In the end, silence.

 

My mom died on the 11th of February, 1998. She wasn’t supposed to make it till then, the doctors who admitted her to hospital not expecting her to make it through that long first night, but when she did, and the hours turned into days, and one unexpected impossible breath followed another, I asked one of them if this meant she might recover. He was younger than I am, and had not yet learned to be cool, offhand, aloof, the defence of so many of his profession when delivering bad news to anxious, hopeful relatives who want to hear anything else. He looked me in the eye and measured his words and said as gently as he could that no, she wouldn’t recover, the brain haemorrhage was too massive for recovery. It had destroyed her ability to regulate something as basic as her own body temperature, which was why she was hot to the touch, why we had a fan blowing constantly across her face. It might seem strange, he told me, but her understanding, her intelligence would most likely be unaffected, the bleeding having spared that section of her brain, but we would never know, for recovery was not something we should hope for. He paused for a moment. There was a 2% chance of her regaining consciousness, he said, which is doctor talk for it needing a miracle. She might die in five minutes, she could lie in that bed for days, no-one could say, but it was only a matter of time.
It was all such a shock. The previous sunday I had coome through my hometown on tour and had cycled the three miles home, glad of an excuse to get out of the stale dead fug of a cheerless venue, feeling the air cold and crisp on my face, and a brittle winter sunshine not strong enough to warm. My body was working well and I was happy. I made myself a coffee, and stayed about an hour, and when I left my mom came to the back gate to wave me off, and I thought how little she was, how old she looked and how I ought to write more often than I did.
And then there was the phone call and heading home again on a train that could never be fast enough, and brothers and sisters doing the same, all trawling back from the cities and countries our desire and our fate had brought us to, and driving to the hospital in dead of night afraid that she’d be gone before we got there, not knowing what do to when she wasn’t.
Over the days we fell into a routine: my mom lay unconscious in a bed and we took it in shifts to watch her. They moved her into a side room of her own when she refused to die, and every afternoon I’d go in after my session in the gym and sit there. We brought in a radio for her to listen to, we got the fan to try and keep her cool, we got used to the drip in her arm and the tube up her nose. My sisters painted her nails and brushed her hair, and the flesh on her face sagged and she grew thinner all the time, but in some secret part of me I hoped she’d prove the doctors wrong and live again, and when the fool of a priest came, pompous and self-important, I prayed she’d sit up in bed and tell him Ach go on. Get… knotted. But she didn’t, and one day I came back from the gym and the need for shifts was over.
We marked time in a different way then, making funeral arrangements, waiting for the undertaker to be done, expecting her to walk in with the shopping, hearing her hum ballads from behind the kitchen door. The food I ate tasted of nothing, and TV was just something to kill time, but there were swans and herons on the canal and an unseasonably warm air that promised something new. The coffin sat in the front room and my dad asked if I thought she’d seemed unwell that day I’d ridden home, worried that maybe he’d missed some small sign which, noticed and acted on, would have led away from all this. But there was nothing. Just a memory of him and her and the spread of sunday lunch and me thinking how they were old now, the pair of them, old and starting to be happy.
He took her back to Ireland to be buried. To the small village where she’d spent her childhood. He said it was the second best decision he’d ever made, to take her away from a cold municipal plot bounded by gridlocked motorways to the little church at the foot of the valley, and the road which leads up through the mountains. From the top, on a good day, you can see clear across to Wales, and the breeze is sweet and clean. It was spring the day we buried her, and in the small hours I woke to hear my dad sobbing and found nothing I could say. We all believed she’d hung on in hospital to give us time to come to terms with it, that she wouldn’t accept she was beaten, but fought till she had nothing left at all and knew we were ok. She was obstinate and bloody-minded like that, we said, but in the end there was silence, and it was a bitter kind of comfort.
Every August, in the churchyard in the shadow of the mountain, friends and relatives and the people of the village come together. They clean and tend the graves, put out flowers. They retell fond memories of those who lie there, they laugh, they joke, they celebrate, they mourn. There is a service in the little church for those who believe, and for those of us who don’t, the pub is just across the road. And sometimes I sit there drinking to her memory, remembering sitting by her bed that long first hospital night, and how when there was no-one there to see, I took her hand in mine for the first time since I was a child, and I told her for the one time in my life that I loved her and was proud of her.
And I really hope she heard.
© Steve Pottinger


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