Sean Moncrieff: ‘My mother died as she would have liked, with no nonsense’
The biography she presented to us was so selective she was, in some respects, a mystery
My sister and myself were both born in London, but we have only a vague idea of when our mother moved there from Killala, Co Mayo
My mother is the only person I’ve watched die. She was in a nursing home by then, and in truth had been dying piece by tiny piece for the previous year. There was no particular health complaint. She was stick-thin and 95, her movements and speech progressively slower every time I saw her. She became a creature from another planet, being slowly crushed by our gravity.
Questions to her would have to be semi-shouted, to accommodate her growing deafness, while questions from her reduced in number but increased in repetition. The most persistent was: when am I going home?
But of course she wasn’t going home. Her husband, our father, had died two years before. Now other people lived in that house. Home no longer existed.
Every time she asked, my sister would (loudly) explain what had happened, to which she would usually frown and push up her skinny shoulders: as if this information sounded familiar, but she wasn’t too sure about it. It could be Fake News.
She shrugged a lot in that year; as if to indicate her indifference, but also to cover her bewilderment. Information – names, dates, circumstances – was starting to fly away from her like flaking skin. The people and their stories that made up so much of her story were growing strange and dark to her. It was like watching the lights go out in a city, one by one.
But at least there was that shrug. That was pure her: the bloody-mindedness that even a near-century of life couldn’t scrub away. She was never going to cede any advantage to us by admitting confusion. She never had before. She’d always had a vivid and detailed recall; at least for the facts she wanted to remember. When I was six, she coaxed me into expressing an interest in the priesthood. By the time I was seven, I had changed my mind and was disappointing her: something she regularly mentioned for decades afterwards. Even in that nursing home.
But while the shrug remained, while there was the occasional flash of what our mother once was, so much else was dissolving before us. We didn’t know how much. The biography she had presented to her children was so selective that she was, in some respects, a mystery to us. My sister and myself were both born in London, but we have only a vague idea of when she moved there from Killala, Co Mayo. It could have been during the war, or after. We don’t know why she went either. It could have been the usual economic reasons, but we heard a story afterwards of a man who followed her there, who asked her to marry him.
Over the years we had asked, but she had batted our questions away; like talking about yourself was some silly, modern fad that she couldn’t possibly indulge.
Those stories died with her; at least for us. But I wondered about them as we sat by her bedside on her final morning. She was asleep, her breathing ragged. I wondered was her mind bringing her back to places and times she never told us about, and would those electrical patterns in her brain somehow survive afterwards? Tears and smiles and humdrum mornings. Kisses and handshakes. The billion events of a lifetime.
She died as she would have liked: with no nonsense. She simply stopped breathing. One moment she was alive, the next moment, not. My sister and I looked at each other and said, rather matter of factly: is that it? We called a nurse, and she confirmed it.
Then we opened a window: to let her soul and memories escape. Just in case.