There was so much to do. So much to decide. So much to clear and clean and tidy and sort. “You have a month from the date of her death,” the Church of England Pensions Board told us kindly – by letter, which took a week to arrive. They owned her house. For she is – was – a clergy widow.
That left three. Three weeks in which to do all that had to be done: a house-full of a life lived to the full. Photos and books and ornaments and presents; clothes and memories and cherished family heirlooms.
I had been staying with her for a few days; we had had a happy mother and daughter time – one of the best ever. The day before The Day, we made a trip to the seaside in the late summer sunshine. Coffee on the Promenade. Lunch in a sheltered courtyard. Up to Beachy Head for the view. I bought her an icecream to eat in the car while I briskly walked the headland, stretching my legs which ached with the slow walking of the morning, the sitting and the staying of old age.
She savoured it, made it last – and held the chocolate flake for my return, holding it out triumphantly.
“You eat this,” she twinkled. “I’ve saved it for YOU.”
She always did that. Shared everything she had.
Saved the best and the last to give away.
Enjoyed the saving and the giving.
My I-phone recorded the photo: she is sitting at the driving seat of her car, window down, smiling gleefully as she holds the soft chocolate out to me, glad to give it me, insisting I eat it.
I took her arm as we walked across the gravel at the Birling Gap car park. She didn’t want me to; wanted to be independent. But she was glad to see the beach of pebbles, feel the late afternoon sun on her face. The I-phone quickly snapped her.
Tea in a garden in Alfriston. Scones hot and fresh from the oven. Time to relax and talk and remember. Lashings of clotted cream and home made strawberry jam. England at her best.
My mother at her best.
We didn’t know it was our last tea together. Our last day together. How could we know?
But it was a Gift. The Gift of a day together, unexpected because unlooked for. Surprisingly hot sunshine. Buying little presents for her great-grandchildren. “You don’t need to,” I said. “They have so much.”
“Oh, but they will love this – and this – and this.” She was right. They did.
A Gift. A whole day together without a cross word. A cross word from me. Always so impatient. Always needing to move on, be somewhere else, thinking myself so important.
She never complained. Always accepted, always grateful for any time I could ”spare” to be with her. Her only criticism: You do too much. Slow down. You’re just like your father: a workaholic. Sit down. Take the weight off your feet.
And so I did: for just this one day. Slowed down enough to be with her. Do what she liked to do.
Our last evening – last because I had to catch a train the next morning. What did we do when we were back from our seaside outing? I don’t remember. But I remember checking the time of the train, not wanting to miss it, making sure she knew when to leave, when to get to the station in time. I could have stayed ….in the end I had to.
Our last morning. Filling the car with gas. Going for a strengthening latte in the Deli. Driving to the train station.
She was a good driver. But fast. We were there in plenty of time. We sat and chatted, parked in the lay-by outside the station. Talked of the upcoming visit of the part of the family who live in the States. Her excitement at seeing them. We kissed goodbye. She wanted a hug. I gave it reluctantly; got out of the car; bent to retrieve my overnight bag from the back seat of her car.
And found myself lying awkwardly on the pavement behind me, flung back with the impact of the large black car. Shoes flying. Back hurting. Surprised and shocked. My mother getting out of the car, worried for me, concerned I was hurt.
People running to help. Someone finding my shoes. Arms lifting me up. Indignant voices condemning the car that had crashed into the back of my mother’s parked car.
The driver was another elderly lady. Apologetic. Finding insurance details.
And even then, even then, my mind wondering if I’d yet catch the train. Wondering if the next one would be possible. Weighing the times and the details.
Not noticing my pain – yet.
And then she was gone.
Swept away by the same car but then with a different driver. Someone who had just arrived from London on the train, who had never driven that car before. Someone who could not stop, injuring the first driver and sweeping my mother away down the road.
* * * *
Three weeks. Just three weeks to tidy up and clear out and be gone. Three weeks to look in every drawer, peer at old photos, divide up the inheritance. Dispose of the unwanted, share out the longed for, fill in the forms, talk of the memories. Three weeks to stay on in her home.
I never wanted to leave again. She would have loved to have me there.
But by then she was gone.