Perhaps I could have treated my mother better

Maybe I could have loved her more, or at least said ‘I love you’ more often, I realised too late

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


Last Sunday, I went to my mother’s grave. I thought I’d be alone among all the dead, but in fact there were half a dozen other folk there, doing the same thing – laying a wreath on the earth in memory of a loved one or taking away the Christmas wreaths that many had laid on Christmas Eve.

I have known the graveyard since I was a child, and its tombstones always arrest me with names I have long forgotten and some that were once dear to me.

An old friend with whom I shared a room in college lies close to the church, and the dentist who gave me four fillings when I was 13 sleeps farther up the hill; a good dentist I presume, because the fillings are still in my teeth.

Farther on towards the west my parents are laid, beside a child’s grave; an infant who died the same month as my father. I remember the parents’ grief on many grave Sundays over the years and, although the child would now be almost 40, the grave is always adorned with small things a child might smile at.

Now my parents lie together, although her name has not yet been chiselled on the stone.

A realisation that came too late
It was a hard thing to stand at that stone 18 months ago and consider that I could have treated her better. Perhaps I could have loved her more or at least said “I love you” more often, especially at the end. And I only realised all this when she was gone.

I got out of the big black car with the others and I put my shoulder to her coffin and we negotiated our way up the hill on a narrow path that led through other
graves and tombstones, until we were at the place where my father was buried in 1976.

When we rested her coffin on the crossbeams that straddled the dug grave, I felt numb. The priest said his prayers. The relations and old friends shaded their eyes from the July sun and mumbled a decade of the rosary beneath dramatic tufts of cloud piled like heaps of cotton wool.

And that was it; a blustery day and strong sunshine between the showers. My mother was in her grave.

An old man who knew her well grabbed my hand and almost knocked me into the bleak hole in the earth.

“How are you now?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” I replied.

“Well your mammy is gone to a better place,” he declared.

He was old but I remembered him working in a grocery shop in the town when I was a child. He had long, wavy, blonde hair back then, and he could wrap ham in brown paper and slip the brown twine around it and cut the twine with a tug of his fingers, which always amazed me.

He would present the parcel of cold ham to my mother and wink at me, or give me a sweet from the big jar of Fox’s mints. Since then he had turned skeletal, but he still had a great tuft of hair on his head like old straw, and his black tie wandered in the wind.

His dentures were not firm in his gums and they floated around his mouth as he scrutinised me and leaned his enormous, purple nose into my body space as if he could smell my emotions. Everyone knew I had been sick. I had been depressed for a year or two.

“I heard you went through a bit of a stormy patch,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “but it’s over now.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Sure it happens to the best of us. The interior weather is like everything else; one day sunshine and then a week of rain.”

He squeezed my hand tight once more.

“I’m sorry about the mother,” he said, “but you need to mind yourself now.”

Vanished into the crowd
And then he was gone. He vanished into the crowd as the crowd crushed in for my hand and mumbled their sympathy in my ear.

I never saw him again, because he too passed away in the autumn and he now rests in his own plot where the soil is still heaped up in a mound, near the wall beside the trees.

Last Sunday I placed some flowers on my mother’s grave and I left the graveyard as the light lingered on Crubany hill and a man at the gate smiled at me and said: “There’s a bit of a stretch coming in the evenings now.”

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