It’s been six or seven weeks since I’ve written. Those that follow me over on instagram will already know that Mum died suddenly, of a heart attack, on the evening of Sunday, 24th February.
I would have been writing about the beautiful, beautiful weather that weekend. Do you remember that extraordinary heatwave? We’d had Bridie staying, for such a lovely weekend in Dorset – a long overdue catchup. A very quiet weekend. How prescient, in retrospect, that the first photo I took on one of our morning walks was a view of the little church, glowing in the sunshine.
The air was still, and hot, and spring was bursting out of every pore in the ground.
Sitting on the cricket pitch, that morning, throwing a ball for the dogs, we heard an extraordinary distant rumble that I have to confess I’d never really noticed before – the sound of the waves slowly crashing on Chesil beach, softly floating across two valleys from the coast, to where we were sitting, spellbound.
We’d popped into see Mum and Dad a couple of times – Mum had been a bit under the weather, with a cold, so had decided to go to bed. On the Sunday, a sparkling hot day, they were due over for lunch. Mum was better but didn’t want to rush it, so she stayed at home to rest up. Dad came and we had a glorious lunch, outside, under blue skies in hot sunshine, wondering about the extraordinary weather, missing Mum – I suppose, in retrospect, that’s my only real regret – how much she would have loved that lunch on the terrace, with the dogs and the birdsong.
I took Bridie to the station and on the way back, called Dad, asking if they wanted a quick visit for a cup of tea. They did – one of those tiny moments in life for which one is eternally grateful. Mum was up and about and feeling so much better, and we had a lovely hour chatting about this, that and the other, about nothing at all, really, but making plans for the week ahead. I got home as the sun was setting. Charlie and I had a drink in the garden and soaked in the sunshine and the view, and felt glad and grateful, as we so often do on evenings like that in Dorset.
Well, later, just as we had gone to bed, I got a terrible call from Dad, that Mum had collapsed. I was over there in ten minutes. I am afraid we both realised very quickly what had happened, and despite the best efforts of the ambulance crew, that awful, awful shock of such a sudden loss began to gently sink in.
The new few days were a blur; life held in suspension, a bit like that strange, beautiful, haunting few days of the heatwave, that felt as if they would never end. The consolation of walks, of Charlie, of the dogs, of my bothers and sisters-in-law—and also, of the countryside, extraordinarily beautiful, almost the most beautiful I have ever seen it, veiled in mists—was profound.
On the second evening, Charlie, my brother Tim and I took Dad down to the sea.
The weather changed abruptly, and the morning walks became freezing, rain lashed, but still the hills and beech hangers were beautiful. Cows huddled against the storm.
As always, rain and wind gives way to sunshine.
Mum is buried in the church next door to us now. She had planned her funeral service to the last detail, years and years ago – every reading, every hymn. May I give advice to everyone – this is a really, really kind thing to do for the people who you will be leaving. She was placed in a wicker coffin, ‘strewn with seasonal flowers’, at her request, which Charlie did beautifully, picking only from the garden, that morning.
The day of Mum’s funeral was bitterly sad, of course; but we had hundreds of people back to the Parsonage afterwards. That evening, supper in the dining room with our family – sad, and happy, celebrating the good times, by turn. That night, I slept the deepest sleep I had had in weeks.
We woke the next morning to sunshine. Here were Charlie’s magnolia and blossom branches on the altar, sunshine streaming in.
In the afternoon, alone at last, Charlie and I decided we needed a complete change of scene. We had friends over from New York, who were up in Somerset. We made a plan to meet at Forde Abbey. The garden sparkled in stormy sunshine – rain lashed in from time to time.
We went down to Lyme together. The Cobb was glowing in the last of the sun.
And we came home, and were having the quietest evening, reflecting on how sad we had been, but how we felt as if we were gently turning a corner… when Charlie received the most awful call from New Zealand. His dear young cousin Billie had tragically died – she was aged just 17.
I honestly cannot tell you how horrific it is to be plunged back on the roller-coaster of grief. For three weeks, we’d quietly, carefully, peacefully mourned Mum. Time is a healer, as anyone who reads this, who has experienced such loss will know; time does not mean you forget, but it does soften and comfort and provide balm to raw pain. That, after all, is the human condition – we have a remarkable ability to remember; and an equally powerful ability to forget. But to transcend this delicate cycle, navigating one’s way painfully and slowing from grief to solace, is one thing. To have reached a powerful staging post on the journey, and then to be plunged back into despair, was almost too much to bear.
That following day, Charlie and I just sat and cried for most of the day, in silence. I took him and the dogs for a walk on the beach. The colour of the steel sky and leaden grey sea perfectly matched our mood.
It has been nearly impossible to write at all, as I’m sure you’ll understand. But then the rhythms of daily life must somehow return. For a moment, I began to get some tiny feeling of what it must have been like to live during the Great War, when grief piled upon grief; when families would mourn not just one son, but two, or three. But with each day life becomes more normal. A client came in for a meeting, horrified, in a sense, that we were having a sit down to make a rather urgent decision about her shower tiles. “Please don’t feel you have to”, she said – “make sure you concentrate on the important things in life”. But sometimes, the important things in life are too sad or too bleak to think about, all-consumingly. It was a weird relief to start thinking about normal things, like kitchen cabinet knobs, or planning a new house for someone. Charlie started work in the garden. Tonight, he’s down in Dorset, planting seeds. We’re beginning to make serious plans for the little bothy in Scotland. And so on.
And so, ultimately, I feel a sense of optimism. Here is Mum, resting now, as my brother Tim read in the service, “in one of the most beautiful churchyards in England, surrounded by trees, and by the sound of birdsong by day and owls calling by night, in a place she loved, so close to David, and with Ben and Charlie next door…”
Our morning walk with the doggies now takes a little detour.
And on these beautiful spring evenings we’ve been having, despite the craziness of the world around us, unfolding now by the hour, I can’t help but feel that of the things that really matter, it’ll be okay. Life goes on; and, as spring bursts into flower, and with Easter almost upon us, that is the most powerful message of all.
Hi Ben, I had a quiet moment on this Mother’s Day in the US, and somehow found myself looking bck on your writing of the passing of your mother. I read it two years ago, and yet somehow was pulled back today. My own mother is 91. You are such a beautiful writer and your images, divine. Thank you for sharing the way you do.