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I put my own name in the ‘deceased’ box instead of my mother’s

Hilary Fannin: Does great age make death easier? Of course it does. How could it not?

Hilary Fannin: It won’t be long, I thought, until he’s horsing into two bowls of Coco Pops and asking his mother why she didn’t call him McGregor. Photograph: Alan Betson

I stood in line at the registry office. It wasn’t the handsome office on the wide Dublin street where people marry and where the graceful windows turn a kind of pewter colour in the dip of the afternoon sun, but another, smaller, scuffed office, down the road and around the corner, where people wait on plastic chairs in a windowless room while beginnings and endings are recorded and certified.

    I had a piece of paper in my hand, ready to show the affable man behind the desk: a form, official, absolute, signed in black ink. Above the doctor’s scrawled signature was my mother’s cause of death: cardiac failure. I looked at the dates recorded for her final illness.

Ahead of me in the queue for registration were an Indian couple with the tiniest baby I’ve ever seen

According to the paperwork, my mother had spent four days on the shore, skimming stones over death’s dark waters, before finally slipping into the silent lake on the morning of the fifth.

    Ahead of me in the queue for registration were an Indian couple with the tiniest baby I’ve ever seen, sleeping in a carry cot on the floor next to them. A beautiful miniature, his fingers conducting the stale air, his mouth mobile, his blue-black hair downy and feather-light, he looked like he could have been cradled in a walnut shell.  

    The couple and their infant left empty-handed, disappointed; unfortunately, the receptionist explained, their certificates had to be translated into English before whatever process they were engaged in could be completed. 

    “I’m here to register a death,” I told the man when my turn came. “But I’ve filled out the form incorrectly. I’ve put my own name and date of birth in the box for the deceased.”

    “You wouldn’t be the first,” he said, smiling, then told me to take a seat to wait for the registrar.

    Another young couple were collecting their baby boy’s birth certificate. They exuded that milky, odd-sock exhaustion and euphoria of new parents. I doubt they’d slept more than a couple of hours on the trot since their son’s arrival. They reassured each other about their choice of name, glancing worriedly at their hearty baby in his blue Babygro, who, impervious to the import of their conversation, kicked his sturdy legs around and contemplated roaring for another dinner. It won’t be long, I thought, until he’s horsing into two bowls of Coco Pops and asking his mother why she didn’t call him McGregor. 

   The warm and helpful woman I was dealing with disappeared, returning moments later with a copy of my mother’s birth certificate

 I was called into a side office and offered another seat. There was a box of tissues on the table. I checked the details on the screen, queried the spelling of my grandmother’s maiden name (her antecedents were Italian). The warm and helpful woman I was dealing with disappeared, returning moments later with a copy of my mother’s birth certificate. 

    “Nathaniel and Madeleine – lovely names, aren’t they?” observed the registrar about my grandparents’ names.

    “I suppose they are,” I replied.

    “Your mother lived until a great age – 90! – not that it always makes it easier,” she said, standing to open the door.

    “I suppose not.” 

    “Give me a hug,” she said as she stood in the doorway. She put her arms around me, and I hugged her back, even though I’m usually a pretty reticent hugger, even though I prefer to “hold on to my hat” as my granny Maddie used to say all those decades ago when she was peeling her fruit with her little pearl-handled knife or shaking earwigs out of the dahlias.

    I left the office, the death certificate in my bag, and walked through town. It was a glorious afternoon, sunlight sparkling on the Liffey, the reflection of the bridges stroking the glittering surface; one of those afternoons when Dublin almost convinces you of her charm.

    Does great age make death easier? Of course it does. How could it not? If we are fortunate enough to make it from a walnut-shell cradle to a wooden-ringed flat-lid oak coffin, our lives uninterrupted, it absolutely matters. 

I thought of her walking my father, an art student, down to his night shift at the Independent

I stopped to look at the water. I thought of my mother dashing over the Ha’penny Bridge to the Gaiety or bustling down the quays to the old Theatre Royal, where, as a young woman, she worked as a singer. I thought of her walking my father, an art student, down to his night shift at the Independent, where he took in the death notices.  

    I don’t believe in an afterlife. I find the notion of resurrection more disturbing than comforting. For me, it’s enough to know that they once crossed those bridges, surefooted and joyous and hopeful, that they once looked along this ancient river at a long unknowable future.