Bones of grief (20.22)

My last post indicated some kind of travel was in my future. It turned out that travel was a lot closer than I expected.

The day after my last post was published was a Monday. I was in the office when I got word from my family that my mother had passed away.

It wasn’t unexpected but it was still a shock. I left work and went home. Am I supposed to be crying? I kept asking myself. Why aren’t I crying? Aren’t I sad?

I told Husband I needed to book flights to go back and sat down at the computer to start booking. He went to grab my Australian passport and saw that it had expired. No problem, I said, I’ll just get an e-visa on my UK passport, that should come through straight away. (“Don’t every do this,” I was told later. “Always travel on your Australian passport.”) Applying for an e-visa is not straightforward. Nor is booking a flight. Nor is completing the Australian Covid tracking form. The whole process took over 2 hours but I had a ticket on a plane for the next morning. Now to pack.

But what to pack? I packed in a daze and realised later that I’d packed all kinds of weird: three handbags, two sets of running outfits, four books.

Tuesday morning and I’m at Heathrow, checking in for my flight. My e-visa has still not arrived. The man at check in scans my passport and it beeps – no visa. “Do you have an Australian passport?” he asks. I present my expired passport and it also beeps when he scans it. “This is expired.” I start to cry at this point. Luckily Husband has come to the airport to see me off and is able to speak coherently to the check-in man, who calls Australian immigration. They confirm I can get on the flight and they will let me in to Australia.

I say goodbye to Husband and head off to get on my flight. I don’t know how I spent those 24 hours in transit. I kind of half-watched a couple of movies, I listened to some music, I tried to read, I tried to write, I tried to sleep.

My mother as a young girl with the family pug

Wednesday afternoon and I have arrived in Brisbane. My oldest sister and brother pick me up. I’m staying at my sister’s place. After dinner Wednesday night we go through our mother’s photo albums, looking for pictures to use for the photo montage for the funeral service. For anyone who hasn’t gone through this, let me warn you, funerals come with a lot of office admin.

My mother in her post office uniform – she worked as a telegram girl around the end of the war

I don’t sleep well, waking up at 3am and staying awake until the sun comes up.

Thursday I go with my two siblings (my middle sister is sick with a bad cough and can’t leave her house) to sort out the deposit payment for the funeral at our mother’s bank. Dealing with the bank takes a long time. We go home and talk about more things for the service. That night we decide to take a break from funeral work and watch something light on TV.

Another night of poor sleep, setting the ‘split shift’ pattern that will dog me for a week, sleeping 11pm-2am, then being bright white awake from 2am – 5am, then sleeping again until 7am or 8am.

She loved dogs. In fact she loved most animals.

Friday my sister is out doing her volunteer work. My brother comes by for a few hours – he’s headed home (he lives out of town) so we do some more work on photos before he goes and I talk to him about Mum, looking for additional ideas for the eulogy. No one seemed keen to write it so I have volunteered. I have a storyline in mind, I’m just trying to add more details; after all, I’m the youngest, so I’ve known my mother for less time than everyone else.

After he goes, I plug myself in to Neko Case (beautiful but mournful music – ideal for this task) and spend an hour and a half writing the eulogy, trying to capture my mother’s life and personality.

Friday afternoon we have the viewing of my mother’s body. No-one else was keen on this but I wanted to see her at peace. My sister drove me out and decided to come in with me.

“Is it just the two of you?” The funeral director seemed surprised. “I just want to warn you, she’ll be cold.” I felt like my mind had broken into two parts – one dealing with the reality that this was my mother, deceased, but at peace; the other registering the physical details, such as her coldness, and the beads of condensation as you might get on any other object you’ve taken out of a fridge.

I cried. (At last, a nasty voice in my head said. Finally you’re crying. Is this what it takes?)

We left the viewing and drove to a nearby shopping centre as we needed a frame for the photo we wanted to put on the coffin for the ceremony. I felt giddy, exhausted. My sister felt faint. We figured we were both dehydrated, having been running from one thing to another and not taking on enough water so we sat down for a drink at one of the few food places still open – a bubble tea shop – and talked about things.

Like the number of comments we had had from friends who remembered our mother for her food (home made cakes and biscuits got several mentions), and for sitting around the kitchen table, talking and laughing with her.

Sadly none of her daughters inherited those long shapely legs.

Saturday and it was election day in Australia. My sister had volunteered to hand out how-to-vote leaflets nearby, so she headed out into the cold and wet day to stand in the rain. I stayed home and started work on putting the photos together into a PowerPoint presentation. This was fine, this was like being at work. I know PowerPoint can take as many hours as you have to spare and on this day I spent about 5 hours on it. I cropped and resized photos to fit the page; I set up the fades so where there were multiple photos on one page they would appear gradually; I timed the presentation to fit with the piece of music that had been chosen; and I saved the presentation as an MP4 file, something I hadn’t done before.

By that time I was exhausted, so my sister and I went out shopping. It seems counter intuitive, but I wanted to be out and moving and looking at things that had nothing to do with the funeral. I bought pyjamas, and slippers.

Sunday my sister and I woke up, had breakfast, and after eating, felt a sudden wave of tiredness. I went back to bed and slept through until 2pm. When I woke up, my sister had worked out how to add music to the MP4 video, so that job was done. We did some more work on the eulogy text. I stayed in my pyjamas all day.

Monday was the day of the funeral. Another night of shift sleeping. The circles under my eyes are now dark like bruises.

“I have to get my nails done for the funeral,” I insist, heading to the local nail bar early in the morning, walking along the street, reading my parts of the eulogy aloud as I go. I never get my nails done. Why I chose this morning of any morning to get a manicure I don’t know, but I did.

My sister and I drove in convoy with my brother to the chapel. We were too early, of course, and the previous funeral service was still finishing, so we parked some distance away, near the memorial garden where my Dad’s ashes are placed next to Mum’s sister’s and her husband’s ashes, with a space where my Mum’s ashes will soon join them. I remember Mum saying about this arrangement, “We’ll all be together, having a chat.”

The previous funeral clears the chapel at last and we move in. I see a cousin I haven’t seen since my Dad’s funeral. Some of my friends from school have come (more people who remember my mother’s cooking).

My parents in their courting days.

The service proceeds. There’s a greeting, a few moments for reflections, a religious reading, and then my sister and I read the eulogy we’ve put together. Some parts of it are funny – endearing stories about my mother and her stubborn determined nature – and people smile in recognition of the woman they knew.

My cousin had also written a letter to my mother, which the funeral celebrant (strange word combination, that) read out, as she was in tears and unable to speak.

The video follows. I’ve looked at it so many times that any tear-pulling magic it has on others doesn’t affect me. (Terrible daughter, says that nasty voice again. You aren’t even crying at your own mother’s funeral?) I watch the video, knowing I’ve put in some photos to make people smile (a couple of cutesy ones with her and Dad), and I hear chuckles; but I’ve also put one near the end of her looking tired and pissed off, which echoes the end of the eulogy, that she had had enough of this life. But I finished with one of her smiling, with the idea she is happy now she is released.

My mother (in the middle) and her two older sisters.

The second reading is a poem called Miss me but let me go.

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no tears in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free

Here I did cry. And so did my niece and nephew who had the challenge of delivering this reading. And so did a lot of people. We hadn’t thought through the cumulative effect of the eulogy, the letter, the video, and then this very emotional poem.

The funeral celebrant gave the final summary, delivering some light humour to lift the mood, asking everyone to join us for some food in the hall across from the chapel, although he couldn’t guarantee it would be as good as our mother’s cooking.

The service closed with John Denver “Annie’s Song” and I sat still for a while, letting out the tears, before joining my family (so many hugs) and friends (even more hugs) in the hall.

2 thoughts on “Bones of grief (20.22)”

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