. I’m lucky to be in this house. I talk to them. In this poem, Mum is ‘with me now.’ In fact, they both are.
Almost a year
It’s May. From our window I watch leaves leap and skid
into drifts across the road. Those unruly
heaps used to fill you with glee, with a not-dead-yet
urge to jump, kick, plunge into their deep
prickly crunch. ‘Where are the kids?’ you’d say.
Today the cold wind has driven the kids inside
but on the couch the sun is so strong that the cat holds
a paw over his eyes to sleep.
A different cat. This one’s a generous pudding, toffee
and cream. Our ladyship died
a few months after you. She would stare into
your empty chair and yowl.
Other vanishings. This morning I drove to the Recycle Shop
with blankets and towels I don’t need.
With every removal, the old woman, frail and exasperated
by a life too long, clicks a door behind her.
Yet here you are. You’re laughing and showing
us the moves from a night in your courting days.
You, Dad, your friends in a line across a wee-small-hours
London street, doing the Lambeth Walk.
Dancing girl. Arm-in-arm, strut, head-toss, kick.
With me now on this bright
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of poetry and fiction. Her first poetry collection Bones in the Octagon was published in 2015 by Makaro Press. At present she is working on a YA science fiction series called ‘Song-born’.