The last coherent words that my mother spoke to me were during her final days in hospital, where she died of breast cancer: ‘I don’t want to hear anymore about religion’. I honoured that request with a heavy heart. This was the only time that she’d ever rejected either me or what I’d stood for. And only the second time that we’d had a falling out. There was, now, something between us. Something that would remain for the duration of her life (which would not be long) and mine. I’ve often wondered whether I’d been overbearing or insensitive about my convictions. Could I’ve handled it better? She’d been happy for me to attend chapel, which I’d done since sixteen years of age, but felt threatened by my conversion. There were already too many failed conversations about that.
As a young girl, she’d been a member of Berea chapel, Blaina. What had happened to her there? Was it all that ‘do good, be good, and you’ll get through the pearly gates’ preaching, perhaps? And Mam was a good woman, the best of women. But like the Pharisee Nicodemus when Christ confronted him with a paradigm for righteousness that was altogether different to what he’d known previously, she’d recoiled in incomprehension. Mam didn’t need to hear about religion again, full sure; but she needed to be near to God, and no more so than at her end.
On her last day, as she slipped into morphine-induced unconsciousness, I sat by her bedside and slowly circled the palm of her hand with my forefinger, just as she had done when I was an anxious and confused child, curled up next to her with my head resting upon a lap that was, to me, softer than any cushion conceivable. I read her the twenty-third and other Psalms about God’s mercy, compassion, and invitation to come to and trust in him. The rest I left in his hands.
She passed away in the late evening, just after Dad had left her ward room to make a cup of tea. By the time I’d travelled from Abertillery to Abergavenny, the nurses had washed and settled her. The bed clothes were drawn tightly around her and tucked beneath the mattress, in the manner that only nurses can do. In the low light, I could see her face: now with a resolute and dignified expression, like that of a marble bust. I didn’t want to touch or kiss her. That gesture would’ve benefited only me, and I felt no need of it. I’d welcomed Mam’s death. Her dying had been the hardest thing for both so us to bear. For years, I’d prayed that her last days would be so very different to this – full of consolation, hope, and certainty instead.
The following day I returned to the hospital and retrieved the contents of her locker and other personal belongings: loose change, things worn and waiting to be washed, rings, knitting, and a wristwatch that kept on ticking. (An unbearable irony.):
Back home, I could still smell her on the clothes. In my moments of desolation, I’d push my face into her cardigan and breath deeply – taking her into myself.
In Mam’s bedside draws were many powder compacts. (I’ve kept them all.) They contained the scent of her when she’d dressed immaculately for a night out:
Next to her bed there were several diaries with notes that she’d kept about daily medications, hospital and hairdressing appointments, and birthdays and anniversaries (which she’d always honour), as well as plans for all those days to the end of the year that she’d never now see:
Mam had been a wise counsellor. Friends, family, neighbours, and I frequently sat on her confessional settee, as she listened, nodded, knitted, and pronounced absolution. Her advice was always thought-through, realistic, fair, and tailored to the person who’d asked for it. There was one occasion when I’d balked at her suggestion. It was regarding girls. (The only other time that we’d fallen out was over one.) ‘Love them all, and marry none’, she told me. ‘Mam … you can’t say things like that!’, I protested. But, like her son, she wouldn’t take telling.