Everything is Illuminated

Dear Readers, it would have been my mother’s 86th birthday on 26th November. She died on 18th December 2018, and so nearly three years have passed, but I still feel a great heaviness as her birthday approaches. Mum loved a celebration, be it Christmas or a birthday, November 5th or Easter, and it’s hard to think that I will never ring her up and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ (badly) down the phone to her.

The last time Mum and Dad came to visit at Christmas was in December 2016. I bought Mum the little orchid in the photo above, and when she headed home she forgot to take it with her. I watered it and then neglected it, and then watered it again. The poor thing must have been very confused. But then, in October,  I noticed that something was happening. Were there buds emerging, after all this time?

And just before what would have been Mum’s birthday, the first flower unfurled. I picked the plant up and put it on the mantelpiece so it could have pride of place. This morning the pond was frozen for the first time this winter, but the sun shone cold and hard through the window and the orchid glowed as if illuminated from within.

Mum had lots of orchids on her windowsill when she and Dad lived in Dorset. She became expert at coaxing them into flower and knowing when to let them rest. She had a long battle with whitefly, and every time I visited I’d be wiping the leaves and checking the buds to make sure there weren’t any insects hiding away, especially as her vision was failing. When she went into hospital and then the nursing home, the whitefly won, and every plant died except this one, the one that she forgot. It is so bittersweet that it is doing so well when she is three years dead. Sweet because it is so beautiful, bitter because she is no longer here to see it. She would have loved it, I know.

And yet, when I saw the orchid glowing in the sun, everything fell away. There is something about a moment of beauty that stops the endless brain-chatter and strips away the constant commentary about what’s happening. Before language I imagine this is what everything is like – no wonder tiny children are so constantly amazed by everything they see and hear. I am reminded too of Dad’s sheer, unalloyed delight when eating a custard tart after his dementia had stripped so many other things away. And if I can get past my narrative about Mum and Dad and what happened to them in their later years, all that is left is a boundless tenderness that’s so close to pain that I don’t really know how to express it, except that it feels like being filled from the top of my head to the tips of my toes with light. Grief is the tax we pay for loving deeply, and I don’t resent paying it, not one bit.

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