This is the last time I saw my mum:
It was taken in February at the pub, the day of my grandmother’s funeral. Of course, I had no notion then that I would never see her again. Naturally, she had found the day difficult. But she had spoken beautifully in tribute to her mum, riffing on the gardening they used to share and the flowers they used to love. Our job was to support her through: I told her how perfectly she had spoken.
The virus was still a mildly alarming but distant news story at that point. Exotic; misunderstood; someone else’s problem. Everyone was washing their hands but there was no real distancing and no serious talk of an imminent lockdown, besides speculation. I felt no sense of it creeping closer, rattling at the gates outside. In any case, however close it might creep in future, it was never going to happen to us.
Well, it has happened. On Wednesday 29th of April, we lost our mum to Covid 19. I cannot bring myself recount the trauma of what we have been through, even though it will haunt me for the rest of my life. But I will say this: there are some people out there still urging that the virus is not that threatening, or that the government has overreacted, or that it doesn’t matter if a few oldies die. They are mistaken. My mother was 63: too young to die, but old enough to die from this; a statistic to others, but the very heart of our family. We might have had another twenty years with her; instead, we had to say goodbye via an ipad, unable to hold her hand. Her grandson is not yet three. About twenty five thousand other families will know what I mean when I say that I hope to God such people never have personal cause to amend their opinions.
The thing I most had in common with mum was music. She had stacks of records and unbelievably fat vintage speakers, which I totally cranked when we lived in a detached house, but when I was young, she had no record player. I remember sitting with her LPs in my lap, turning them over, marvelling at the tiny grooves, wanting to hear how it all sounded; and I remember looking at the cover art of each one, which was always startling, such as the haunting image of a man imprisoned in space for Crime of the Century, the psychedelia and oddly unsettling title for Disraeli Gears, the circus for Super Trouper (one of my father’s first presents for her when they were courting) or the perplexed cow on the front of Atom Heart Mother; and I remember her stories about Knebworth ’75 and The Wall in 1981 – ‘I was at the last ever one’. In the ’80s, she had re-bought most of those records on CD, so I was able to poach them and listen to them on my CD player in my room. She was happy enough to let me. I still remember when I first played Dark Side of the Moon to myself, not realising what a monument it was. Blew me away. Still does. About two years ago, she drove me around Kent, I think to visit the vineyards where we had lunch, and we played it end to end at maximum volume. More recently, I bought her the Rolling Stones album, Blue and Lonesome, after I had played her my own copy on my deck and she said she liked it. She was quite angry with me not long ago when we went to our favourite record shop in Sheffield: she found 461 Ocean Boulevard by Eric Clapton. I pretty much took it from her hands whilst she was distracted and bought it for myself.
I play guitar, and have resumed learning the piano. One of my favourite pieces by Pink Floyd is The Great Gig in the Sky, and I have taught myself to play it. I recorded myself doing so, on my phone, and sent it to her whilst she was isolated at home. She was pleased. When she went into hospital, I recorded a few pieces of guitar playing to keep her spirits up, such as Cocaine and Comfortably Numb. But she never saw them. I can still see those messages on Whatsapp: unopened. My very last expressions of my love for her never made it through.
In the final years (which, as we lived them, were never meant to be final), she built her existence around her grandson, my nephew. He calls her Gigi. I’ve no idea why. He loves his Gigi, still asks for her. She saw him most days and helped support my sister and brother-in-law in various ways. I was somewhat out of the picture, living down in Kent. I didn’t mind. Why should I? We had years and years ahead of us. I had no cause to be in any hurry. And anyway, whenever I did see her, frankly, I took her for granted. Again, why shouldn’t I? These were not meant to be her final years.
I know what should be our mother’s epitaph. She was a nurse, for decades caring for the sick and vulnerable in the highest pressure environments, including the liver failure ITU at King’s College Hospital. And that’s the mother she was to us: a lioness protecting her cubs. She gave us everything she had when we were young, even at her own loss, even when we couldn’t grasp or appreciate it, sacrificing herself. At the end, she worked in a care home, with patients dying of this virus. She had no PPE but fearlessly she carried on. That’s what killed her. That is also just like her: fancying the rules of nature, or the odds, somehow didn’t apply to her. But they did. It seems somehow unsurprising, then, that she died as she lived: sacrificing herself for others.
There is more I might say; but the rest is private.