Three years after my mother’s death I can’t remember her voice

Laura Kennedy: This week I stepped back into the past, to the hospice, to her last days

How could I forget her voice? Photograph: istock

How could I forget her voice? Photograph: istock

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I can’t remember her voice. I search around for it in the caprice of memory, but all that pushes forward into the light is a feeling; the feeling of hearing her speak. Her voice was low – not at all masculine – but it wasn’t girlish either. It was a woman’s voice; it had a velvety quality to it, except when she was angry. Then, it could take on the sharpness of sheet metal, biting into your conscience. You would really have to have done something bad for her to shout at you. Her voice is written into my existence. It was the soundtrack to my gestation; internal narrator through my adolescence. Even when she wasn’t present, hers was the voice advising me not to do anything stupid, and to finish my homework. That voice was as familiar to me as my own, and I can’t remember it. Not exactly. It feels like a betrayal of her; as though she was trivial to me. How could I forget?  

 My ear, my body, remembers her voice. When I try to recall it, as I am now, something in me reaches out and waits, quietly, as though expecting her to call up the stairs to me the way she used to do. Everything is still, but the voice doesn’t come. I haven’t heard it in three years, and I will never hear it again. It is three years this week, and I don’t feel like myself. I am permeable.

You won’t forget me, will you?

The world around is moving through me like water, blurring and muffling the present. As I examine bananas in the supermarket, trying to find ones that are not too ripe and not too green, I am really three years in the past. I am back at the hospice, gripping her hand and trying not to fall asunder as she asks whether I will forget her. I arrange my face and reassure her that I never, ever could. That question almost felled me: “You won’t forget me, will you?” The smallness of it. The insecurity. It came from a place of raw, black terror. I could hear it in her voice, but I can’t remember precisely how it sounded; only the shifting ground and horror in her face and the strain of trying to be what she needed come back to me now.

Drifted away

How could I forget? She once drove me up and down to Sligo in one day, so that we could see Leonard Cohen together after we had saved up for the tickets. It was 2010 – I had to check because it feels much more recent. He was playing at Lissadell House. We left booking accommodation too late, and there was nowhere to stay in Sligo that night, so she drove us back home to Limerick straight after the concert. With the traffic, we didn’t get back until after 2am.

This and every week, I remember her

All the way home, she glowed, talking about Cohen’s lyrics, and repeating them to me, smiling – “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”. I drifted away from her for a year or so in my late teens. Our relationship was, like all relationships, imperfect. I remember that night, though. As she drove through the quiet dark, and cracks of orange street light whispered across her face, I knew my own luck.

 That was July, and this is November. My mother is gone, and so is Leonard Cohen, and though I try to grip the memories, they blur and shift with time. It seems that the more I take them out to look at them, the more I alter them by looking. At this time of year, the sky seems lower; the world smaller and darker. As the year moves its slow thighs toward its end, we are naturally inclined to think about what we have lost, and forgotten. Would she know me now, after everything that has changed since her death? This week, I have stepped back into the past, and though it seems like an involuntary act of masochism I know that it is temporary. I miss her, and her voice. This and every week, I remember her – that is my imperfect offering.

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