Dear Readers, on Tuesday we went to Weymouth for my Mum’s cremation. We are having a bigger gathering in Milborne St Andrew, where Mum and Dad lived, in February. But Mum wanted to be cremated and, unlike in London where crematoria are ten a penny, in Dorset the nearest one was in Weymouth, a place to which none of us have any connection.
Events like this always put our own choices into the spotlight. My plan is to be buried in a cardboard coffin in a woodland somewhere – I have no worries about insects munching my bones and helping to recycle me. But Mum was never one for creepy crawlies, and she had been graveside on too many cold, rainy days to want to inflict that on us, so cremation it was. She also thought that it was cleaner, somehow, simpler. I think that she missed a trick by not wanting to be fired into the stratosphere in a rocket, like Hunter S Thompson, but there is still something about the thought of her body, which had been the cause latterly of so much pain, being reduced to its simplest elements that I find comforting. I am so glad that we managed to have some of these conversations before Mum died, so that at least some of what she wanted was clear. It’s never too early to have these discussions with those we love. Life is hard enough after you’ve been bereaved without having to second guess what the person who has died would have wanted.
We went for a walk around the town of Weymouth before the service. It is a fine little town, with a working harbour and its own lifeboat. Everywhere, people were going about their business – walking their dogs, mending nets, sitting on benches and gazing out to sea. It’s surprising how often I glimpse Mum in the colour of a stranger’s hair, the way that they walk, a certain tilt of their head. She seems to be everywhere.
The cliffs that make up the Jurassic Coast peered through the early morning mist. Mary Anning found the fossil of an ichthyosaurus not far from here. It is an interesting part of the world. However, all I could think of was those last few weeks with Mum as her life ebbed away, and my mood coloured everything grey. But then I remembered that the day before Mum went into the Nursing Home, an ice-cream van had parked up outside the school opposite their bungalow, and Mum had been able to enjoy one of those Mr Whippy icecreams with a flake in it. I had never noticed an icecream van there before, so it seemed like fate. Mum adored those soft icecream cones, and even without her teeth, she managed to eat it all. There is grace everywhere, but it’s easy to overlook it.
Everything seemed unreal, as if I was in a dream and would soon wake up to find everything as it should be. But as usual, it took nature to bring me back to reality. Perched above a pile of nets was a pair of herring gulls.
And then, I realised what I’d said, and finally I could lean on my husband’s shoulder and cry for mine. At last I could be present with what was going to happen, the end of my mother’s physical presence on this world, and I could start the remembering that would be the work of the rest of my life. My mother is always with me, in the shape of my eyes, the length of my fingers, my skill with roast potatoes and my love of colour. There is a particularity about each person who walks this earth which comes into the sharpest focus in the weeks and months after they’ve died. They are unique, and they will never come again, and that is what is so, so hard.
But there is solace, nonetheless, in the universality of death, at least for me. Someone described the loss of a parent as an initiation, and it feels like walking through fire. I will not be the same on the other side, but maybe I will be more compassionate and perhaps even wiser. Grief is the price that we pay for loving with all our hearts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.