My house is full of flowers and for the saddest reason. My mum has died. A phone call in the small hours told me she’d gone. The thought I’ll never see her again has left me feeling bereft.
I’ve experienced loss before – grandparents, a beloved aunt, and my dad when I was a child. And yet, the unique pain of bereavement still has the power to surprise, no matter how many times it has struck before. The numbing grief which overwhelms every thought is brutal and pitiless.
I spoke to her the day before she died and told her I loved her. It wasn’t something I normally said. And her last words to me were to say ‘I love you’ back. I told her I’d call the next day.
The doctor said he didn’t know what to put on the death certificate. She didn’t have cancer or heart disease. She had tested negative for COVID-19. She was in a respite home following a fall. I hadn’t been able to see her since March. And although we talked most days on the phone, I think she had begun to despair that she’d never get back to her flat. She told me that the days seemed endless. She celebrated her birthday the week before she died with flowers and chocolates and then stopped eating or drinking. Her irrepressible zest for life had deserted her.
Mum was born in Govan and grew up in a room and kitchen in Scotstoun. Her beloved dad was killed in the Clydeside Blitz and she left school to support her family working in the Post Office. When my dad died, she returned to work there, soldiering on behind the counter until she was over eighty. Each time she reached sixty-five, she’d retire and move to another Post Office, shaving a decade off her age.
She was insecure about leaving school at fourteen and went to night class in her fifties, scoring straight As in her Highers. As she got older, she became more confident. She was funny, opinionated, thrawn, and passionately socially liberal. She’d migrated politically over the years from voting Communist in her Clydeside youth, on to Labour, and finally SNP. Throughout, she maintained a perhaps unlikely affection for the Queen. She always objected when people told her that things were better in the old days. She liked living now.
She was alcoholic and that caused enormous pain in our family. I’ve thought long and hard about whether to reveal this. But I think I must because, as a child, I felt absolutely alone and isolated with that terrible secret. There were two mums: the outgoing, effervescent mum people saw who was a loving and thoughtful parent by day, and the angry falling-down Mum who hit the bottle at 6 p.m. and would drink every night until she collapsed senseless. I didn’t know where to turn. I worried about betraying her secret. But I want kids who might be reading this to know that there is help out there. It’s not disloyal to seek it out. You don’t have to suffer in silence.
Mum took her secret alcoholism to the grave. And although we could and did talk about every subject under the sun, drink could never be discussed. She’d leave the room. Scores of apologetic notes slipped under my bedroom door as a child attest to her regret. And I decided long ago that—if we were to have a loving, happy relationship as adults—it was an area of her life I would have to recognise I was powerless to change.
As a beautiful young woman, she’d been surrounded by men and loved their company. That never changed. My abiding memory of a dozen holidays with her in Greece throughout her eighties was returning from the beach to find her at the hotel swimming pool surrounded by handsome young gay men hanging on her every word.
She could light up a room.
Originally published in the Alloa & Hillfoots Advertiser.