I’m not alone in this strange post-death parlour

I’m on the frontline. In the past few years we’ve lost an entire generation

Hilary Fannin  in Howth. “There is no one ahead to lead the way, to absorb the cold shock of mortality.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Hilary Fannin in Howth. “There is no one ahead to lead the way, to absorb the cold shock of mortality.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Since writing about my mother’s last illness and death I’ve received many messages of sympathy and support from readers and friends, for which I’d like to express my sincere and heartfelt thanks.

I’ve begun to realise that, of course, I’m not alone in this strange post-death parlour furnished with grief and relief, and that late-onset orphandom is a state of being that many of us are quietly coming to terms with.

It feels like a strange interregnum, as if I’m in my own silent movie. While our belligerent planet spins on, threatening climate disaster and nuclear annihilation, I’m busy filling up black plastic sacks for the charity shop and trying to figure out which damn bin I’m supposed to use to jettison half-full tubs of moisturiser and ancient eyebrow pencils. 

I feel at odds with the world. I find myself flicking through 20 years’ worth of my mother’s pocket diaries, gently prodding the bruises on my psyche, while some shagging algorithm, having spotted that my search engine was looking for funeral urns, is adding marble headstones to a junk box already brimming over with offers of cut-price golden-years holidays and incontinence pads. 

Flicking through her diaries probably wasn’t such a bright idea. “Start that diet!” she had written in her shaky hand early last January, when she was all of 89. “Start that diet!” – the same well-worn resolution she’d been parading each new year since the Emergency, though this time the letters spelling out her intentions had begun to crumble like dry-stone walls.

She was on diets her whole life. I’ve written before about her trotting up and down the seafront wearing plastic paddy pants (remember them?) over her trousers in the hope of sweating off a couple of pounds and slimming down into some rig-out she was planning to wear the following Saturday night.

Slimline milk 

“Why in the name of god are you going on another diet?” I’d ask her as the years accumulated, while packing her Zimmer frame into the boot next to her shopping bags full of low-fat spreads and slimline milk.

For my entire childhood it seemed that she lived on Limmits biscuits and Slimcea bread. I can see her now, hunched over the draining board, entreating herself to drink another long, cold glass of PLJ. Then another missile would be fired over the rocky hinterland of her marriage, annihilating her resolve, and she’d cave in and cook herself a big bowl of spaghetti.

“I told you diets don’t bloody work,” I muttered to her diary, putting it away in the drawer of my desk before I was tempted to read on.

Then a friend of mine rang to say she’d booked a table in a new restaurant in Dublin, where the clientele can sit on high stools, surrounded by crates of exotically coloured cauliflowers, and eat expensive scrambled eggs. Hell, I needed a bit of diversion, so I went in to meet her, ending up later that night in a kind of rooftop bar in an old building near Dublin’s quays. 

Recently renovated, the bar was packed to the groovily conspicuous rafters with young revellers, the majority of whom seemed to be women. I watched them flit around, some giddily beautiful, others gamely giving it a lash anyway in PVC skirts and frilly shirts. All of them sported thick blocked-in black eyebrows, which, after I’d imbibed a couple of designer gins, began to look like upside-down moustaches.

Old and tired 

Hunched up next to a patiently restored wall in the outdoor smoking area, among the glittering youth, feeling old and tired and unfashionable (and not giving a toss about those particular inadequacies), I took a moment.

I let the conversation loop and ravel around me, and looked up at the night sky, at those pale stars swarming above the city, silent and impalpable, for whom a few thousand years is but the blink of a celestial eye, and I recognised some of the reason for my current sense of dislocation and unease. 

I’m on the frontline. In the past few years we’ve lost an entire generation. My sons had two grandfathers, both of whom died more than a decade ago, and three grandmothers, women who remained with us long after the men had departed. And now those women are gone too.

There is no one ahead to leave tangerine lipstick prints on the glasses or to recall the heft of a hand wringer or the difficulty of landing a twin-engine plane in wartime. 

There is no one ahead to lead the way, to absorb the cold shock of mortality.  

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